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Spring Break for Nerds

A skeptic learns the secret to South by Southwest’s success

The Driskill Hotel, a Romanesque brick and limestone hulk at the corner of Old Pecan and Brazos streets in downtown Austin, is the closest thing the Texas capital has to old-world glamour. The hotel also happens to be haunted, supposedly, by the ghost of the man whose portrait hangs at the stairs to the bar just off the lobby: Colonel Jesse Driskill, a cattle baron who made a fortune during and after the Civil War peddling longhorn to a famine-stricken region. He then squandered that treasure on the construction of the Driskill, sparing no expense to make it the grandest hotel in the West. The colonel might have liked the crowd on a recent Friday evening. It was the first night of South by Southwest Interactive, the annual tech conference, and profiteers and dreamers were packed cheek to charger.

The selvedge denim and Timbuktu messenger bags and plastic festival badges stood out in the dark-paneled, tin-ceilinged room, normally a place inhabited by local deal-makers, legislators, and the occasional high-end prostitute. Perhaps because the cocktail prices feel like home—and also perhaps because it offers more electrical outlets than the average bar—the Driskill is a favorite spot for the New York tech world when it relocates to Austin for five days each March. I learned this from Mark Peter Davis, a red-haired leather-jacket-wearing venture capitalist. “We’re all New York posse,” he explained with a sweep of a hand toward the gaggle he’d been trying to maneuver into the corner my friend and I were occupying. Davis, a successful investor with a well-read blog whose personal website explains, “I breathe start-ups,” had struck up a conversation with an eye toward a hostile seating takeover. “Are you gonna be upset if my friend from Inc. comes and sits here?” he asked, indicating the precise chair I was sitting in. “She’s posse.”

Luckily for us, Jason Saltzman, Davis’s heavily tattooed friend, had missed the cues. Saltzman, whose website declares that he owns “the most badass coworking space on the planet,” bought us whiskeys and was soon yelling things into my tape recorder. “Innovation,” he intoned. “Collaboration!” Then, the hard sell: “Write about me! I deserve to be written about!” And so, Davis made peace with our determined inertia. He began holding forth on how I, as a first-time attendee, ought to approach the proceedings.

South by Southwest Interactive is in some ways a lot like the Internet itself. There are endless options all competing for your attention: hundreds of parties, both official and unofficial, 30,000 other attendees to meet, and more than a thousand panels on topics ranging from “Getting Started With Angel Investing” to “The Comfy Chair! Are We Sitting Too Much?” Nearly everyone who’d been to the festival before, I’d discovered by then, had a meta-reading of it and advice on how to game it. Aggressive networkers print out and memorize pictures of particularly important people with whom they hope to mingle. Some recommend breakfast meetings for clear heads and clear agendas; others say the evening is the best time to network, over beers. In Davis’s estimation, it’s a mistake to set foot in the Austin convention center for the official programming or to attend any of the sponsored parties. “That part’s a waste of time,” he said. “I like sitting. Sitting and drinking are my things. ... During the day, sleep, exercise, management, getting lunch with some people. Just doing normal things here leads to meeting interesting people.” 


Davis wandered off to appease his Inc. editor, and Saltzman turned his thoughts to a favorite South by Southwest subject: the revolutionary potential of South by Southwest. “The reality is that these people are going to change the world,” he said, looking around him. “Technology as a growth pattern has grown exponentially in our lifetime to where we’re going to be solving some serious fucking issues and living forever. I know it’s a crazy thing to think about, but we’re solving the world’s problems.”

Here, in the Driskill lobby, as we got deeper into our whiskeys, and every idea looked like a good idea?

“Yes!” Saltzman said. “Somebody’s gonna meet their co-founder, somebody’s gonna meet their lead developer, somebody’s gonna meet their girlfriend that’s gonna inspire them to do more. I mean, get romantic about it. Jesus Christ, you’re a writer for god’s sake.”

