Ina Fried

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Party On … And On … And On, Geek (But Not Much Else): A Newbie Reflects on SXSW

Never having been to South by Southwest, I really didn’t know what to expect after I landed in Austin.

As I take off on a plane away from Austin, I have a few observations, many of which seemed to be shared by others I chatted with.

To be clear, I’m referring to the interactive piece of the event. I have far too poor taste in music and movies to pass judgment on those portions, nor did I stay for those parts.

The event is an incredible party.

SXSW Interactive is actually a conference surrounded by many, many small (and not-so-small) parties. But the parties are so numerous and so close to the conference that it is more like one big party than it is a discrete set of events.

It’s mostly a marketing and PR thing.

Marketing and branding are a big part of any event, but they seem to be the raison d’etre for this conference.

South by Southwest is a great place to try to identify your company as hip and edgy, and there are plenty of the kinds of folks in attendance who help decide those sorts of things. It’s also a good barometer for which companies have lots of money to throw around. (Full disclosure: AllThingsD hosted two parties, one for the launch of its new All Things Reviewed site — which was very lovely, if we do say so ourselves.)

It’s not a big place for news.

Folks looking for lots of interesting headlines were disappointed. As far as big trends, the closest thing I saw was the need for a breakthrough in battery life for all our digital gear.

While SXSW has been a place where apps and services have taken off in years past, most of those have been apps and services that help aid the sort of schmoozing that is the best part of the Austin event.

There were good discussions to be had, both onstage and off. I had good chats with people I knew and many people I didn’t.

It’s a terrible place for sleep.

Largely because of the fact that it is one big party, it is very hard to achieve downtime in Austin. There is literally always something going on, and with so much good food and music, even wallflowers can be persuaded to leave their comfort zones. The enforced insomnia was exacerbated by the fact that the event coincided with the shift to Daylight Savings Time, depriving conference-goers of one more precious hour of sleep.

I talked more about some of my experiences on Monday’s “Digits” show, as well as in an interview on Southern California Public Radio’s “Madeleine Brand Show,” discussing the trends from Austin:


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik