March 13, 2003
Notes from SXSW 2003

I'll go over a few things I observed at SXSW. This was my first time attending and I was a complete outsider. Despite all my attempts to recruit a friend to go with me, I arrived in Austin alone and did not know a single person at the event. During the event, learned a ton, met a bunch of people and understood some of the etiquette. By next year, I will be an insider somewhat and my views will be tainted.

I’m going to use the term blogger interchangeably with SXSW attendee. It’s not completely accurate, but it’s a fairly reasonable compromise. One of the first things I noticed was about the net ‘celebrities’. In the realm of ‘blogging’ and the bleeding edge of internet community, there are people that have become celebrities. In some cases it’s due to their  well-considered opinions, with some due to that they have created new things, and in some cases due to their persona. Initially I looked forward to meeting these people and getting a chance to shake their hands and discuss things with them. I’m an outgoing type of person that always asks a question in groups when it’s Q&A time. I am not shy. But not many bloggers are as extroverted as I am. Actually, most of them seem a bit shy to me. Once they get to know you they open up, but at first they keep their distance. It’s understandable. There are a lot of freaks on the internet and you never know who is and isn’t a freak when you meet them for the first time.

On the first day, I made a point to say hello to Ben & Mena Trott and Cory Doctorow. IMHO, both the Trott‘s and Cory have done extraordinary things that have made my life just a little bit better. They were polite and knew who I was from previous online interaction, but I could tell they were a little apprehensive.

With good reason.

Some guy that sent them a email once or twice was trying to grab a slice of them. They had good friends at SXSW and if the choice was between good friends and strangers, everyone is going to choose friends. I gave it a little thought and decided that I wasn‘t going to be as proactive as I usually am when I saw a ‘net celeb‘. If everyone at the show stopped these people just for 5 minutes to shake hands and chat with them, the ‘celebs‘ would never have a free moment. Their experience at SXSW would be endless polite but boring conversations with strangers. I wouldn‘t want people to do that to me, so people shouldn’t do it to them.

So, I started sitting quietly giving people around me their own space, even when I knew who they were and wanted to chat with them. For friends and family that know me, this is extremely un-Mike behavior. Amazingly, once I stopped trying to meet everyone, I started meeting everyone.

People will strike up conversations about anything at SXSW just to break down that initial barrier between strangers. Once the initial barrier was broken, the conversation flowed easily. I was surprised to find that some people knew who I was. Several times, people said ‘Hey, you‘re Argyle, the geocaching guy.‘ All, because I had posted on the site about seeing if anyone want to go geocaching. People had taken the time to read the post, look up my picture, and remember me. Wow.

In one of the sessions, Cory Doctorow said ‘This is my tribe.‘ He meant that the people who attend SXSW Interactive are his kind of people. We may be scattered across the globe geographically, but in our world view we are quite similar. He‘s right. Those people are my tribe. The techno savvy, the web literate, those that add to the web instead of only browsing it, those that make cool new things, those that are willing to talk to strangers about wifi, and those that dream of the next gadget from Japan. The SXSW Tribe.

Here are my general observations about the SXSW Tribe. They don‘t apply to everyone, but they give you basic idea of the vibe:

The SXSW Tribe like Macs
The SXSW Tribe likes to cut their hair short
The SXSW Tribe don‘t like to go more than an hour offline
The SXSW Tribe likes to smoke
The SXSW Tribe doesn’t like the war in Iraq
The SXSW Tribe likes to travel in packs
The SXSW Tribe loves to gossip about the rest of the SXSW Tribe

Here a few things that I learned that may be useful to others that come to SXSW for the first time:

Shiner Bock - Shiner Bock is a local Texas beer that you find everywhere. Often referred to as simply ‘Shiner’.

ABC - Always Be Charging - If you bring a laptop, you need to be charging it every single chance you get. No battery lasts long enough.

Sharpeners - There are no pencil sharpeners at SXSW. People think writing on a pad of paper with a wooden pencil is a bit strange.

Secure connections - Wifi traffic is in the clear and people are sniffing packets all the time. Arrange for secure email, FTP, and if possible, secure browsing while at SXSW. It’s unlikely that a malicious hacker is gunna do bad things, but it’s best to be prepared.