I wanted to protest. Tech founders, not writers, are the romantics of this era. But just then Alex Karpovsky, the “Girls” actor, walked by, and my head turned with everyone else’s. I tuned back in to hear Saltzman saying, “My point is that the growth patterns of technology are taking off at such a constant supersonic rate that this kinda shit promotes the whole thing.” He turned to Davis, who’d returned to our corner. “Dude, I just gave a very brief speech about the growth patterns of technology.”


I never got Davis’s card; he doesn’t “do paper,” he told me. But the next morning, he e-mailed to follow up, and I thought of something he’d told me amid the din at the Driskill. It wouldn’t be a bad slogan for South by Southwest, if it’s ever in need of a new one. “Everything’s not business, and everything’s business,” he said, “if you’re in the right business.”

Though attendees love to knowingly truncate it as “South by,” the official abbreviation of the event is SXSW. It’s a tiny reminder that one of the things uniting corporate and alternative America in recent decades has been a puzzling interest in the use of the letter X where proper spelling doesn’t call for it. Festival culture itself is one of the other things linking those two Americas; in 2013, it’s almost impossible to find a music festival that isn’t branded and sponsored. What is unusual is finding a festival of branding, which is what SXSW has become. More unusual still is that its unembarrassed and uninhibited celebration of the modern capitalist spirit has not made South by Southwest an object of ridicule among the young and the hip. In fact, it is rather the opposite.

South by Southwest began in 1987 as a music festival and expanded to include film and interactive in 1994, but for a while it remained mostly a taco-heavy counterpart to Bonnaroo or Sundance, with a sideshow gathering of programmer-geeks. It wasn’t until Twitter’s high-profile coming out at SXSW in 2007 and Foursquare’s buzzy cotillion a couple years later that the suddenly glamorous tech portion eclipsed the others, no longer the uncool little brother in the shadow of Flaming Lips concerts and movie star appearances; when Jay-Z played a show in 2012, it was for an audience of digital elites. The tech portion is now the highest-attended part of the whole festival, and its definition of “interactive” has dramatically broadened. This year’s big keynote address, for instance, came from Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder, who, in Driskillian fashion, is sinking his riches into showy dreams—electric cars and commercial flights to space. Passes for the festival run at least $695, and attendance at the 2013 conference was up 25 percent—and might have been even higher if Austin’s hotel stock were expanding fast enough to keep up with demand. South by Southwest has become what it could never have been if the festival had remained just about music or film: the defining gathering of a generation, an annual Woodstock for earnest twenty– and thirtysomethings who find it natural to expense their good times.

Adam Besvinick had come down to SXSW from Harvard Business School for the second straight year, one of at least a dozen of his classmates to do so. He saw the festival as an ideal networking opportunity, where you endeavor to run into people “serendipitously.” (The tech world has stripped serendipity for parts, reselling the concept with an entirely new meaning, oftentimes incorporating the word “planned.”) Last year, Besvinick landed a summer internship at South by Southwest. This year, he was back to “maintain” his networks. He didn’t pay for an access badge but rather spent his days doing laps around the convention center, waiting to be introduced to the people his acquaintances happened upon and making introductions to his own contacts in turn. “You can launch yourself, your own brand,” he told me.

Businesses visit SXSW with branding on their minds, too. Big companies like Yahoo! want to appropriate a bit of the gathering’s general sizzle, while smaller, newer companies hope to get in front of the influencers who can turn them into bigger companies. This year, there was a firm that produces working firearms using 3-D printers. Another company scored a big hit with an “automatic life-logging camera” that constantly photographs your daily affairs. Less successful was an app that was supposed to be something like Words With Friends, “but for numbers.” It was promoted by a pack of pretty young women in T-shirts, like bar-shots girls for the digital age. 

