As I'm starting to write this column at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), I'm wrapping up lunch with two marketers from a global brand. One is on her iPhone, and the other is on his BlackBerry. While we've sat here, I received a group text update on GroupMe from someone at this table.
Something is very, very wrong in Austin. How did this become an acceptable approach to social interaction? To understand it, here is how social engagements work at SXSWi:
1) Before the festival, you receive party invites, whether directly from the party's hosts, via your connected SXSW alumni friends, or through one of several digital groups you have joined.
2) You prioritize responding to events based on the class system of whether you're invited as a VIP or hoi polloi. VIPs usually get some mix of line-cutting, free drinks, and access to roped-off areas. I went to one event where the greeter at the door asked, "Are you VIP or regular?" I jokingly responded, "You let regulars in here? That's it. I'm going elsewhere." He didn't think it was funny.
3) Then it’s time to create a schedule. For some people like me, the meetings and social functions usually run from about 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. – a full 16 hours with little downtime. Others may attend sessions during the first eight hours. Either way, it requires a Ph.D. in time management.
4) During the show, constantly ask people what events they're going to. This serves two purposes: showing you've heard about popular social functions, and instilling a sense of jealousy in the person who has the weaker hand. It’s like a deck of cards. The Jay-Z party (ace of spades) beats the Mashable party (four of diamonds), but the Jay-Z ticket could be countered by a combination of VIP access to Foursquare's event and dinner at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas.
5) As each day progresses, people link up through Foursquare, GroupMe, and SMS to change some of their plans on short notice and find their friends. When you're at a party, you constantly check your phone to receive vital messages from group chats like, "No, not the taco bar, the bloody Mary bar" and "That was the 5th best ‘Rolling in the Deep’ cover I heard tonight."
It's the last part that's the killer. SXSW is in many ways the most-social event many folks will go to in their professional lives, due to the sheer number of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with other interesting people. Without much difficulty, I can go through the notes and business cards collected from the trip and find a dozen people who I am confident will add some kind of value to my clients and/or my agency this year. A handful of these new acquaintances will probably become friends. This is all the more surprising given how most real-world interactions that I had with people at SXSW involved simultaneous interactions with mobile devices.
While this might be a problem at other times of year, SXSW exacerbates it in ways that defy comprehension. Attendees are trained to make the most of the festival by living in the past, present, and future simultaneously. There’s the present social interaction with real people, the need to constantly plan the rest of the day while adjusting to other plans that have changed, and the urge to continually publicly share one’s activities as a way to document what happened.
Next year, I expect some quiet acts of rebellion. Imagine a party with a roped-off area that’s not for VIPs but for people who aren’t using any consumer electronics. Imagine moments of digital silence where no one is allowed to do anything but interact with others in the room. Imagine people setting personal rules that when their devices’ batteries run out, they won’t recharge them until the end of the night.
SXSW Interactive remains my favorite conference; there’s nothing remotely like it. I just hope that next year, attendees like me have the strength to stop constantly communicating and sharing digitally. Yes, Austin could use a few more hotel rooms and outlets, but what SXSWi attendees need the most is presence. That’s the goal for SXSW 2013. Attending is easy. Being present will take more work.