SXSW ’12, the Quick and Dirty Takeaway: “He Had A Lot To Say”

The following post is a bullet summary and A New Domain reprint review of the 2012 SXSW Interactive conference.


I have recently returned from the sin and SWAG-filled series of life lessons known to the world as #SXSW Interactive 2012. I experienced much and may have learned a few things.

Key takeaway: It’s quite possible that the value proposition of attending SXSW Interactive is now less than the opportunity cost. Translated, I’m not quite sure that the time and money invested in the event couldn’t have been spent better back home in NYC.  The event is as massive as it is great. And with large scale comes large scale problems. Many of us used to attend SXSW to reconnect with our tribe. That time spent with Others Like Us was truly valuable and often served to gas us through the rest of the year.


Over the past few years the scale of SXSW has changed the event. The experience of reconnecting with friends and colleagues seems to have melted like whiskey-glass ice and resulted in a diluted experience.

Lines at SXSWi 2012

That said, SXSW Interactive is still a lot of fun, particularly for marketers seeking spring break while on the clock. I met a ton of super people, reconnected with old friends, networked like a truly terrible bastard, uttered many vulgarities at top volume (with and without whiskey), and moderated a panel on the future of work.

Each year I jot down a little list of observed trends (here’s last year’s list). This list of SXSW 2012 trends is, of course, nothing more than observations and anecdotes scratched out on Evernote for iPhone through the week. Take it with a grain of salt:

  • The people are still really great. Really. I surely love to kvetch about every little thing, but SXSW is – without fail – a wonderful place to meet new friends and reconnect with old. If you you’re on the fence about attending next year, go for the good people if no other reason.
  • The lines. Dudes. The lines…
  • When you stop working for a major news brand you learn who your real friends (mad props, yo – keep fighting the fight) are right quick.
  • Mashable printed a newspaper. It was sincerely ironically cool.
  • Speaking of Mashable, rumors and speculation ran amuck.
  • The only people talking about Highlight were the people talking bout Highlight.
  • Did I mention the glut of marketing?
  • “Don’t take much to make a small man feel big” – lots of folks are now credentialed ‘press.’
  • Vic sure made an ass of himself, didn’t he? Even those who once championed Google+ (like myself) couldn’t give a damn anymore. Google really screwed the pooch with this one.
  • The registration line is really, really long. While I could’t get anyone to go on record, I heard many folks complain that there was no hard limit to ticket sales. This resulted in very, very long registration lines. To be fair, the SXSW organizers did a stellar job of efficient line management.
  • Hip as things like ONA and ‘Newshacking‘ may be (And by the by, when the hell did journalism tip cool? Since Jarvis, Rosen, and Shirkey started mouthing off? Apparently. But that’s another rant for another day…) I rarely see folks from the campaign at tech-related events.  I rarely see ‘tech’ folks on the campaign. The two circles don’t mingle much (save for the CNN Grill). Sure, I see a ton of the social media managers from news organizations, but championing tech while working for a major news company is more akin to cheerleading than journalism. Exceptions being @Storyful, @AntDeRosa, and a few others. Surely these dudes great, but I’m tired of hearing tech folks blather hyperbolically about ‘saving the future of journalism.’ (Unless, of course, it’s me performing the hyperbole). Tech: please stop talking, please start doing. Kthx.
  • Sure seems like I heard a lot of people utter the phrase, “I think I’m going to just ditch the next panel and go to Film [festival].”
  • Conference events continue to expand in to the city of Austin. To speak in the main convention center used to be a given. Now it’s a luxury.
  • Gaming is growing – particularly iOS gaming. We already knew this, but it’s nice to see mainstream folks start to dabble in the waters of Game.
  • 3G and wifi were much better. Sure, AT&T still stinks, but they did a much better job of covering downtown Austin this year.
  • Even with the improved data service SMS is still king for short bursts of communication. Group messaging is so 2011.
  • The word ‘nerd’ is quickly replacing ‘geek’  as the term du jour in reference to all things once uncool now ironically cool.
  • Dot Biz is the next big thing.
  • Quote of the week: “let’s market on Pinterest before all the marketers market on Pinterest.”
  • Rain.
  • Oh Demon Alcohol / Sad memories I can’t recall / Who thought I would say / Damn it all, blow it all …

I got a lot of of this year’s SXSW Interactive, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t reconnect with my tribe. Over the past few years my tech tribe grew up and began an imperial march across the media landscape. I’m proud of tech and glad to see it expand. But the collateral damage of tech culture’s Manifest Destiny may be the very innovation it claims exalt.

The march of progress is inevitable. My attendance at future SXSW events is questionable. For the first time in many years I return to New York with a sense of melancholy. I do not mourn for ‘what could and should have been.’ I’m proud of this group of people and excited about the future. I’m just not sure it’s a future that I’m excited about and that prospect is a bit sad.

Still: bottoms up, kids.



The Following Post Was Originally Published On A New Domain:

After spending much of this year on campaign-related travel to cold regions, I was really looking forward to heading to Austin for SXSW 2012 this week.

I’m working on a long-tail story about Texas culture and politics so I arrived at the SXSW: 2012 interactive festival a few days early. The prospect of spending a few days reconnecting with my tribe of tech nerds in a warm climate was exciting.

