A n00b at SxSW

My expectations were somewhat high, having many friends/co-workers come back from the event and asked about it they lacked words to describe. A convention so magical it renders people speechless. I can now say that I am also at a lack for summary words but will forge on, hopefully, to jog my own memory as well as to justify whether not you or I should attend in the future (spoiler: answer is yes).

First of all, my logistics could not have been worse. I was at a hotel so far from the city center that the initial torrential rain and cold really made it difficult to situate myself. My advice is to get a hotel downtown. You’ll have a lot more fun. If not available, then definitely get a car. My own big city reliance on public transport does not really translate to Austin. Transportation shuts down early, but parking is cheap, and access to a place to dump stuff is really a life saver if the weather is poor, which, like, is never supposed to happen.

After that, what to attend? What to eat? What parties to stand in line for? That’s the crux of SXSW, nothing is video’d only audio for some sessions. So you have to choose carefully. In the age of TED, this part doesn’t make much sense. Ogilvy Notes are fun to look at, but the whole point is to be in proximity of the ideas, and the lovely keynote slides. Considering the span of the conference is over several hotels, and once I traveled only to be put out in the hall, the session was full. It is easy to miss a talk or end up in the wrong spot and miss out. Logistically, I don’t fault the team that runs this, if you were narrow in scope and interest, you may be able to stay in one place, but this is the internet, it’s a disperse medium.

So, third, networking. I can say without exception that everyone I struck up conversation with was not only interesting, but somehow related to someone or someplace I was a fan of, or had dated my sister. In the presentations, the folk asking questions afterwards prefaced by saying they were from whatever company pioneered, or was working in the same space. It is truly the mecca for this industry, which is quite a feat for a medium that prides itself on being virtual. That being said, getting your eyes off of your phone, or iPad, or whatever device to talk to the person next to you is difficult. The deice is such a part of our behavior now its tough to put them down and just ask what people are doing or what’s going on. A shame really.

Which leaves parties. In this sense, the whole town is turned into a barker’s delight. Everything is free, all the liquor, food, and conversation you can muster. The only downside is the inevitable ‘clique’ aspect, which is that you’re not in the right party at the right time. Or you weren’t invited. Or you were too far from your hotel to muster up the energy. Or the line is so long and they run out of room. So it goes. There was always a feeling of being right on the cusp of having a great time. But since I started out solo, after my cohort arrived, things evened out a little. As usual, it’s always better to take a posse to these sort of things. A bit of social support always helps.

Highlights for me were hearing Nicola Hughes discuss how Big Data is interpreted by computers and humans in completely different ways, and how only narratives can make sense of the information explosion we are currently experiencing. While paraphrasing makes this sound a bit wonky, the amazing part was the complete conviction, intelligence and insight she was able to spew out in 15 minutes. She then had to go offstage and have a coughing fit. Perhaps she was feverish, but seeing incredibly smart people share smart opinions was thrilling. The Code for America project, and the need to create new interfaces to our government services was a real eye opener. What was not so thrilling was hearing how someone became successful in their startup, like Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley. Ok, the exception to this was Pinterest’s founder Ben Silbermann, who was genuinely the nicest person you could ever imagine. Not an ounce of hubris. You couldn’t get this from reading the quotes, so being there was essential. I wasn’t present but Biz Stone apparently came across as a douche.

I joked that the conference was sponsored by Apple, Twitter, and Wi-fi. None of which advertised. Not to put down the amazing efforts of Samsung, Nokia, Hootsuite, HBO ‘s new “Girls” show, squarespace, fast company, Nike Fuel, R/GA and Chevy to name only a few. Indeed, the success of advertising to this crowd cannot be underrated. I can also state that if you are building a startup, this should be the highlight of your year. Companies such as Meetup, Storify, Glympse, and Lanyrd who fought it out to bring some thing to your iDevice that will rock your world. Still, this experience without Twitter to share the zeitgeist, Apple to have the platform of choice, and Wi-fi or some internet connection to tie it all together.

My favorite moment was waiting for a considerable time in front of the old Spaghetti Warehouse, my favorite Austin restaurant when I was 8 (they had pinball machines) to get the Nike Fuel band. It was a slow grind getting in, made bearable by my two line-mates. We were convinced our time sacrifice would make us seem all that cooler and connected amongst such a group. A woman walked up to us to ask what we were all waiting in line for. The Nike Fuel, we replied, and she said, “Oh, this?” and sported the black band on her wrist. “How did you get that?” To which she replied something about pre-order, twitter, or some such. A classic moment, sure to be repeated next time.