South By Southwest, aka SouthBy, aka SXSW, aka sizikswah, aka don’t drive downtown in Austin for a long week. It’s the biggest party in a town that really likes its big parties. And party did we, hooboy.
Free drinks, free food, meet people, snag swag, repeat
Speaking as myself, I went to the Drupal Drop-In party (co-hosted by Four Kitchens and Acquia) on Saturday – got free drinks, noshed on some free food, made some networking connections with some great people, snagged some cute swag now happily living on my desk. On Sunday, I walked around the Convention Center – got more free drinks, ate more free food, met some more people, snagged way more swag. Monday, I headed to the Web Developer Happy Hour – free drinks, free food, met people, snagged swag. And finally wrapped my SXi experience up on Monday as I popped into some app developer’s pop-up bar in the afternoon – drinks, food, people, swag (though maybe I just stole a plant? I mean, it had a brand logo sticker on it, so I assumed it was free), before finally heading over to InVision’s Design+Drinks party on Monday evening – very good drinks, food, people, but no swag this time. (Oh, and there was also that party on Town Lake that I happened upon along the way).
Let’s just say this was not the week to commit myself to avoiding empty beer calories. And that was just during the opening weekend…
But was it worth it?
The ScreenBurn days are gone…
(Okay, big breath in… and long exhaling sigh—) SouthBy isn’t what it used to be. Ask anyone. It’s gotten too big. It’s outgrown itself. You will often hear “It was so much better three or four years ago,” or “the bubble is going to pop any moment now.” But that’s also what people have been saying for the past three or four years, so I usually take the grumbles with a grain of salt. This year, though… it felt like something really had changed.
South By Southwest has been happening since 1987, but I’ve only been going since about 2005. I’m a noob by some standards, an elder statesman by others. And every year I can remember coming away with a feeling of something great in the air. In 2006, I played free video games at the ScreenBurn arcade for nearly the whole weekend. I’d like to say I remember seeing Twitter break-out at SXSWi2007 – but I don’t. I do remember Zuckerberg bombing in 2008, FourSquare launching in 2009, Al Gore talking about “hacking democracy” in 2012, and Matthew Inman’s keynote in 2013 – live on UStream, two years before Meerkat or Periscope were around. Even just last year, the City of Austin sponsored a public art/tech installation called Hello Lamp Post that would let me talk with the city’s infrastructure – lamp posts, mailboxes, even manholes – via text. It may not have been practical, but it was fun.
##…and the Fuller Brush Man days are here?
But then something changed. I went to SXSW 2016, but there wasn’t much new or cool going on. There was certainly a lot of stuff going on, but nothing remarkable in terms of tech.
That Monday afternoon party I went to (and maybe stole a small plant from)? – it was sponsored by an app for managing your apps. Is that really innovation? It certainly isn’t exciting. The conference hall was noisy, but the noise was of people talking on their phones, not to each other (seriously, people using their phones as phones! In 2016!). And the closest thing I saw to a public tech/art installation was a 3M sponsored… well, it felt more like a large walk-through advertisement for 3M and the art was about as innovative as a high school prom on a budget.
Instead of pop-up panels, it felt more like pop-up ads
Instead of an environment of discovery and exploration, SXSWi this year felt like a barrage of commercials; instead of pop-up panels, it felt more like pop-up advertisements. Even Pepper, IBM’s AI robot, was powered down half the time, unable to cope with all the background noise, the perfect unintentional mascot for a conference that’s turned networking and technology development into little more than sales-pitch carnival barking.
Cool, but not really innovative
So we don’t have the ScreenBurn arcade anymore and now even badgeholders have to wait in interminable lines. The secret parties are all on EventBrite and there hasn’t been a big SXSW Interactive find since Foursquare. So what?
Barack Obama gave a keynote at SXi this year, attended by a lottery-picked selection of badge-holders. It’s impressive when your “little tech conference” gets the sitting President of the United States to come speak, though the talk he gave had pretty much everyone in tech doing a quizzical eye-roll at how painfully out of touch and unrealistic it was. It wasn’t really a talk about technology, it was a political speech. Cool, sure, but not really innovative. (our FLOTUS, however, nailed it during SXmusic, speaking on a panel with Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah – I want that as a poster!)
Instead of saying “so amazing!”, I left saying “so what?”
And that’s the problem– cool, but not really innovative. Casey Newton, writing in the Verge, described SXSW 2016 as a flop, a party that’s outpaced itself by promising technologies we’re still decades from delivering. Last year’s breakout app, Meerkat, has already gone belly-up, out-maneuvered in the market by Periscope and Facebook Live. Even the official SXSW GO app isn’t much more than a customizable calendar, which… yawn. Instead of leaving SXSW saying “so amazing!” I left saying “so what?”
And that’s not good. The tech world needs a good party, absolutely, and SXSW used to be that – “spring break for nerds” everyone said. And good parties have all kinds of people, from makers to marketers, but when the only people who can afford to come are the people who have already made it big, when we place a premium on safe bets over interesting possibilities, we might start to question if the open bar is worth the hangover.
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