Are We Over SXSW?

Like everything on the internet, the backlash to the country’s largest tech conference is warranted but also too vocal.

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Photo courtesy of Neal Ungerleider

There’s a desperate opulence in the marketing at South by Southwest Interactive. Large corporate entities turn Austin into a cynical branding exercise. SXSW has a reputation for being the place where both Twitter and Foursquare broke out, so every scrappy internet startup shows up hoping to make some kind of impression — sometimes with horrible results. With the tension between tech companies big and small, SXSW feels like the inevitable expression of an industry that is so flush with cash.

It’s hard to not make fun of something called the Samsung Blogger Lounge (or one of the many other “lounges” provided by corporate sponsorship). While standing in line for a free drink, inside a tent that’s blasting house music at three in the afternoon, I realized there’s a marketing person out there who thinks this is what anybody likes.

Companies try to bait attendees with free drinks and food, but it seems unlikely that these gestures will ever be worth the investment. I enjoyed complimentary breakfast tacos and mimosas courtesy of AOL, knowing full well I’d never try the new email service that those tacos were supposed to get me interested in. I’m not sure how much it costs to rent out a space and provide tacos, but I imagine it’s far less than buying air time for a TV ad. Maybe all the attempts to impress like-minded tech people is worth the cost? I don’t know.

The SXSW backlash has been going strong for years, but the conference still holds a sentimental place in my heart.

The first year I went was in 2009. My co-editor Nick and I were seniors in college, and we went as nominees for an award for The Bygone Bureau. But even more memorable than the thrill of being honored (and the complimentary badge), SXSW was the first time I’d been surrounded by people who were interested in the same internet-y things that I was. I’ve been back three times since (this year as a panelist) and each time, I have a hard time denying the human element: SXSW is still a great place to meet up with people. Last year, I met my friend Ryan in person for the first time, who I had been following on Twitter for the past couple years. I also met his friend Ami, and later that year, I would sublet her Brooklyn apartment for four months when I moved to New York. (Now we do yoga together.) I was already planning to move, but sometimes I think about how drastically different my life might be now if I hadn’t met them in Austin.

I think the problem comes with the expectation of “networking” at SXSW. The first year I went, I came home with four dozen business cards from people I’d met and would never bother to reach out to again. This year, I forgot to bring mine, and it didn’t really seem to matter. Each subsequent trip to Austin, I find that it becomes less of a place to meet techie strangers and simply a better place to see old friends.

One thing that seems to get lost in all the criticism of all the tacky Interactive parties is that the programming is largely very good. Obviously, you want to avoid events with names like “Brand Fans, the New Brand Marketers” (this is a real panel), but every year, I find a wide breadth of smart, informative talks and panels.

In a lot of ways, SXSW is becoming increasingly self-aware. Though the marketing remains loud and ludicrous, the programming itself more frequently acknowledges that its audience is the sort that can and will pay over a thousand dollars for a badge. During his brilliant talk about the dangers of a cultural elite, New York Times media columnist David Carr said, “When I see someone holding an iPad, all it tells me is that you have $500.”

Carr was joking (he had lots of jokes), but this might be the smartest thing I heard at this year’s conference. Tech culture has a difficult personality to handle, because as smart and savvy as it can be, it prides itself on its elitism. There are new, smaller tech conferences popping up around the country, designed to recapture the early days of SXSW. But it’s hard not to see these attempts to re-create the exclusivity of technology’s elite class, who might refer to themselves as “influencers.”

At his keynote, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said visiting SXSW was like taking a trip to the future, and once it ended, returning to the present. This year, SXSW made me think about the past.

I thought back to my first SXSW. Before stepping into the Austin Convention Center for the first time, Nick and I got coffee at a small food cart run by a handsome, older couple. They told us that they had previously worked as software engineers for a large company (Microsoft, I think), had quit their jobs to open this coffee cart, and that we were their first customers ever.

This year, I got coffee from the same cart. Five years later, it seemed to be doing well (there was a line for coffee) and I thought about how entering the restaurant industry might be the only form of entrepreneurship with a lower success rate than internet startups. In fact, This coffee cart had likely been around longer than most of the startups represented at SXSW would last.

Still, I remembered the coffee from that cart being better. Or maybe it was all in my head. It seems like the longer things are around, the harder it is to like them, especially when that thing is a conference built around celebrating what’s shiny and new.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.