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Letters From Austin

South by South-BEST!

Every year for South by Southwest, thousands of creative visionaries descend upon Austin, Texas. You might meet some of them, too—if only you weren’t at the Interactive portion of the festival.

By now most people are familiar with South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music industry conference hosted in Austin, Texas, for the last two decades. During the day, some of the music industry’s most forward-thinking, creative, and accomplished figures, gather to take part in collaborative panel discussions on nearly every side of the business, and then open the floor to an audience Q&A—also known as, “Which Panelist Will Most Gracefully Decline to Listen to Your Demo?” At night, attendees can visit one of the city’s dozens of excellent live music venues, where they can see acts ranging from singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, to the Alejandro Escovedo Acoustic Band, to the very more classical Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet. Take your pick!

Since 1994, the festival has grown to include other creative media. Those interested in promoting or discussing independent films can attend the SXSW Film festival. Finally, there’s SXSW Interactive, an online and gaming conference designed for people interested in emerging technology and its impact on work, culture, and inter-social relations. It is also ideal for journalists who know nothing about technology, but lack the connections to score a press badge for either the music or film sections. Even with its slightly more rarefied appeal, SXSW Interactive still manages to deliver all of the excitement and surprises of its sister festivals. Who knows—you might even meet Alejandro Escovedo in a chat room! (You will.)


The film and interactive conferences run concurrently. When I arrive at the Austin Convention Center on Saturday afternoon and receive my SXSW Interactive badge, I immediately begin to detect a pattern. Every time I see someone who looks interesting or effortlessly cool, he or she is wearing a badge with a blue neck strap, indicating SXSW Film. And whenever I see a full-grown man with a hat made of balloons, or lugging full-sized, 15-pound X-Arcade™ Two-Player Joysticks, they are wearing badges with orange neck straps, for SXSW Interactive. I instantly become very self-conscious about my orange neck strap. I fantasize about hanging out with the film people and chatting about mis en scène while we drink Absinthe, even while there is a very small, repressed part of me that wonders how one makes a balloon hat.

On Sunday, I see a cluster of young men with pronounced Adam’s apples and awkward body language proceeding along the main floor of the convention center. In the center of this nerd herd, pulling himself along in a wheelchair, is Harry Knowles, an Austin resident and the creator of the popular film website, “Ain’t It Cool News.” When I see Knowles, I have to suppress a childish part of me that wants to scream out, “FAT FAT FAT FATTY FAT FAT FATTERSBRY!!!” I know it’s a reprehensible impulse, and ordinarily I would not begrudge someone’s weight like that, but Harry Knowles is such a strange and impossible kind of fat. He is a formless dollop of meringue with a tiny, sweet face etched into its peak, and seeing him surrounded by his film geek thrall was like gazing upon a painting of Jesus and his apostles, as realized by Fernando Botero. All of them were wearing badges with blue neck straps, and I spent the remainder of the festival consoling myself with this image. I felt like one of the lucky ones, who got to spend his night with smart, interesting people I was sure wouldn’t bore me by itemizing every B-movie referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2.


Did you say panels? SXSW Interactive has a history of presenting colorful discussions on topics relevant for interactive design professionals, technologists, and the rest of us whose daily lives are affected by interactive media. This year was no different. Poke your head into one of the Interactive conference rooms and you might hear celebrated web designers share their secrets to producing the right workflow environment for creating award-winning work—secrets such as, “I like to work at home, with my cats around me.” Or hear a lively discussion about the rise of the “blogebrity,” moderated by a man named Kyle Bunch, the very person who coined the word “blogebrity” and then convinced the rest of us that blogebrity is actually a real thing rather than an excuse for Kyle to receive more links and get invited to blogger meet-ups. Best of luck, Kyle!


