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Why I’m Not at SXSW This Year

SXSW 2007

SXSW in 2007

SXSW Interactive is an annual conference of social media and web geeks in Austin. It’s a huge, exhausting event that takes place over a long weekend in March and is popularly known as the conference that introduced Twitter and other new forms of communication.

The criticism now is that it’s gotten too big and too corporate, dominated by giant corporations trying to be hip. And that it’s gotten to be such a chaotic moshpit that it leads to network outages.

I went to SXSW in 2007 and 2008, just the right moment before it became mainstream. The conference taught me to love the brilliant minds at 37signals, whose radically hopeful ideas about the future of work cannot arrive soon enough. I learned that project management should be as simple as possible. Gantt charts and MS Project should be avoided in favor of clear goals that everyone can understand. REWORK is their vision for the ideal work environment, where meetings and busywork are eschewed in favor of collaboration and results. Their philosophy is subversive and attractive for anyone stuck in boring meetings or lengthy conference calls.

A surprising part of SXSW for me was meeting authors and discovering self-publishing. Listening to showmen/charlatans Tucker Max and Timothy Ferris, I realized that I should write and publish a book. Rather than trying to interest a NYC publisher, they just started writing and blogging their adventures and opinions. In the trade show, I also got to examine the slick self-published titles produced by Lulu – they looked and felt exactly like “real” books and were indistinguishable from anything you’d find at Borders. These two lessons:

  1. Ignore the gatekeepers and write your book
  2. Self-published books are real books

within a year prompted me to write my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall.

Dave and Margie Newman

Dave and Margie Newman

However, so much of the best stuff at SXSW happens outside the convention center. Like when I met Dave and Margie Newman in the beer tent, who ended up moving to DC and becoming great friends.

Or when I encountered the strange figure of Reverend Billy, railing against consumerism and Starbucks. And just the experience of getting out of DC and going somewhere warm to eat BBQ and watch women in skirts and cowboy boots was rejuvenating.

Reverend Billy

Reverend Billy

I realized that I’m more interested in going to Austin than attending SXSW. Unlike when I attended in 2007 and 2008, there are panels relevant to my job as a web editor for government web sites. But the thought of yet another endless discussion by self-appointed thought leaders on “Gov 2.0″ makes me ill. Why go to SXSW to see that?

I hope that the govvies in Austin avoid such seminars and look for the different and the oddball. Roam the streets. Talk to people. Stay out late and get drunk.

Another reason for skipping SXSW is that some of the “keep Austin weird” creative spirit that I like so much has migrated to DC. Unbelievable, yet true.

Just look at my schedule for this month. Last night, I went to screening of short films by a local director – this is someone who is making movies outside of Hollywood. Then on Tuesday is the DCist Exposed Photography Show, a community-based exhibit of photos that embodies the democratic, creative ethos of SXSW. Later in the month, I have the DC Film Salon on my calendar, another communal mediamaking event. I also plan on doing some writing for the Pink Line Project, an online guide to the arts in DC.

The do-it-yourself creative spirt of Austin and SXSW inspired me to create art. Being there made me realize that I wasn’t interested in the stories of startups making millions of dollars, of the next Twitter or Gowalla. And of large organizations trying to adapt to new technology… that doesn’t seem to belong at SXSW at all.

Instead, I was intrigue by individuals making art on their own, whether they were writers, photographers, bloggers or filmmakers.

SXSW demonstrated to me that you could write and publish your own book. Or make a short film. Or create a blog to share your message. It had an enormous influence on me and one that I’m still trying to incorporate into my life.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel the need to attend SXSW this year. I’m still working on what I learned from previous years. These are ideas of autonomy and creative self-expression, empowered by new tools such as self-publishing and social media. You don’t need to sit in a convention center to learn that. You just have to participate.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Congrats on the book, Joe!

Great point here, too: “more interested in going to Austin than attending SXSW.” I’ve never been to SXSW, but love Austin.

Molly Moran

Agree with many of your observations, Joe. I went to SXSW last year for the first time, and I was really inspired by Austin, but not so much by the sessions (though I did really like danah boyd’s voice of reason keynote address). This year I’m going to the new Eyeo Festival instead. But I do miss Austin.

And to echo Andrew – congrats on your novel! Isn’t making art fun?

Joe Flood

Making art is fun! Thanks for the feedback. I think it’s really important for govvies to get outside the DC bubble and see what other people are doing, especially in the creative fields. Austin is the perfect destination for that.

Daniel Honker

Great commentary, Joe. I went to college in Austin (Hook ’em!) but never attended SXSW. There is something in the spirit of that town that is very open, warm, and welcoming — like the best of Texas/Southern hospitality, but progressive too. And you’re right about some of the “weird” infiltrating DC.