SrexSW: The real reason to attend chaotic mass gatherings


SXSW is like Twitter. Chaotic, confusing and hard to get because everyone explains it by how they use or experience it — and everyone uses and experiences it differently.

I’ve come to the “interactive” part of SXSW for five years and, frankly, I’ve grown more and more confused and conflicted about it each year.

For some recession-defying reason, the “festival” has reportedly grown 30% this year (however, I understand the much larger music-festival is down a little). Because of its sheer size, the event is incomprehensible to someone like me who believes that “small is the new (and old) big.” I’ve heard different numbers, but there has to be well over 10,000 people attending, although today (Monday), the crowds have thinned.

Because of its massive size, there is little chance of you “just running into” someone you want to see. So those little chats you want to have with people don’t take place unless you formally set a time and place. It’s sort of like “play dates” replacing “going outside to play.” It took two days for Doc Searls and me to get together for breakfast we’ve enjoyed here before. And there are several people with whom I visit who I haven’t even seen beyond their tweets on Twitter. Indeed, I think a couple of them aren’t actually here, but pretending to be by re-tweeting what others are writing.

On the other hand, SXSW is like Twitter in that you can, indeed, parse down a coherent conversation if you give up on trying to hear everything and see everyone. As good as the panels are, a gathering like this is more about community than content. It’s more about conversations than presentations. It’s more about sharing than note-taking.

There are two words that have “buzzed” around some panels I’ve attended: serendipity and curation. Both words refer to those things which are needed to improve certain types of experiences related to media — online and off.

I’ve used both words for several years in discussing what I believe are key ingredients to any media experience, and, frankly, to a meaningful life. We want some people (both “professionals” and “amateurs with passion”) to curate wisdom for us and share with us knowledge and beauty and insight. Yet we also want to be surprised by the knowledge we discover on our own or from those we’ve never known before.

There’s enough of both at SXSW to make it worth the investment in time, money and hassle I’ve made to come to Austin.

Maybe I’ll never “get” SXSW. But that’s okay, because I’m a bit like that about life, as well. And, bottomline: “it” is too big for any one person to get on their own.

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