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Waters run shallow at South by Southwest

It seems a little hypocritical to bemoan the narcissism of the recent South by Southwest festival when one considers that I spent most of the conference walking around in a shirt with my name printed on it in large letters. Then again that hardly counts as narcissism at an event where the very core was all about ensuring the tens of thousands of attendees were in no doubt whatsoever that they were indeed the centre of the universe and the ones tasked with grappllng the big issues facing the world.

South by Southwest is an iconic event: some call it the Woodstock of our times. It has now ballooned to three distinct festivals—music, film and interactive—that span close to two weeks. “South by” or “SXSW”, as the in-the-know hipsters call it, takes over the city of Austin, Texas in its entirety—every flight in is fully booked months in advance, the hotels are all packed and every event space in the city is full to capacity for the multitude of parties that extend well into the early morning.

South by Southwest is a strange sort of an event. The vast majority of attendees don’t actually go to any of the sessions but, rather than being shamefaced about this, wear their lack of attendance as a badge of pride. It seems there are far too many great parties to head out to instead, and during SXSW, Austin rarely rises before noon. Even the Guardian, one of the last bastions of traditional high-brow media, was in attendance at SXSW and produced a special supplement for the event, full of witty bon mots (my favourite? A guide to the different ‘tribes’ attending SXSW).

I was one of a very small contingent of Kiwis that had made the trip to Texas for the event. Despite most of us being veterans of many of these sorts of events, including New Zealand’s own SXSW understudy, Webstock, the sheer bigness of SXSW still left most of us a little reeling. This didn’t appear to be isolated to Kiwi newcomers, however: there were people from a huge variety of nations represented at SXSW, and awe was a commonly seen reaction.

SXSW really is as cool as it comes, blending the seemingly diametrically opposed themes of hyper-consumption and a new take on social good. Dichotomies like American super utes giving away cases of Monster energy drink standing side by side with projects to bring clean drinking water to the third world. Massive queues forming to get into the hottest parties (or at least be seen for an instant with the hottest names) were alongside hastily arranged appeals to fundraise for Japan (“Feel good by wearing a SXSW4Japan tee shirt”. Catchy). But at SXSW, the dichotomies feel strangely normalised, as if the whirlwind caught us all and suspended us, albeit temporarily, in a state of blind acceptance.

I came away from SXSW, however, feeling a little underwhelmed. It strikes me that the event, and the people that attend it, are a little shallow. This was borne out when I visited the aforementioned booth promoting the supply of clean water to the developing world. I suggested to the twenty-something staffer at the booth that perhaps it would be appropriate to work on educating the first world about its profligate resource use as well as working to ensure clean water supplies in the third world. This suggestion was met by a completely blank look and a repeat of her monotone that one in eight people don’t have access to clean drinking water.

SXSW also takes on a bit of an atmosphere of religious revival. I stumbled upon a session by Tim Ferriss, a kind of Tony Robbins for the internet age. Ferriss has a repetitive schtick that consists of telling people how to work only four hours a week, how to experiment on their own bodies to achieve maximum physical output and, most recently, how to learn foreign languages in a matter of days. In New Zealand such talk would be quickly shrugged off as the mutterings of some crazy snake oil merchant—but at SXSW, those merchants don’t sell oil, but piles and piles of books. Ferriss had a long line of people queuing up to ask him questions at the end of his presentation. Most worrying was that many of those questions related to serious medical matters which Ferriss waved off with liberal doses of medical terminology, new age diets and exercise regimes.

The biggest topic at SXSW however wasn’t clean water, self-improvement or Japan. Rather it was a discussion on which of the new group text mobile applications would come out on top at the event. A topic that spawned an insane number of blog posts and podcasts. Perhaps this embodies all that is wrong, and all that is right, about SXSW. It’s an event that has the ability to mobilise an army of creative and passionate people to drive outcomes that will be of benefit to the world at large. Unfortunately it attracts a large number of people who, despite platitudes about solving the world’s biggest problems, really just want to go to lots of parties.

SXSW seems just too big, too self-important, and too dismissive of the importance of quality content to truly live up to its massive reputation. Webstock may be tiny compared with SXSW, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in quality.