Then came the rain, in poured the people and out went all the intimacy and tribal reconnection I craved.

People typically conduct business at SXSW at taco stands and in the back of petty cabs. No one wears a tie and no one brings a rain coat.

Now, I’ve attended several previous SXSW Interactive conferences and thought I knew what to expect: big announcements, a hot app or two, jovial crowds, and meetings over whiskey at the Hilton bar. I wasn’t expecting the deluge of rain, people, and unimpressive tech.

This year, like each preceding year, had its share of legitimate talked-about trends: the forced hype and hyperbole of Highlight, an app no one used, Vic Gundotra’s silly speech, the notion of humans as hotspots and the wildfire Mashable-and-CNN-sitting-in-a-tree rumors.

But the most apparent narrative of SXSW 2012 had nothing to do with the trends of technology and everything to do with the conference itself.  The sense of innovative excitement that once crackled with inevitability this year felt routine and institutionalized. The predictable banality and large size of SXSW became the story. It was navel-gazing at its finest.

Last year, the buzzphrase, “jump the shark” was all over the show. This year, it was more like: “Let’s  ditch the sessions and catch a film.”

What we’re talking about here is about what happens when something cool becomes over-exposed. Banality at scale reduced the value proposition every time. Take SXSW. Geeks and nerds show up at  for a lot of reasons: the ideas, the business and the human connection. As the jackass-to-human ratio grows, the reduction of the conference’s value proposition does, too.

And that’s okay. Over the past decade, tech culture has gone mainstream into pop culture. The size and influence of the SXSW Interactive conference has grown in concert with the popularity of tech culture. This year that change was painfully evident in Austin.

Longer lines, more marketeers, boozy pitches and higher prices for the same old “Future of Geotagged Social Snack Check-In” panels are kind of depressing. It’s like a band selling out. It always happens. Everyone’s favorite band grows up, sells out, turns its hits into ad jingles and moves on. It’s an unavoidable reality of pop culture consumption.

Now that SXSW is popular culture, the commoditization of what once felt like a powerful and unique experience is just how it is. We should’ve seen it coming.

The 2001 Frontline documentary The Merchants Of Cool notes that savvy marketers seek not what people think is cool — but, rather, who are cool people and what are they doing. That’s the problem here.

Big doesn’t correlate with bad, of course. And no one is begrudging SXSW its success. It’s flattery. The enormous size of SXSW has served as a wonderful validation of not just our medium, but also our culture in general.

On the final day of SXSW, the rain relented, warm sunshine burned away the fog and true geeks mingled finally mingled over music on its famous Sixth Street.

Bottom line. SXSW still makes sense to attend if you’re just curious, never been then or are a journalist looking for cultural curiosities. For startups looking for buzz, it’s probably too big a venue now to generate any. As for true geeks — geeks who’ve invented something in a virtual garage or a local coffee shop – stop short and do the math before booking a ticket.

Be honest. Is a weekend of semi-sober chattering at some hotel bar really more valuable than the time you’d spend perfecting your product? I’d say no.

Consider your options – and the culture – carefully. And bring a raincoat.

4 thoughts on “SXSW ’12, the Quick and Dirty Takeaway: “He Had A Lot To Say”

  1. I’ve never been, but I always follow SXSW on Twitter with a certain amount of morbid curiosity. Your take seems to confirm something I noticed, which is that no big themes have emerged from the noise. Last year it was all about gamification and group messaging, and say what you will about the ridiculousness of those as important themes, but at least they were big topics of conversation. Maybe it’s just the particular bubble I’m in, but I’m not sensing any of that this year.

    Anyway, thanks for the writeup.

    1. Morbid curiosity is a great way to describe SXSWi. It’s essential on sum level, fun on another, and a grotesque display of commercialism and marketing on yet another.

      On one hand, I enjoy going and don’t want to take the experience for granted. There are a ton of good people who’d love to attend and would get a lot out of the experience. On the other, who really enjoys blatant pandering and marketing?

      SXSW this year was weird. ‘No big theme’ (save, jump the shark) was certainly the theme.

  2. It’s weird because I felt a similar feeling that you described, but couldn’t really put into words. This was my third time attending, and I decided to be “unofficial” but not having a badge (but ended up going to a few films), and the films welcomed a sense of stillness in the midst of geeked creative chaos. This year was just SO HUGE. Even a great growth from the first one I attended in 2010. I had intentions of connecting with the massive amount of contacts I had acquired, and forgetting the “don’t plan or schedule” rule, ended up connecting with NO ONE. I felt unaccomplished, and without purpose…

    …But as I returned to NYC, I too felt a sense of melancholy as well as peace (as I always feel when I come back really calm and happy and looking at people around me in NYC with their scowling faces…lol), I realized that I learned more than I thought by just taking everything in without pressure or remorse. I fear next year (for the marketers punching you in the face like a repeating nighttime infomercial), but also feel excited. I have even been trying to spread the gospel of motivation, and connecting as I returned home.

    So I say ALL that to say, thank you for writing this, as I feel I’m not the only that felt {insert fitting phase here} about SX. lol.

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