Street Signs - For some reason, downtown Austin has few street signs. Get a map and study it before venturing out.

The Omni - The Omni hotel bar is a late night hangout for SXSW people.

Hotels - Stay at a hotel in easy walking distance of the convention center. You don ‘t want to drive anywhere after a long night of partying. The word was that the Hampton was the best place to stay due to proximity and internet access. But since the Hampton lacks a bar, there is debate if ‘The Hampton‘ is ‘the new Omni ‘.

Night Events - The best night events are the Fray Cafe, 20x2, and (so I’m told) Bruce Sterling ‘s party. Make time for these events.

Personal cards - Make up business cards with your name, email, and website info on them to hand out. Bring your regular business cards if you want, but what people really want is a card that ties you to your online persona so they can find you after SXSW.

Food - Eat food. Austin has a great bar scene. You will be drinking. Don‘t drink on an empty stomach.

Texas BBQ - IMHO, Texas BBQ pales in comparison to BBQ in other areas like Kansas City and Carolina.  That chopped beef sandwich stuff just doesn't cut it...

Sound People - The people who run sound for the sessions won ‘t leave the sound alone. They love to walk up while people are speaking, twiddle with knobs, and make the room go silent.

Fray Cafe - If you are going to perform, practice beforehand.


Favorite quotes:

‘Stop solving for the extreme case, solve for the middle‘ - Lawrence Lessig

‘I trust Rinso because there are a reasonable amount of spelling errors.‘ - Dave Weinerger

‘Because, you are wearing a Star Trek uniform because you want to get stared at...‘ - Cory Doctorow, answering the question, ‘Why do people in Star Trek uniforms get stared at?

‘We believe in the One Interface.‘ - Thomas Korte, Google

'UO, EQ & DaoC are not games, they are fucking chatrooms' - Warren Spector

‘If you can create this, you can fall in love with someone online and know they are a girl’ – John Halcyon Styn, in regard to FOAF discussions

‘Only 7% of American families consist of a father who works and a mother who stays home with the children.‘ - Richard Florida

‘This too shall pass ‘ - Bruce Sterling

People I met and chatted with (in no particular order):

Dave Weinberger - I helped him get connected, we shared a snack, and chatted off and on during the show. A great guy. While I had read the Cluetrain Manifesto before, I had no idea who he was until we'd been chatting a couple of hours.

Michael Alex Wasylik - Walked up to me and said, ‘I went to school with your brother.‘, at the Kick event. Mike was interesting and took the effort to include me in ‘the group ‘ until I got to know ‘the group ‘ myself. I owe him my thanks. He's the kind of attorney whose number you keep in your wallet 'just in case'.

Michael/Griff from ultramicroscopic - Poor guy won best weblog but got his bike stolen

Christine of bigpinkcookie - Queen of the Texas bloggers.  Many thanks to Christine dragging me along as the crew wandered through Austin.

Katie - One of the first people I met part of the Texas Blog Mafia

Ernie the attorney - We started commiserating about the convention staff making unplug from the power outlets and began to discuss the issues. He and I agreed that the idealism is good, but people need to understand the reality of negotiation to find agreement in the middle. A nice guy to chat with, too bad he left on Saturday.

Jason Nolan - He and I chatted about stickers on laptops and the US centric internet. 

Chip - Met Chip on the first night and although he's with EFF Austin, he didn't run me out of town on a rail because I work for Disney.

Don Turnbull - part of the EFF Austin crew

David Nunez - another part of the EFF Austin crew

Michael Buffington - We talked about cameras and getting to sessions on time.

Rannie - We kept bumping into each other and chatting during the weekend.

Ernie Hsiung - It appears that Ernie and my wife are related in the Hsiung family somehow. What a coincidence!

Alex Bischoff - We hung out at 20x2 and drank Shiners.

Leia Scofield - Met her in one of the many places I was with the Texas bloggers.

Rebecca Blood - Thanked her for her book and chatted briefly.

Dan Gilmor - We briefly discussed the impact of his breaking news of Pyra/Google deal.

There are tons of other people I met, but I wasn't taking notes every moment at SXSW.

Obviously, I had a great time.  I've already decided to return again in 2004.  Of course, next time, I intend to drag others along with me, so I never have to drive.

Posted by michael at March 13, 2003 10:09 PM