Other panel discussions for this year’s conference included:

  • Rolling on the Floor, Weeping: Emoticons and Chat Abbreviations for a Post-9/11 World
  • “First!”: Speed Training and Strategies for Guaranteeing Your Status as First Responder to Even the Most Popular Internet Posts
  • Instant Messaging, the Slow-Moving Dinosaur of Personal Expression
  • “Damn, Girl, I Wish I Were That Scoliosis Brace”: Leaving Comments on Women’s MySpace Profile Pictures and the Art of Seduction


In addition to discussion panels, SXSW features an interesting mix of daily keynote speakers, including Sims and Spore game creator Will Wright; Phillip Torrone, the senior editor of Make magazine; and, of course, cyberpunk visionary Dan Rather. Who better to talk about emerging technology than the septuagenarian former broadcast news anchor who still refers to his (unused) computer as an “electronic pickle barrel” and the internet as “the World Wide Possum Stew?”


Full disclosure: I didn’t make it to Mr. Rather’s keynote interview because I was stuffing my lunch-hole with Mag Queso, a melted cheese and avocado concoction served at the Magnolia Café. In fact, I made it to very few panels because I found them so specific and confounding. It seemed I was not alone, though. During any given session, the halls were lined with people chatting, networking, plugged in, and working away on laptops, or exiting conference rooms, deriding the panel where they’d just wasted 10 valuable minutes of their lives.


When you inevitably need a break from the intensity of panel discussions and lectures, SXSW provides several on-site diversions. The interactive playpen is an open area blanketed with Lego bricks and a great place to meet up during the lunch break between panel sessions. It’s also a good opportunity for playtime if you’re an attendee’s small child or, say, a grown man with a Firefox web browser temporary tattoo on his face. And across the hall attendees and visitors can hang out at the Screenburn Arcade, where you can experience all of the latest first-person shooter PC games…while standing up! Or the thrill of jamming along with Guitar Hero…while sitting on a couch!


Within my first day at SXSW, I have my first replica light saber sighting, but not my last. It is probably cheap and unnecessary to highlight the nerd quotient at a four-day interactive conference. Yes, it’s a pretty geeky scene—no matter how commonplace computers and technology have become in our lives, an interest that runs deeper than mere pragmatism or entertainment is going to draw some geeks. An auto show is no different, except for the percentage of attendees with mustaches. As a journalist and a bit of a luddite compared with this crowd, it’s hard not to point your microscope at the more fanatical elements of the conference, and ignore the relatively sane majority.

On the other hand, with regards to the amateur Jedis I saw here and there, and the guys with GameCube controllers clipped to their belts, isn’t it sort of cheap and unnecessary to assert your nerdiness at an interactive conference? We get it. Let everyone enjoy the conference with some modicum of dignity intact. You guys might as well be spraying yourselves with pheromones that attract jocks who are hungry for a nerd beatdown. Still, one can’t help pity the attendee who had to leave his wizard’s hat at home in order to make room in his luggage for a replica light saber. There are certain choices one should never have to make.


Every year, SXSW Interactive attendees collectively discover a piece of social technology that quickly becomes integral to the SXSW experience. A couple years ago that technology was the photo-sharing site Flickr; this year it is Twitter. Twitter is a very simple concept to explain. Imagine there is a tiny invisible girlfriend sitting on your shoulder, constantly whispering in your ear, demanding to know what you’re thinking at that precise moment. Now, imagine you decide to answer every instance of her question by sending a text message to her, and all of your friends. That’s kind of what Twitter is like, and we’re positive it’s here to stay!


A large flat-screen monitor centrally located in the convention center displays a real-time feed of statements, culled from people Twittering at the conference. Watching this display for more than a few minutes is confounding beyond belief. “Kevin is thinking about lunch.” “Planet says: postponing study for my orals by watching Charlie’s Angels. Eek!” “Sloop says: What I need right now: a foot massage, chocolates, and a long nap.” It feels like eavesdropping on only one side of someone’s instant-messaging conversation, and I suppose that’s exactly what it is.

