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SXSW as a Metaphor for the Web

Topic: WorkingPoint News | Comments (1)

Posted on March 22, 2010 by admin

Cultural trends are a difficult tide to surf. One minute people are talking about MySpace, then next minute it’s all about Facebook.  One minute you’ve never heard of Twitter, the next minute, you’re seeing people put their Twitter ID on their business cards.

This is often an interesting issue to watch in the tech space, where things change rapidly, and with early adopters, who are usually only interested in something as long as no one else has discovered it yet.

Over the past couple of years, these two groups have been the ones who were the biggest fans (and participants) in Austin’s mega-party, otherwise known as South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi for short; known to locals simply as, “South by”).

This year, however, SXSWi seemed to have crossed an interesting tipping point. So, what’s the deal? Well, that depends on who you ask.

If you regularly read the blogosphere, are active on Twitter, or are certainly a tech geek in Austin, there was a flurry of activity centered around a couple of main complaints:

  • There were too many attendess this year. Extreme crowding, excessive lines, rude behavior and the other frequent accompaniments of large crowds were all common complaints. A number of bloggers noted that they’d had items stolen or cars damaged (or knew people who did).
  • Poorly managed panels. Disengaged moderators, heckling crowds, disjointed topics and lack of preparation seemed to be the most common complaints regarding the enormous volume of panels throughout the Interactive portion of the conference.
  • Unclear focus. Too many “social media celebrities” and too little truly innovative tech startups.  Is SXSW a social media event or a tech event? Major advertising sponsors included Chevy, which puzzled a great many people.

The flip-side, of course, is that there are plenty of people — both here in Austin, and across the blogosphere — who had a great time, and were very vocal about having had an enjoyable SXSWi experience. I attended a few parties, and though they did seem to be a bit more crowded than the ones I attended last year, the truth is that I didn’t go to enough last year to really have a solid basis of comparison, anyway.

All in all, though, as I read through the blogosphere, follow the Tweets and process through the good, the bad and the ridiculous, it strikes me that the growing pains experienced by SXSWi this year are an inevitable part of the organizational growth process, and one that also reflects the industry changes.

Once upon a time, the web was all about tech. The more, the better. The newer, the cooler. The more complex, the more fun. Geeks of all strips would dig in and giggle gleefully in their virtual tree house, speaking their own secret language and enjoying their elite status.

And then marketers arrived.

And, as if overnight, the world changed. It was as if your neighbor’s funky garage band that you listened to every week at the neighborhood bar suddenly found themselves with a chart-topping album. What used to be your peaceful, end-of-week hang-out is suddenly invaded by pazarrazi, throngs of agents and shrieking co-eds.

I think that’s what’s happened to the web. As someone who’s been online since 1993 (pre-web browser), I’ve watched — sometimes with sadness and horror — as my happy little geeky sandbox has given way, and those of us with our secret handshakes had to scramble out of our treehouse just as the bulldozers came rolling in to level everything and build a parking garage for the new hordes that were on their way in.

The web is no longer a tech space. It’s a business space. Sure, tech still thrive in the wild web, but so do a lot of other things: marketing, commerce, media (both old and new) and a host of other things that are far closer to traditional business than they are to hardcore geekdom. Is that bad? In general, no, of course not. Is it the same as it used to be? No. And for those of us who liked the way things used to be, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic sometimes. (I liked my BBS and I loved my Pine email client… until it gave way to Eudora Pro.)

Of course, this is not a new phenomena, but small corners of the tech world have avoided coming face-to-face with it for a while. Geeks tend to flock with other geeks, not with the sales and marketing people. So it’s easy to identify like-minded peers, because they too still use the secret handshake.

In sifting through the reviews, complaints, excitement and general mayhem that is SXSWi what I see is a culture clash between those who liked how things used to be — both the internet space, as well as the conference — and those who’re joining the party in progress, because it is finally getting mature enough to hold relevency for other aspects of the business world. And as the original diehards and early adopters start finding themselves increasingly out-numbered by the newest additions to the community, it’s not surprising that some of them are getting nostalgic for the days when they didn’t have to share their tree house.

Of course, the thing about early adopters is that they will usually lose interest in something once the masses start to catch on. So maybe the question isn’t really, “Is SXSWi passe?” The question may just be, “Is it time for the early adopters to go out and find or build the next big thing, and leave SXSWi to the masses?”

Time will tell. In the meantime, like all aspects of the internet space, time and maturity mean a broader appeal and a wider audience. For those of us whose work is internet-based, that can be great news… even if we did really like the tree house.