“You’re going to SXSW? Sucker.”
Such was the sentiment of a long-time SXSW attendee who decided to sit out this year, echoed by many others in the tech world. With its ever-expanding programming, clusterfuckery of housing options and the commercialization of what was once considered a must-attend conference for anyone in the know, SXSW hasn’t just jumped the shark, it’s being openly maligned by veteran attendees. And those who are choosing to go, like me, are being looked upon with a sympathetic pity similar to a Southerner’s use of “Bless Your Heart” to mean “You’re as dumb as dirt.”
Bless my heart, indeed.
I’m going not to sit in on endless panels (though I did buy a badge, which apparently is becoming more and more rare, if my friends are any indication), but instead to give it one last attempt to salvage its value. I think there are still deals to be done and people to be met, which is perhaps an overly optimistic view after witnessing first-hand the change over the last 11 years that I have attended. And oh how it’s changed. Besides the size (unbearable — think mosh pit at a death metal concert, only with much dorkier t-shirts) or the giant, overstated big-brand activations that are a visual incongruity to the festival I once adored, it’s the authenticity and intimacy that has disappeared.
But what I miss the most is the spontaneity. Best intentions would get waylaid, and it was wonderful…it’s what made the event what it was. You’d be walking to a (most likely overcrowded) party, run into someone you hadn’t seen in years and instead spend the following five hours getting to know your next boss. It was telling that hot guy you saw in the crowd of your 3,000-person party to “stay put” that resulted in a torrid love affair that spanned for years to come. It was the unexpected, the decisions you made on a whim, that led to some of the most rewarding experiences. I’d go so far as to say it made SXSW what it is … or, these days, what it was.
Everything now feels over-planned and over-produced, and not just by an organization that (understandably) needs to grow and be profitable and provide experiences for both brands and individuals alike. It’s the invitations from companies and brands that start arriving in your inbox in January. It’s the fact that all downtown hotels sell out within hours of tickets going on sale…IN JULY. And it’s this loss of serendipity that is causing many long-time SXSW devotees to stay home.
I brought this conversation to Twitter. Hillary Hartley and Amy Muller, two of the founders of YxYY (which many are calling the latter-day SXSW), both cited the loss of the “magic” as a reason to skip this year. The loss of “connections & serendipity” made it hard for Hartley to justify going, as she was only hoping to catch up with San Francisco friends.
Muller agrees; “Serendipitous magic is rare now.” Others lamented the big brands and marketing projects, such as Drew Olanoff, who tweeted: “As soon as bad marketers and PR people saw SXSW as a shortcut to growing an app it all went downhill.” Yet others – such as Ali Berman – posits that this is merely a natural evolution. “Looking past the ‘it’s too big, too corporate, too lame now’ argument, as it happens with many things, we’ve outgrown it. I’m sure there are lots of 26-year-olds that are psyched to go.”
Maybe. As for me, I’m not planning much, and I’m RSVPing for exactly one event (and it’s a small, invite-only dinner with some of my best friends.) Instead of throwing a huge party, I’m going to wake up one day, check the weather and invite some friends to join me for an outside drink. Is there hope for SXSW yet? I don’t know, but bless your heart, perhaps I’ll see you there.
Editor’s note: Aubrey Sabala is a marketer who has grown some of the world’s largest technology brands including Google, Facebook, Digg and AOL. She started going to SXSW eleven years ago, and while SXSW has changed, her predilection for breakfast tacos remains strong. Follow her quest for serendipity – not to mention the best margarita in Austin – on Twitter.