There's a famous photo from SxSW taken 10 years ago, with just about every significant blogger at the time all gathered around one table. Many of them went on to form incredibly influential companies, like Flickr, Twitter, and yes, Gawker. Today, a lot of those same people are skipping the conference. And if you believe the backlash, South by Southwest has lost its cool. It's just a marketing hypefest, where the most common achievement is barbecue bloat.
Bullshit. It's cooler and more important than ever. Just not in the same way.
Twitter. Foursquare. GroupMe. You use them everyday, but if it hadn't been for this uncool, overcrowded, lost-all-meaning version of South by Southwest you may never have even heard of them. What's come out of South by Southwest in recent years aren't apps for the hipster tech elite. It's the everyday technologies that regular people take to. Buzzwords that graduate to everyday vernacular.
You wouldn't know it, though, if you follow the SXSW backlash. To paraphrase notable late-stage VC Yogi Berra: No one goes there anymore, it's too popular.
Scott Lamb profiles this nicely over at Buzzfeed's tech channel, tying it to the end of Kick, an independent kickball tournament run by Anil Dash. (That, sadly, was rained out in this its final year.) Meanwhile Austin's own Ben Brown also wrote something describing why he's not going, and what he sees being wrong with the culture of South by Southwest. Michael Pusateri describes it in a dry-eyed post simply titled "why I'm not going to SxSW this year." I've seen and heard quite a few other longtime attendees express similar sentiment, and of course the backlash on Twitter is six kinds of fierce.
But why? What's so different? What's changed? Well, a lot. But nearly all of it's for the better.
South by Southwest Interactive used to be an intimate little conference where independent developers came together and traded ideas. It was a tagalong to the larger music festival, and geared very much towards makers. And those bloggers and developers sat down and ate barbeque together, and got to know each other, and came up with some good stuff. Then they went home and wrote about it on their blogs. They published pictures of themselves all hanging out together in Bruce Sterling's bathroom, of all places. It looked fun and cool and had a high signal to noise ratio of Very Important Web People. Which made more people come, who desired to be very important. As more people came, apps and services started to break out there, and become the next hot thing. Which meant money. And money meant way more people. Which created a cycle of hype.
And pretty soon, the original blogsters felt squeezed out.
So sure. If you think of cool as being something small and independent, Southby may no longer be the festival for you. But I think there's something even cooler going on.
What you are seeing is the death of elitism. Southby is no longer the elite event it once was. But neither is the Internet itself. And as both have gone mainstream together, both matter more than ever. Because both touch peoples lives, in the form of apps and information, than ever before.
South by Southwest is a hot zone. An infectious vector where lots of people, from all over the world, come together and often end up all using the same apps—especially social ones. It's a trial by fire for ambitious social start ups. If an app sucks, or its server can't handle the load, or it just isn't useful, maybe nothing happens. But when it catches on, bang!
And it doesn't stop at the conference itself. Influential attendees bring the prize apps back to their influential tribes. And suddenly you can't make a left turn on the internet without bumping into Twitter, to Foursquare, to GroupMe. And you use it, and your friends do, and it becomes as ingrained into your everyday life as three square meals. In a few months, it'll happen again with Highlight and Glancee and maybe even Pinwheel.
And yes, there are some decidedly uncool things happening there. It's awash in branding and the level of smug coming out of Austin right now is at east coast boarding school levels.
But even so, it's a proving ground for the rest of the country and world. It's got an enormous impact, not just on tech snobs, but upon all of us. It's a place where things are happening, products are being introduced, that will affect real people's lives. Sure, getting together with your friends is fun, especially when those friends are the kind of smart, forward-thinking people who made South by Southwest the place to be in those early days. And everyone loves a nice game of kickball.
But changing the world? That's pretty damn cool. Plus, hey, you know, Jay-Z played.
Original photo by Anil Dash. Special thanks to Andy Baio for helping me dig up some of those old images