Marketing ploys are everywhere at the festival. HBO paid pedicab drivers to outfit their vehicles like chariots advertising “Game of Thrones.” Inside the convention center, a giant yam encouraged passersby to visit, which redirected to a human resources start-up. The BBCAmerica Roadhouse featured a mechanical bulldog, sawdust, and Doritos—Texas as seen in a British person’s imagination. As I drank a beer there, a spokesman came up and began selling me not on BBC America, but on the BBC America Roadhouse experience. It seemed like a bit of overkill, given that I was at that very moment experiencing that experience.


But nothing topped Grumpy Cat, the Internet’s most famous cat of the moment (no small feat, that). Fans could find her parked inside a tent sponsored by the tech news site Mashable, the outside of which was decorated with portraits of handsome founder Pete Cashmore in an American Gothic homage and of Grumpy Cat herself, superimposed onto a lumberjack-shirt-wearing human torso standing in front of a laser-show background. Grumpy Cat, according to data collected later by Digitas, was the second-most tweeted about “personality” at the entire festival, behind Elon Musk and far ahead of Al Gore. The queue to see Grumpy Cat looking grumpy—feline dwarfism has left her face permanently screwed into a scowl—stretched to more than two hours during the afternoons, but Preston Mitchum, a 28-year-old who works in digital advertising, was willing to wait. He pulled out his cell phone, the lock screen of which displayed a downloaded Grumpy Cat photo; he wanted an original. Nearby, a middle-aged woman was wearing a large black T-shirt that read meow. She hadn’t planned the synchronicity. “Last night,” she explained, “I went to the Animal Planet party and got really ripped and spilled a bunch of mustard on my shirt,” which she’d then swapped for the hashtagged swag. “Then I slept in his hotel room,” she added, a louche finger wagging at the smiling man beside her.

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As a general rule, it is easier to pick up stuff than people at SXSW, though neither is particularly difficult. The merch-grab began at registration, where it was almost impossible to avoid being funneled into an airport- security-like line for the free South by Southwest tote. The cream-and-orange bags were decorated with buzz words and abbreviations: TMI, SEO, STFU; FANBOY SWOON, ELEVATOR PITCH FAIL, SORRY ABOUT YOUR MEAT SWEATS. I never heard any of them actually uttered out loud, but the tote soon proved its usefulness as a handy Easter basket for the giveaways scattered about. The Beacon Lounge, a beanbag-strewn refuge for those interested in social good and nonprofits, had jars of Jolly Ranchers and cardboard coasters that wondered, HOW WILL YOU CHANGE THE WORLD TODAY? (Not, apparently, by tackling the obesity epidemic or wasteful consumption.), knowing its audience, gave away microfiber eyeglass-cleaning cloths. One company, possibly inspired by Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret era, offered a combo of free harmonicas and free underwear. There was, one made-in-China collectible at a time, a rebuke to the virtual world the companies were supposed to be selling.

After a while, all the freebies started to look alike, and without the notes I jotted down, I couldn’t have told you which start-up paired with which gimmick. (“I still don’t know what GroupMe is!” said a friend who’d downloaded the mass-messaging app in exchange for a free grilled cheese.) But the marketers of America aren’t dumb. They don’t descend on Austin just for a good time, even if their employees do. According to Digitas, the average SXSW attendee has 1,226 followers on Twitter and 632 Facebook friends; the average conference speaker has many more. The biggest demographic is 25- to 34-year-olds, a disproportionate number of whom are so-called “early adopters.” In other words, it’s a pitchman’s dream. As Rick Webb, the co-founder of the digital ad agency Barbarian Group and 14-time SXSW attendee explained, these are people who are going to tweet and tumble and blog plenty of free publicity for companies, and enjoy doing it. “Fifty grand or one hundred grand, that’s a lot of money for a start-up” to spend on SXSW promotions, said Webb. “But if it works, you know, you get what, ten thousand early adopters for your product? That’s so worth it. That’s, like, a ten-dollar acquisition cost.”

