SXSW Postcard: The Interest Bubble

There’s one thing not in short supply in Austin during this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival: lines. The digital and marketing world has descended here in numbers unseen previously — some 30,000 are expected during what’s become the Burning Man of the digital world.

That means two-hour waits for barbecue at Stubbs, long lines at nearly every party and most panels filling to capacity well before they start — even the ones on obscure topics. (There’s still the oddity of long lines for the men’s room, no line for the ladies’.) The crowds have elicited more than a fair share of grumbling among SXSW veterans. They also speak to what John Battelle recently called an “interest bubble” over digital media. There’s an awful lot of hype out there, with venture capital flowing as freely as the Shiner on Fifth Street.
The fact is marketing and technology are entwined like never before. That means hordes of developers are down in Austin, hoping against hope to become the next Twitter or Foursquare, which both trace their rises to breaking out at SXSW. Brands and agencies have followed suit. Some shops send at least 30 people, and brands like Pepsi and Chevy are ubiquitous around town. Startups are sparing no expense at marketing themselves. One app that’s launching here, CrowdTap, has legions of young women prowling outside the convention center with form-fitting “Tap That” t-shirts.
SXSW has always been way more about the networking than the conference content. That’s never seemed more true than this year. The keynote presentations of the weekend were painted by SXSW organizer Hugh Forrest as a return to the festival’s roots: impossibly young tech entrepreneurs in 22-year-old SCVNGR “chief ninja” Seth Priebatsch and 23-year-old 4chan founder Christopher Poole. Both presentations showed the highs and lows of SXSW: idealistic visions that can sometimes seem jarringly out of step with reality.
Priebatsch, who founded the social gaming company SCVNGR, took to the stage in a bright orange Izod with matching sunglasses perched on his head. He proceeded to lay out how he believed game mechanics can help change the education system and even make a dent in global warming. There’s no doubt about his sincerity and enthusiasm, but parts of his call for making a game out of everything struck the note of someone who played too much Dungeons & Dragons and now has quite a bit of responsibility leading a company that’s shifting its business model.
Poole founded message board 4chan eight years ago. The site is now both reviled and celebrated. It’s reviled for its sophomoric and at times horrifyingly inappropriate content (child porn is an in joke there) and celebrated for its collective creativity (it gave the world LOLcats). Poole gave a defense of anonymity, the backbone of 4chan, as bestowing “the freedom to fail.” That’s true, although it’s just as true that anonymity is at the root of much of the digital world’s bad behavior, giving license to the freedom to defame and the freedom to harass.
Most of the action, of course, takes place away from the convention center and the hotels hosting sessions. Parties large and small are the centerpiece of SXSW. The event is the quintessential boondoggle that’s heavy on boozy networking and light on substantive business. So far, there’s little hint of a new Twitter emerging. The best candidate might be GroupMe, the group messaging service that’s become the popular way of organizing evenings. As a sign of the outsized role played by SXSW in the emerging social tech world, GroupMe paid a barbecue shack across the street from the convention center to rebrand as the “GroupMe Grill.”
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