I just got back from SXSW Interactive, aka spring break for geeks, aka nerding man, and my brain is dazed. Perhaps a recap will help me get the thoughts out in a logical order, so they’ll stop swirling around in my jumbled brain.
People ask me what I learned, or what nugget of information I can take back for those who weren’t able to go. I learned plenty about me, who I am, and why I do what I do. The single nugget of information that stands out in my mind is this: “Technology is and always has been about storytelling,” said by the emcee of Fray Cafe, Kevin Smokler, “There is no other animal that can tell its own story.”
This is a beautiful perspective on technology, on everything we do. It hit home for me – I wrote my college thesis in 2002 on the idea of the Web as a community, inspired greatly by the work of Derek Powazek, who started the whole Fray thing and tells amazing stories. I can’t believe I’d never made it to a Fray Day or a Fray Cafe until now, because it’s easily the single best thing about SXSW, and that is saying a lot.
When people asked me what parties or panels I was most looking forward to at SXSW, I replied blankly that I wasn’t going to any panels and I don’t really like parties. “Then why are you going?” would be the next question. It’s hard to explain.
According to Twitter, Bruce Sterling recently said, “For 4 days, SXSW is the world capital of the Web.” For some people, it’s the panels. They bring excellent speakers and enthusiastic pupils. For some people, it’s the parties. The outrageous spectacle, the free food and drinks, the bands, the antics.
Because these things draw all these people to this one place, that’s why I go. For 4 days, incredible, interesting, intelligent, creative, beautiful people congregate in this tiny Texas town. Put a bunch of amazing people in a small space and crazy circumstances, and see what happens. If there were a recipe to manufacturing serendipitous, amazing experiences, this would be it.
I stayed at the SF Embassy. Take the recipe above, distill it into various ~10-person apartments (each sharing 1 bathroom), and that is the SF Embassy. The creation of this community was featured in Wired a few days ago. And that’s what it is, a little pop-up community within a greater community at SXSW. On one hand, you get to experience the serendipity and delight of hanging out with like-minded souls until 8 in the morning, witnessing things like “acapella oontz oontz” or an impassioned story about the role of living yeast in baking bread. On the other hand, you get the communal living of a bathroom that’s seen cleaner days, or a roommate who gripes about noise when she’s trying to sleep, then snores through the night.
I went to parties. When people say “party” they think of something really wild and fun. But what most parties really are is crowded groups of people standing around holding drinks, trying to hear each other talk over loud music nobody wants to hear. I’m getting old. Alcohol just makes me sick, my back hurts if I stand for more than five minutes, and the only conversations you can have are meaningless small talk over the noise. I want to find the deeper conversations, and I actually want to participate in these conversations without having to shout. There must be a better way.
I go to another party. It’s VIP, there are free drinks. To let me in, I first have to demonstrate some basic knowledge about their iPhone app. I pass the test. Then I have to show that I have it on my phone. I download it. They let me in. I delete the app. (Sorry.) There is a rooftop patio. It’s a beautiful night. We can hear each other think. Somebody comes looking for an iPhone charger. I have one in my purse. As collateral, he gives me his wallet. He charges his phone behind the bar, in a plastic cup. He returns the charger, I return his wallet.
I go to another bar. I run into friends new and old. Some ignore me, some hug me with joy. There is laughter and delight. Somehow we end up in a Dueling Piano Bar. Then we’re eating street food at 2:30AM. Circumstances are strange. It’s surreal.
We eat food together. Much of the days and nights revolve around basic survival, finding food and water. Sometimes we find a place to sit down over a delicious meal. Hopefully we have a conversation, in between moments where everyone’s noses are in their phones, checking to see what they’re missing. If we’re lucky, we don’t have to wait in line for too long before getting the table. If we’re really lucky, maybe that table is on a patio on a beautiful day.
We go see a concert because our friend is friends with a friend of the band. The music is good. We hear a rumor of a surprise secret Girl Talk concert in another venue, but when we get there, it’s just a party where they’re featuring the band’s latest album. We walk the streets. We stay in touch, trying to figure out if there’s somewhere important we need to be. We check the Group.me feeds and the Twitter timelines and the Foursquare check-ins. We forget what day it is. We miss plans. Any schedule we made for ourselves is long forgotten. Time has no meaning. At any moment, we might find ourselves on an RV, singing karaoke while driving through town.
We run into people everywhere. We talk about our intimate lives and passions with people we’ve just met and will never see again. Other people become our fast friends. We share advice, knowledge, pass on tips, get in fights, share stories. We dance, we laugh, we take a lot of naps, then wake up knowing we’re missing something. We’re exhausted.
Then suddenly I get off a plane, and it’s not we anymore. It’s just me again. I’m home, and it feels good, but my head is spinning. Did all that just happen? Did I get anything out of it? What did I learn? Where are the soundbites? Where is my documentation? Will I remember anything? Was it all a waste?
It wasn’t a waste. This is my documentation. It isn’t much, but it is. Maybe I won’t remember everything. Maybe I won’t remember next year to book a direct flight, or insist on a room instead of a snore-amplifying loft. Maybe I won’t remember to plan a better food situation next year. I probably won’t remember the name of the company that got me free watered-down drinks, or the app that subsidized my towncar ride to the airport (sorry.) I’ll remember the important parts. Deeper inside, I’ve been shaped by the experience. I’ve been a part of something. For a while, it was we, not just me.