The holy grail is to have SXSW do for your company what it did for Foursquare in 2009. The festival almost instantly turned the start-up into a household name, if your household was located in a coastal city and populated by young iPhone-users. Since then, Dennis Crowley, the company’s floppy-haired, 36-year-old co-founder, has served as something like the festival’s homecoming king.

The night before the conference began, Crowley and I met for dinner at the Hilton, nearly empty before the next day’s onslaught. He ordered by pointing to the menu and asking the waitress, “What do you think is a really awesome thing on this?” Boyish enthusiasm is Crowley’s default mode. Foursquare throws a well-attended annual SXSW hip-hop party (an alternative to the “subtle, like, indie rock bands” who are ubiquitous at SXSW, he says), and Crowley made sure I was on the list, texting me a chirpy reminder: “I hope you like dance parties :) I arrived to find that the line for “VIPs” stretched around the block. A harried wrangler told me that so many people were showing up with a purported text invite from Crowley that she’d had to confiscate his phone to screen for fakes.


When I posited his homecoming king status to Crowley at dinner, he deflected with a humblebrag: “It’s so funny that you say that. I don’t see it, but I checked in today and everyone at the speaker booth, like, knew me by name. I was like, Wow, I’ve been coming here a lot of years.” Eight years, to be precise, and he shares a touch of the nostalgia some longtime attendees have for the earlier, leaner days of the festival, when it was, in his words, “a freak show.” The first year, Crowley and some friends invented a sport they dubbed “The Hilton Lobby Backstroke,” flailing their way across the hotel lobby’s marble floor. (It’s as awkward as it sounds; bones have been broken.) Security stopped the first few races— until one year, they showed up to find that not only were hundreds of people waiting, but also that some of those people had made T-shirts. This time, the security guards cleared the crowd for the swimmers.

Much of SXSW's freewheeling spirit may have been co-opted and commoditized, but according to Crowley, the basic purpose of the festival remains the same: “South by Southwest is where you can come to experience what the future feels like, if just for a few days.” In the future, as it turns out, everyone will use their gadgets with an utter lack of self-consciousness or concern for social context. I saw a man in a bike helmet—on the fourth floor of a building, so he’d done some walking—FaceTiming without headphones in a crowded area. During one panel, a woman stood up in the seated audience and unabashedly took a photograph with her iPad of a founder who’d just walked up to the microphone. Another woman lay down in the middle of a busy street, in two different places, so she could get the optimal angle for Instagramming. “You forget,” said Crowley, “how quickly you just become numb to these things.”

The blockbuster apps of past SXSW fests—Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe in 2011—all shared the advantage of being helpful at a place like SXSW, where packs follow each other around to panels and parties, directed by digital breadcrumbs. But it has gotten harder for new offerings to stand out from the crowd. Last year, Highlight, an app that told you if friends of friends were in the vicinity, was supposed to be the star story. It never quite took off. Paul Davison, the company’s co-founder, was back this year to try to gin up more enthusiasm for the product and its improvements over the 2012 model.

Davison shares with Crowley a messianic belief in the transformative potential of social apps. The cadence of his elevator pitch has a lot in common with that of a preacher, or of Barack Obama, the lines tumbling out in accelerating, almost call-and-response rhythms: “What we ultimately want to build is this sixth sense ... where you can step into this room and you can look at these people you’ve never seen before in your life ... and just by looking at them, you can know all about them.” As much as I was swept up by his sparkly energy, it also sounded terrifying to me, like the plot to a dystopian novel I wouldn’t even want to read. But at a party that night, as I was playing the name game with a new acquaintance, the woman paused and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had bubbles above our heads with all this information?” I couldn’t tell if she was joking.


