Commentary

The Best And Worst Thing About SXSW

SXSW is the festival we love to hate -- a bit like Cannes, CES, Mobile World Congress and, well, everything. This year, people boasted openly about going, not going, nearly going, leaving early -- everyone is confused, not least me. I’m torn between loving it and hating it, so I explored further.

There was a brief period of time where SXSW set the agenda. It famously was Twitter’s launch pad back in 2007 and Foursquare’s 2 years later, but it seems now that SXSW reflects societal themes -- it no longer makes them.

It’s probably the fault of its vagueness. I don’t think even SXSW organizers know what it is about any more. While CES is unabashedly about consumer hardware, Mobile World Congress remains surprisingly focused on the mobile phone. SXSW has swollen to become a festival of ideas, it’s almost like the moniker “interactive” isn’t a clear organizing principle to curate an event. It’s a sort of TED talk with lower barriers to entry, no fact checking and devoid critical thinking -- a place for hashtags to multiply into the world, spread by those with the most friends, not wisdom.

The Worst Thing

There is no way to write this in a way that sounds less miserable and offensive, but it’s this naivety and messiness that is the worst thing about SXSW.

The festival thrives on the energy and optimism of youth, but suffers for a lack of adult supervision. It’s a cathedral to all things popular that don’t matter, from GrumpyCat to Meerkat. It’s one big meme, that lives and dies as rapidly and pointlessly.

From VR to drones to 3D printing, there was a lot of excitement about these three categories of device that have the curious distinction of possibility. They are either able to change everything about the way we live our lives or each become evolutionary stubs that leads nowhere. Will these things revolutionize everything like the Internet did? Or like the Segway didn’t? 

They seem to represent the current moment in time -- well, technology was once a tool, it was like the wheel, lever or ball bearing, a way to solve a problem that humanity felt.  Now, whether it’s because of Steve Jobs’ graduation speech, bubbly VC money, the billowing valuation of SnapChat, Uber or the sudden rise (and fall?) of Meerkat, we’re in times where technology is no longer a way to solve problems.

Tech is a force to create new things, explore the newly possible and then find a sucker to buy it. We see it around us in many forms. Kickstarter becomes a way to fund things, knowing there could be no customer base, companies endlessly pivot to stumble across an unmet need, all apps grow toward the sunlight that is hosting mobile video ads.

For me, these are the worst things about SXSW. It’s the self-indulgence; it’s the complete inability to see common sense or how real people behave. It’s the talk of “advertising as storytelling,” the endless chats about “advertising is dead, people want a conversation with brands.”

It’s the undwindling confidence that iBeacons somehow will be embraced by people or that augmented reality in the shopping center will be fun. I’m not sure these Brooklynites and Palo Altans have ever seen how real people behave and yet we give them a chance to bolster their opinions and feed their ignorance by hanging out only with people like themselves.

The Best Thing

What I loved about SXSW isn’t unrelated -- it’s the boundless enthusiasm, the pervasive optimism, and above all else the variety and depth of talent in SOME of the panels. Now, I attend conferences over 10 times per year. They are held in convention centers, host very conventional thinking and generally feature a variety of very similar people, talking about very similar things, with very similar opinions to each other.

They cultivate very passive agreement that doesn’t further the debate. Each and every event makes me crave the idea of the opposite, bringing a massively diverse and interesting group of people to talk about BIG ideas, to have wildly enthusiastic debates and arguments and to challenge everything we believe in. From gender equality to the role of art, trans-humanism, and privacy issues, SXSW each and every year brings together (a few of) the best minds in the world to further our industry.

There is huge promise in SXSW, but it got hijacked, not by corporate interests, but by everyone. In its rush to become big and monetize, it’s become dumbed down -- and the gold is a little thinly spread. It’s a good metaphor for the Internet, it’s too big, too much, but it’s democratic and accessible to all.

What we need, just like the Internet, is a good search engine. Perhaps there is a start-up idea in that.

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