I won’t be at SXSW, but not because I gave it up for Lent

If you are attending the interactive part of the gigantic Austin, Tex., music, film and interactive “festival” called South by Southwest (or, as the locals say, “South-by”), I suggest you attend today’s panel at 2 p.m. called “How To Not Be A Douchebag at SXSW” — an annual panel for first-time attendees led by my friend, Scott Beale. (And by “my friend,” I mean I once discovered via Twitter he was driving through Nashville and enticed Scott and his wife to join me for breakfast at Pancake Pantry.)

The reason I want you to attend that session is that, in advance, I apologize for this post being easily classified as “How to Be A Douchebag About SXSWi if you Don’t Attend.” That’s not my intention. However, as you’ll see, I do understand and share the pain of those who hate hearing anything about SXSW. And I’ll confess, I will be spending the next few days using Twitter via the Chrome browser where I can make use of the Chrome extension called SlipStreamthat allows me to mute all those #sxsw tweets. But I’m not here to whine about all those things easily whined regarding SXSWi, because as much as it frustrates me, this is the first year I’ve been able to actually carry-through on my annual decision not to go back the following year.

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several people say they’ll see me in Austin this weekend at the interactive conference part of the South by Southwest Festival.

But they won’t.

Despite going for the past seven years, I’m taking off this year.

There are several excuses, some classic clichés by now, veteran attendees give for not going back. None of the following such excuses, however, is the reason I’m not attending, however.

NOT my reason #1: SXSW has grown too big: If being too big kept me away, the last SXSW I would have attended would have been in 2005 — that’s the last SXSWi I can recall that wasn’t too big. Back then, it still could be contained in a few conference rooms in a corner of the Austin Convention Center. It has now, in take-no-prisoners fashion, commandeered the entire convention center, and overflows into adjacent hotels and all the open space of the entire region known as Texas Hill Country. So, yes, SXSWi has lost the whole “meetup” vibe and replaced it with urban sprawl frenzy. But that hasn’t kept me away in the past, and it isn’t this year, either.

NOT my reason #2: SXSW is no longer about technology, it’s about…: When I first started attending SXSW, it was a gathering of open-source geeks, stone-age bloggers and gifted (yet unappreciated) graphic web designers. This was still post-dot.com-crash enough that it would have seemed extremely odd to have panels about anything business or entrepreneurial related. There were no such labels as 2.0 or social-anything. It was just a bunch of people who were passionate about open-source and CSS. Back then, people who are now social media gurus didn’t attend because, back then, they had real jobs. There were no sessions on how to drive traffic anywhere and the idea that you could start and sell a web application had been debunked by the expert VCs and media that had buried the notion that the web offered financial opportunity. But I’ve still attended since SXSW morphed from a glorified meetup for geeks into a magnet for those who believe their iPad app will become the next Twitter. Sure, it’s a circus of self-promotion and hucksters dressed up like hipsters, but that hasn’t kept me away.

NOT my reason #3: SXSW has sold its soul to the highest bidder: And by highest bidder, I mean Pepsi. Actually, I mean everything that can be sponsored at SXSW has been sold. It’s a marvel of event marketing — both the official kind and the gorilla kind. So what if SXSW has become some bizarre bazaar where hipster hucksters hype some rehashed version of Groupon. That’s not why I’m staying home.

NOT my reason #4: SXSW is held in a convention center inspired by Dante: Austin is a wonderful city. A bit remote, perhaps, and a bit too sprawling, but as cities go, I can’t think of one that has such a great mix of the stuff I like in a city. (Nashville, of course, shares much of that same mix with, for me, some additional attributes having nothing to do with this post.) Austin has a massive convention center downtown — one the size of two city blocks. Unfortunately, it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wrong. I’ve always assumed that the building was constructed in phases, but the designers of the second stage lost the plans to first stage and had to hack some connections afterwards. For a city that has incredibly talented usability designers and product engineers, it seems odd to me the developers of the center couldn’t find someone to develop a logical, or intuitive, navigational taxonomy for naming floors or rooms. The building is filled with escellators that go past floors and stairs to nowhere. And, I swear, there is one floor that I’ve always said, reminds me of Floor 7½ of the Mertin Flemmer Building in the film,Being John Malkovich. I’ve thought there should be a panel called, “How to get to that floor that’s impossible to find at the Austin Convention Center.” However, about two or three years ago, I figured it all out — and stopped trying to go to very many sessions, so the frustration of spending several days trapped in some form of Bizarro Worldidea of feng shui is no longer a problem for me.

Okay, so what is my reason for staying away this year? It makes me sick. And I’m not talking “metaphorically” — I’m talking allergy sick (is there a word “allergetically”?). It’s not the climate. At this time of year, Austin is about the most perfect climate you’ll find: it’s already spring there and it’s not the desert part of Texas; it’s the part of Texas that is rolling hills and lakes and green. In other words, it’s a lot like Nashville, and I don’t have allergies here.

During the past couple of years, attending SXSW has given me a foggish dehydration feeling that makes me tired even to think about. Even though I drink copious amounts of water, don’t stay out late (which, I never did, as the average age at a SXSW party is 1/3rd mine) and have — at least for the past two years — cut out adult beverages, I get a queazy altitude-sickness type of feeling at SXSW.

All of my “travel strategies” that work when I go elsewhere — for example, making daily use of Austin’s wonderful riverside trails for long jogs in the early morning — don’t provide the endorphin boost that typically helps make my travel just another day at the office.

So, I’m staying away to treat what may, in all likelihood, be a psychosomatic condition.

However, I’m feeling better already.

The thing I’ll miss the most: Each Sunday at SXSW, a small group of current and former Hammock employees make a trek to Salt Lick Barbecue. That’s what I’ll miss the most. And it’s not the food (as special as it is), it’s the people.

I’ll miss the people. Especially all those people who have said to me, “Hey, I’ll see you in Austin.”

  • Anonymous

    Hi Rex! My first (and last) SXSW was in 2006, when I was on a panel (on online civility, no less) Just from reading reports over the years, I’ve got the sense of what you’ve expressed: too big, too many hipster wannabes, too much hucksterism. Having been on the “innovator” side of soc. media, I’m not thrilled with the garbage I see these days, and don’t really feel like hanging out where it happens to be. So, I’ll stay home from SXSW and go to WeMedia, where there will be a great group of people and that meetup feeling.

  • Dude, you’re lucky you don’t have allergies here in Nashvegas. I wanna drink the Kool-Aid you’re drinking. Altitude sickness (or anything resembling it) totally sucks. That’d be reason enough to keep me away too.

  • Again, while I point out the negatives, I’ve found ways to cope with all the negatives that permeate SXSW and have found ways to avoid them and do what I find most special about it: Spend time with people who I’ve gotten to know through this blog and other new media and geekish stuff (you know, people like you). However, now that you mention WeMedia — that sounds like a great event.