At some point in the murky time vortex that is Austin, Texas, during South By Southwest, I ran into a man named Alex Taub. He was wearing a faded St. Louis Cardinals cap. I was wearing a faded Boston Red Sox cap. We stopped and stared at each other, faux animosity lighting up our faces. (The Sox beat the Cardinals in the World Series twice in the last decade, including last year.) It was a shared moment. We then smiled and shook hands.
With a friend, Taub had just launched a service called SocialRank, after being the lead for business development and partnerships at mobile payments company Dwolla for the last couple of years. We ended up talking about what he was doing with SocialRank, our mission at ReadWrite and mutual acquaintances like Dwolla CEO Ben Milne and Business Insider writer Alyson Shontell.
Then the topic turned to the reason we were in Austin: South By Southwest Interactive, the crazily intense week-long tech “festival” that has become a mecca for designers, developers, and marketers whom you might never run into at stuffier, more traditional industry events.
Why Am I Here?
My lament all week was that I wasn’t sure what the heck I was doing at SXSW. I had just got back from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and have been on the road constantly since the start of 2014. I’ll admit I had no time to prepare for SXSW and was basically wondering what the hell it was all for.
South By, as it is called by its repeat visitors, was to me nothing more than an obnoxious marketing conference dressed up as a tech conference: too many bros, too many hipsters, too much ego and way too much booze.
Taub didn’t necessarily disagree with these sentiments. Then he reminded me of the true value of South By, something I’d forgotten in a week-long Texan bacchanalia.
“South By is about making new connections and strengthening those you already have,” Taub said.
Unpacking the lessons along with my luggage from South By this year, I realized Taub’s right. He was one new connection. So was Chris Boyles from app-development studio Chaotic Moon. So were Ed Anuff and Prabhat Jha from Apigee. So was Alex Capehart of Media Temple, who snuck me and my boss into a party.
Then there’s Sundar Pichai, Google’s head of Android and Chrome, who rolled up to a party and chatted me and some other reporters up. I’ve met Pichai before, but it’s typically in a formal setting like Google’s I/O conference.
These are people, I realized, who can help us at ReadWrite get context and clarity and help map the programmable world.
There were other connections to strengthen as well. Team ReadWrite was out in full force at SXSW. And not just the current staff (myself, editor-in-chief Owen Thomas and reporters Selena Larson and Taylor Hatmaker), but a large contingent of ReadWrite alumni as well.
ReadWrite founder Richard MacManus wasn’t there, but he tweeted a request at us from New Zealand for a photo of all current and former team members in Austin. This seemed impossible—from morning to midnight, there are always at least three things going on at once in Austin during SXSW.
But we invited the whole crew to the xoJane party thrown by Say Media, our publisher, for a photo Monday night. Most of the old team was able to make it, from Marshall Kirkpatrick, the former first prince of tech blogging, to former managing editor Fred Paul, writers Mike Melanson, Fruzsina Eördögh and John Paul Titlow, and former COO Sean Ammirati.
For ReadWriters past and present, this picture was a bit of a catharsis, putting behind us years of comings and goings, good times and bad.
The Other Side Of South By
If SXSW is good for meeting people and forming tighter bonds, the other side of Austin is a horrific mess of me-me-me marketing. I was reminded of this by an attendee I overheard as we walked into the Biz Stone keynote.
“Why are we at SXSW?” he asked rhetorically. “To make connections and make money. Not necessarily in that order.”
So you work for a startup, built some apps or are marketing some big brand—and you want to get some buzz. People have been telling you for years that you just absolutely need to be SXSW. The parties! The people! Austin in March! It all sounds terrific, the perfect launchpad for whatever banal project you’ve poured your heart into.
Take a step back and think about that for a second. You’ll probably realize that everyone else is thinking the exact same thing—which makes South By a really bad place to make your mark.
The problem with South By is that it serves as a magnifying glass for everything that people now hate about the tech scene in San Francisco and New York. It is arrogant and dripping with money and pretention. Instead of going to Austin to make earnest connections, the goal seemingly is the superficial see-and-be-seen mentality you get at parties in Hollywood and Wall Street.
I couldn’t even pay for my own lunch at South By. I sat down on the patio of the Old Pecan Street Cafe, fully intending to pay for my hamburger, but when the bill came the server told me that my everybody’s lunch had been picked up by GoDaddy. I felt used, and left a tip near the amount of the original check.
That kind of manipulation was par for the course in Austin. The tone for SXSW was set for me on Friday, when Chaotic Moon used a drone with a stun gun to tase an intern. It was a surreal scene, dripping with marketing bravado: tase a bro, with a drone! CNN was on hand to film it. As much as I like Chaotic Moon’s Boyles, who kindly offered ReadWrite a space to work during the conference, I have to say this type of stunt doesn’t teach us anything new about technology. It just draws attention.
Most of the panels and keynote sessions at South By are likewise exercises in self-promotion (with the odd exception here and there, like Joshua Turner’s talk on orbital computing).
Twitter cofounder Biz Stone rolled out the most eye-rolling line of the week when he described himself on stage as “an Internet guy who likes to believe in the triumph of humanity through technology.” Stone certainly has triumphed—and this is a self-justifying line he’s trotted out before.
So the panels are hit or miss, and the parties overwhelming. But ultimately, SXSW is what you make of it. You can go and treat it like Techie Spring Break and get caught up in the booze, the marketing, and the echo chamber. But if you let go of that notion, and instead just try to connect, you may find people who will help you get through the Austin nights—and the days to come, for a long time.
Top image: Bill Nye and Andy Samberg on a panel for a pitch session at SXSW 2014