As I work through my taco-stained notes from last week’s South by Southwest Interactive conference, a few things stand out. First, as you can infer from the title of this post, the tension between Austin’s liberal, progressive spirit and the hyper-corporatization of SXSW has never been higher or more absurd. It’s jarring to leave a keynote about Code for America and wander into a parking-lot sized space/rave/igloo tent promoting Nokia. Or to hear Girl Talk – an exemplar of Creative Commons-enabled remix culture – blasting from the speakers of the “Today Show” food truck as they dispense free breakfast tacos (using a recipe from Top Chef star ______!).
I can say straight-faced the “Today Show” tacos were better than SalesforceJobs’ tacos, and equal to FedEx’s pizza. But nowhere near as good as GroupMe’s grilled cheese sandwiches. Those were mighty tasty.
Elsewhere, HBO was giving away free bike rentals plastered with ads for their upcoming show “Girls.” Its creator and star, Lena Dunham, is something of a SXSW darling – her film Tiny Furniture took home an award in 2010, and her new show had its premiere this year in Austin. Seeing the ads on bikes was something of a marketing misfire, due to the generic title, but at the same time it perfectly captured how big brands approach SXSW: “People in Austin ride bikes! Our target demographic rides bikes! Let’s turn them into mobile billboards for our hip new show! Promotions for everyone!”
Veterans of the conference grumbled about 1. how it’s too big now, 2. how it’s changed, and 3. how SXSW’s early EPs were much better before they signed to the Warped Tour and totally sold out, man. This was only my second year, and even I could feel how many more people there were this time.
Given that SXSW attracts people with good ideas and real optimism, more isn’t necessarily worse. It’s simply tougher to navigate through the noise. (Yes, there’s an analogy to the internet here.)
This is its real value. Austin becomes a hub of creatives and engineers (and ad agency people, but not ruinously so) who’ve stockpiled their best ideas and most disruptive business plans for five days of passionate dialogue. There’s a refreshing lack of cynicism and ego, a first-week-of-school feeling to many of the conversations. And trends do pop up: this year it seems several panels emphasized going deeper with content, rather than amassing more bite-size bits. Or taking tech off-screen and putting it to social and civic use. And of course, how big brands are turning into media companies that will eat our lunch/milkshake/smoothie.
A few panels worth listening to:
- Amber Case’s keynote
- Tim O’Reilly and Andrew Mcafee
- Austin Kleon and Kirby Ferguson
- David Carr, Maria Popova, Noah Brier, Max Linsky, and Mia Quagliarello