Even normal dinner conversation is enveloped in Twitter membrane. Sometimes the person you’re talking to will drop out in mid-sentence to attend to his or her blinking mobile device. Twitter provides a never-ending stream of messages communicating some additional later of information—about a party, a panel, the impending arrival of another dinner guest, an inside joke—outside of your experience in that physical moment. It’s frustrating to lose the concept of “undivided attention” but not as frustrating as being unaware of the secret Twitter metaconversation happening around you. If you’re not part of it, you’re out of it. I ended up feeling very much like the kid whose classmate invites everyone else to his birthday party, and then demands they not tell you about it. The great effort required to keep the party a secret from you is somehow still preferable to having your gluten- and dairy-allergic ass seated at the birthday table.

One night, while I’m waiting in line at Austin’s popular Amy’s Ice Cream with an extended group of attendees, several of them present their digital cameras and mobile devices and aim them at the ice cream flavor board. As I witness this, I scoff and wonder if they are all incapable of experiencing anything without placing an LCD screen between themselves and the world. Upon forming this thought, I congratulate myself for being such an incisive social critic. Then I quietly brood while everyone else enjoys ice cream.


And don’t forget the nightlife. DON’T YOU DARE FORGET IT. Every night promises free drinks and fun sponsored by media companies and technology companies, or not-free drinks sponsored by bloggers and jerks. Got skills? If so, you can enter the Laptop DJ Battle sponsored by the Austin Museum of Digital Art, where DJs from around the world will stand behind their laptop computers and dance unnecessarily each time they click the “crossfade” button with their mouse.

Have an ugly memory you want to share with a room full of strangers? Bring your rape stories to the Fray Café, an evening of personal storytelling. Or swing by the SXSW Web Awards after-party, which starts about 30 minutes before the Web Awards begin. You might even get to meet Web Awards host Ze Frank. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell you a story, and then tell you the funny part while standing very close to your face.


I find that the further I get from the buzz of the Austin Convention Center, the more I relax. I think it’s because food, drinks, and parties turn the conversation back toward more human matters.

On Saturday night, many people filter in to the 8-bit party, hosted at the Scoot Inn. Film and interactive attendees co-mingling. There are several old-school arcade game cabinets and a pit fire out back. A man with a fedora spends a lot of time playing Asteroids, pausing to drink his beer between cleared levels. Someone captures this with a video camera, and I capture the videographer, capturing the video game, and write about it here, and others link to it. Layer after layer of mediated experience. I am tempted to look up from my computer right now for evidence of a boom microphone held by a stranger.

Among the party guests, I see John Styn, a self-proclaimed “lifestyle artist” and web personality. He is the creator of no fewer than 10 personal websites, including one encouraging people to masturbate in front of their webcams, en masse, in order to “heal the planet.” (The site, globalgasm.com, has a threshold of entry that is at once very low, and nerve-wrackingly high: “To participate, simply have an orgasm at the designated time.”) John Styn dresses a bit like a Second Life avatar: flared, low-cut jeans, tight-fitting T-shirts with whimsical prints, deeply tanned skin, and his signature bright, web-safe pink hair.

Later, I see a conservatively dressed gentleman with dyed green hair, and I wonder if the presence of this green-haired man infuriates Styn as much as it does me. I want to grab this green-haired man by the collar of his button-down oxford shirt, and shake him. “It’s not your turn yet! Make room, Johnny Wallstreet!” I want to say. I find myself feeling strangely protective of John Styn even though I have never met him. Later, I do meet him, briefly, and he couldn’t be warmer. I think he tans from the inside-out.


Chances are, when you finally do say goodbye to SXSW Interactive, you’ll leave the conference buzzing with ideas, loaded with business cards, and eager to check out the blogs of all the new people you met in meat space. Naturally, you’ll leave Texas hung-over, slightly ulcerated, eight pounds heavier, and $20 lighter. (Seriously, you can drink all night in Austin for about 50 cents.) And, most important of all, you will go home and probably never, ever use Twitter again.


This is a special note to the woman who asked to share my cab and then, upon arriving at our shared destination, hastily exited the cab without a) paying, or b) otherwise sharing any gesture of non-fiduciary gratitude: I hope you ate some tainted enchiladas.