Austin Under Siege

By SuperSpy 

For those of us who were not lucky enough to be down in Austin for the 2009 SXSW Interactive Conference, David Bryant, head of digital at StrawberryFrog in NYC and a 2009 One Show Judge, has kindly filled us in on what we missed. Without further ado…

“Austin, Texas is under siege this week. Already a remote outpost of liberalism in a desert of guntotin’ buttfuckery, Austin was groaning under the weight of the SXSW interactive, film and music conference this weekend.


Food was the first thing to run out. Over the weekend Stubbs ran out of ribs and chilli. Imagine. I had to have the pulled pork. Which tasted exactly like a pig does when put in a blender. Then we ran out of internet at my hotel. Then bizarrely AT&T ran out of cellphone signals.

Given 50% of the iPhone owning population must have been in Austin over the weekend, it’s fairly unforgivable. It was pretty much the topic on conversation for the first few days, even if that conversation was restricted to the non-telephonic variety. And a bit of a corporate disaster for AT&T which made the blogs and then the mainstream almost immediately.

SWSX is the perfect storm of music, film and interactive. Despite much talk of convergence in these areas, there’s not much evidence of it. The music industry attendees are easy to spot – they’re all over 50 and wear leather. The film people are all over 30 and wear specs. The interactive people are all over 18 and wear each other down.

Seriously. The level of general snarkiness in the interactive conference has to be experienced. Curiously, my journalist friends tell me it’s just not that way with the music and film conferences. Perhaps the music and film conferences are more about selling your film or artists. The Interactive lot definitely seems to have more of the ‘go on – impress me’ about them.

I blame social media. There. I’ve said it. It’s the scourge of real time commentary. The Interactive conference is effectively two conferences – the real life one where people talk. And the meta-conference where people are…

talking about the people talking. This takes place in tweets, blogs, posts, emails, IM and just about everything else. My friend Alan Wolk pointed out that this second conference hosted in the twittersphere is actually the more interesting.

At the start of every conference or panel, an army of indifferent punters, would shuffle in and start tapping on their laptops. Throughout the speeches and conversations and debates it would continue. This real-time, multiple user feedback would be a constant undercurrent. It must be nervewracking for speakers and presenters. They are forced to perform like a gladiator waiting for the thumbs up or down from a crowd that wants blood just as much as it wants entertainment. Last year, Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook badly. She had effectively lost her career by the time the interview had ended. The real time negative tweets about her style and content having started as soon as she started to interrupt him.

The sessions and speakers were variable to say the least. Ironically, many of these incredible architects of social media seem to lack social skills. I saw some truly dreadful speeches made by people who clearly felt more comfortable tweeting in anonymity behind an iPhone. These admirable, modest and incredibly bright people are called rockstars, but performers they are not.

Overconfidence, however seems to be something that is avoided at all costs. It was interesting to see how people reacted to demigod adman Alex Bogusky who spoke about his bicycle sharing thing. I work in advertising, so I’m used to hyperbole, rhetoric and exuberance. I thought Alex was great. The crowd was not with me. Again with the negative tweeting. After all, Alex is just a jumped-up content creator in their eyes. Not a software guy. He doesn’t make anything ‘cool’.

Highlights were the Tuesday Keynote with author Chris Anderson and still VC (are they still around?) Guy Kawasaki from Alltop. Talking about the economies of free. It was bright, breezy, insightful and funny. Both managed to butter each other up and smack each other down at the same time. Everybody talked about how nervous the guy from Facebook seemed. For God’s sake people! He’s 22 or something. Give the kid a break. He’s just young -and trying to make his way in the world. How would you like to be a billionaire but still get carded at your own drinks party?

The guy James Powderly from the Graffiti research laboratory was likeable and did a good job of making old news sound new again. I think I read about his lazer graffiti projector a couple of years ago. He started off the session by getting everybody to flip him the bird, which he then photographed, and this endeared him to everybody immediately. I enjoyed this rather too much.

The games talks were fascinating. My favorite was the games for the people by the people. It really put some new thoughts out there. Ex-big game developer Gareth Davies now at Facebook made some interesting points.

The parties were good. I loved the Dorkbot party where people were invited to use all manor of cool creative gadgets – tesla coil music generators, machines that painted pingpong balls.

And Austin itself? Everwhere you’ll see mugs and t-shirts imploring you to ‘keep Austin weird’. Like it’s something that Austin could lose at any moment. Pah. Austin isn’t just weird. It’s fucking deranged.
Like the time I was standing in the street when a homeless guy came up and unapologetically goosed my producer. Then he walked off. Revealing that he was naked from waist down save for – and get this– a red felt heart on a wire, which he had stuck up his bottom.

As this tiny defiant statement wandered off into the night, encompassed in a pair of surprisingly pert buttocks, I asked myself – What was he trying to say? What was going through that scrambled mind that would lead him to do such a thing, and parade it with such confidence?

His do-it-yourself social media statement will stay with me for a very long time. So will SXSW.”

Oh and the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of StrawberryFrog.

[headlining image source] [Stubb’s chili image]