One day, I walked into the Convention Center and saw a gray-haired man with a notable lack of devices sitting at a round table near the entrance, staring, puzzled at all that was happening around him, as if he were a lost time-traveler. It turned out, he was, sort of. The man was an archaeologist and classics professor, in residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies and in town to use the library at the University of Texas. He wasn’t a Luddite—he’d helped build an Internet archive of Mediterranean transcriptions, and he uses, he assured me, a MacBook Pro—but there was something about the crowd that struck him as off-putting. “I haven’t ever seen so many people staring at their phones like idiots,” he said, observing what I might have if I’d been looking up from my phone. “They actually believe this stuff is worthwhile.” Then he got self-conscious. “I’m too old, I guess,” he said. And I knew, suddenly, that I’d be signing up for head bubbles someday.

Because, for all my skeptic’s armor, I was having a ball. The moment I fully admitted this to myself, I was on a bus/traveling- karaoke-bar, called the RVIP lounge, which tweeted out its location to any and all comers. It was tricked out like a 1970s basement—or maybe more like a Brooklyn bar tricked out as a ’70s basement— with dark paneling, an Elvis poster, Hawaiian leis, and a bar full of good liquor. The man squeezed next to me described his arrival as a “fun-napping,” as in “getting kidnapped onto a bus by four strangers with beers and really good jobs.” The sign stipulating that the RVIP lounge, begun years ago as a DIY project, was now sponsored by Starbucks and Wired, “a Condé Nast company,” should probably have bothered me. But I’d been fully fun-napped, too.


As I said yes and yes to walking 20 minutes here and 15 there to see what there was to see, I began to realize that the fear of missing out, a much-discussed sensation at SXSW, is not a feeling that people dislike entirely; it can lend a sense of purpose. One night, I talked my way into The Wall Street Journal’s pool party on the roof of a chi-chi apartment building. I’d read a blog post predicting that it would be one of the best events of the festival. During the elevator ride up, a middle-aged man pushed through the rowdy crowd to get out on his floor. “You’re paying four thousand dollars per month for your apartment, and all these drunken assholes are in your way,” said a drunken asshole in an expression of sincere sympathy.

Outside, East Coasters were treating the windy day as an occasion for a real pool party, debuting sundresses and pale legs. The wine was poured like beer, and a guitar player strummed a John Lee Hooker tune. An over-served woman in her thirties repeatedly fellated a popsicle for the amusement of her companions. Henry Blodget, or his twin, waited in line for the bathroom. A girl in cowboy boots and a backless prison-stripe swimsuit that showed off her sunburn and tramp stamp danced like she was on stage. Everyone stood around and watched the one person who jumped in the pool, which largely functioned as a reflective blue centerpiece, nicely setting off the Austin skyline. I was seized with the idea, both repellent and attractive, that if I dropped my phone as I leaned over to take in the view, it could fall and bounce all the way into the Colorado River below. Man versus nature versus technology versus wine.

Later that night, past midnight, my friends and I stood outside the W Hotel, where another friend had promised to try to sneak us into a fancy party, past a list-keeper who didn’t have our names. It was no dice this time, but a woman in very high heels and a very short skirt screaming, “Twelve! I have twelve with me!” got inside. The people in line next to us weren’t even quite sure what they were waiting for, but they knew it had to be good.

The next morning, the start of my last full day in Austin, I got up very early and went for a walk in the gray chill, snapping pictures of the abandoned wristbands and empty pizza boxes with my phone, which had survived the night after all. A drunk man stumbling home swerved out of my way as he went past. “Don’t want to photobomb,” he said. There’s talk that the festival has gotten too big for its own good, that its excesses threaten the sense of tribal membership that used to be the main draw. But the people in charge see lots more room for growth. This August, for the first time, SXSW will be franchised to Las Vegas. It’s hard to imagine Sin City’s version shot through with the same earnest hipness as the Austin original. But it will no doubt be a success. In a place that features a faux Colosseum and an ersatz Venice, there will now be a South by Southwest experience.

Correction: The article originally stated that the BBCAmerica Roadhouse featured a mechanical bull. It actually featured mechanical bulldog.