SXSW Interactive: Because hell doesn't have enough promotional stickers

Later this week, thousands of ironic t-shirts will be arriving in Austin for the 16th annual South By Southwest Interactive festival.

At about this time, it’s traditional for tech publications to publish handy guides to “surviving SXSWi” – packed with useful advice that’s basically interchangeable with that for any other festival since the beginning of time.

“Drink plenty of water!” “Prepare for some late nights!” “Plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss anything!” “Pack sturdy shoes!” “Always use a condom!”. Useful advice for SXSWi, certainly, but also applicable for Oktoberfest, Glastonbury, Woodstock and the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (although for the latter, replace ‘shoes’ with ‘sandals’ and ‘condom’ with ‘sprig of silphium’).

This year, though, I decided to use my experience of past SXSWi’s to produce something more useful. A very specific and completely foolproof guide on surviving this year’s event. And here it is…

Tip One: Don’t go to South by Southwest Interactive.

I’m serious. It sucked last year, and it’s going to suck again this year. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. The idea that SXSWi is a conference – or even a festival – for people doing interesting and useful things in technology is a fallacy. In reality, it’s just a non-stop orgy of bullshit fanboyism – a chance for people with stickers on their laptops to go and add more stickers to their laptops; an opportunity for sweaty dorks in Diggnation t-shirts to line up for two hours in the hope of getting Alex Albrecht to – I dunno – sign their laptop, I suppose, or maybe give them another freaking sticker. Even the parties – which are basically the only reason to go – are horrible: the free bars runs out too soon, and they’re always rammed with the kind of people who you could be forgiven for assuming have never been inside licenced premises before.

“But Pure Volume at 2am is pretty awesome!”

No it isn’t. You were just drunk. You’d lined up for three months to get in with your stupid plastic entry tag and you had to convince yourself that the experience was worthwhile because the only alternative was to kill yourself. Free vodka Red Bulls are not worth the hassle. Take your lead from the pros: buy a couple of bottles of vodka and a case of Red Bull and host your own party in your hotel room. Except you can’t, can you? Because you’re sharing with your friend Dan and he has to be up early for the “Google Hackathon”.

“But we’re launching a new app, and it’s going to be awesome.”

No it isn’t. But I completely understand why you think it will be. With all those fanboys in one place, where better than ‘South by’ to launch your awesome new location-based app?

Two years ago, Twitter was the undisputed hit of the festival. Everyone was using it – to find parties, to silently heckle panels, to do all the things that one can do with Twitter. Last year those same people were so desperate to find the new Twitter that they mistakenly handed that crown to Foursquare on the basis that a relatively small number of Web 2.0 scenesters used it to find out where their friends were partying. And yet, despite that auspicious start, and a shit-ton of publicity since, Foursquare has failed to capture the imagination of even most early adopters, particularly those outside of San Francisco and New York. Foursquare was resolutely not last year’s Twitter. Last year’s Twitter was Twitter.

That won’t, however, stop a billion start-ups blowing their entire launch budget on flying their whole team – armed with sacks of flyers and amusing stick-on bugs and branded candy and more fucking stickers – to Texas, confident in the knowledge that their app (with its stupid cutesy name) will be the hit of the festival. It won’t be. It will just be yet another location-based app sloshing about in a sea of location-based apps that may be temporarily useful while a thousand early adopters are crammed into an area of less than one square mile. The moment the festival is over, you’ll be dead.

Instead, this year’s hot location-based app will be… Twitter. You’re welcome. Call me Nostradamus.

Last year, while in Austin, I wrote a column for the Guardian talking about the awfulness of the event, saying..

“None of this is surprising, of course, as it all fits neatly into what social media has taught us – that the moment a service or community gets too big, too mainstream or too commercialised, the early adopters declare it “over” and move on to the next cool, niche thing. And it’s why I really hope that next year one or two of those early adopters will organise – and I mean that in the loosest sense – a user-generated unofficial fringe conference to sit alongside the main event. Ideally it will be a bit nerdier and more businessy, and a lot more fun, than SXSW and will have plenty of space for unofficial “core conversations” and a great product launch or two.”

Sadly, unless it’s a very well kept secret, there’s no such rival event and this year’s SXSWi will be more of the same bullshit. And for that reason, I’m totally serious when I say that you shouldn’t go. Instead – while your rivals are distracted in Texas, pissing their money up the wall and ejaculating over their laptop stickers during yet another Evan Williams keynote – you should use the time instead to stay at home and work on building your start-up.

Your liver will thank you, your investors will thank you, and most importantly so will millions of real-world users who really want you to create something new and innovative rather than being sucked into the hype and churning out just a better, prettier Twitter-meets-Gowalla clone for the approbation of your peers.



I’m moderating the “Unsexy & Profitable: Making $$ Without Hype” panel on Saturday at 3:30pm in Hilton A/B.

See you in Austin.

(Photo of Gary Vaynerchuk and Kathy Sierra by Randy Stewart)