Skift

The Evolution of What Once Was the World’s Coolest Conference

@gregoates

Mar 07, 2014 11:30 am

Skift Take

Fast Company’s extensive historical overview of SXSW Interactive provides a story arc from the birth of 21st century multimedia to Zooey Deschanel.

— Greg Oates

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker (navy blazer) at SXSW Interactive 2013 SXSW


Last week, Fast Company published the e-book SXSWi Uncensored: The Complete Oral History as Told by the Entrepreneurs, Geeks and Dreamers Who Remade the Web.

It’s an exhaustive 212-page collection of quotes about the Austin-based South by Southwest (SXSW) conference from organizers and participants, specifically the multimedia-centric SXSW Interactive lineup of events.

SXSW 2014, or “South by,” kicks off today.

Reading about the history of the event is fascinating, like in 1999 when everyone was talking about the potential of “weblogs” to change how people expressed themselves. However, the last chapter is the most topical and most compelling, highlighting spin-off events in Portland, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas, and the premise that SXSW has sold out to corporate interests.

Or “jumped the shark,” as mentioned numerous times throughout the book.

It’s altogether too easy to find fault with any mega-successful event or project that taps into a social revolution, and that’s not the purpose of the book. Rather, SXSWi Uncensored is an overview of how media technology, start-up culture, conference planning, event sponsoring and Austin itself have evolved over the last two decades.

South by Southwest began as a music festival in 1987, and then in 1994, organizers added film and multimedia components. Today, those three stool legs are still in place: SXSW Music, SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive, along with tertiary Education and Eco events.

SXSW Interactive attracted over 30,000 visitors for the first time last year.

“SXSW was a hive of activity for early web denizens and hackers around the turn of the century, and a birthing ground for the social media revolution that reshaped modern life in the second half of the ’00s,” writes David Peisner, the e-book’s lead author, who worked with a team of FastCo writers to interview over 100 people. “Its emergence from the shadow of the music festival it grew out of mirrors the transformation of geeks into modern society’s newest rock stars.”

Corresponding with the launch of the e-book, Fast Company published what has to be one of its longer posts ever: Oral History: Sex! Drugs! Apps! SXSW Interactive at 20.

The story contains a significant percentage of quotes in the e-book, but you’ll miss a lot of gems without downloading the full book. Like this one:

MARK ROLSTON, founder and chief creative, Argo Design

“Hugh’s [Hugh Forrest, director, SXSW Interactive] a clever fellow because he’s never been too dogmatic about the things people come talk about at SXSW, which is one of the central complaints. You go there and the content can be wildly varied from poorly prepared speeches and people going, “What the fuck am I listening to this person talk about?” to really valuable breakthrough stuff when someone debuts a tool like Twitter and everyone is using it. It’s because he doesn’t curate it too specifically that’s allowed the show to be the accidental birthplace for so many things.

“But there’s a lot of shit you have to go through to get to that. A lot of bloggers showed up in ’99 and 2000, talking about the importance of blogging and how it was going to evolve. After blogging there was a dull spot—like, “What is it about now?”—that led us to the modern era.’”

That “modern era” kicks in somewhere around 2007 with the launch of Twitter at SXSW. Attendance jumped to over 9,000 in 2008 and almost 11,000 in 2009, when Foursquare and Gowalla both launched on the same day.

Celebrities like Zooey Deschanel, Ashton Kutchner and REM’s Michael Stipe began showing up. Then corporate America crashed the party, and the original level of grassroots geek love was gone forever. That’s when people started questioning the direction of SXSW and tossing around the phrase, “jumping the sharks.”

DENNIS CROWLEY, founder, Dodgeball; cofounder/CEO, Foursquare

“People say that about anything as it gets bigger, but I can remember—maybe this last year or the year before—getting off the plane, and the first thing I saw was a big Salesforce.com banner: SALESFORCE.COM WELCOMES SXSW! I remember thinking, Oh, wow. This is a lot different than it was last year.”

DEB SCHULTZ, cofounder, Yes and Yes Yes

“I think it might have been 2009 when Chevy was literally sponsoring new power outlets. I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, we’ve jumped the shark.’”

Yes by & Yes Yes and Friends

The last chapter of SXSWi Uncensored discusses the emergence of new spin-off events trying to duplicate the early days of media tech innovation at SXSW, without all of the velvet ropes.

Last year, Ann Larie Valentine, Hillary Hartley, Willo O’Brien, Amy Muller and Deb Schultz launched Yes by Yes Yes (YxYY) at Ace Hotel Palm Springs. The five women originally came together at SXSW. Their website reads:

“Our concept was born from a conversation on the patio of the Hotel San Jose in Austin one rainy spring night several years ago. The theory was, if you get a group of smart, engaged individuals together in the right place that, even in the absence of an organized conference, great things would happen.”

Then SXSW threatened legal action because the name was too similar. Read the SXSW statement and YxYY blog post reply.

The newly renamed Yes and Yes Yes event—or “Yes and”—swings into Ace Palm Springs again in July. It’s presently sold out but you can sign up for the Eventbrite waiting list. Read more at Mashable.

In 2012, Andy McMillan and Andy Baio launched the XOXO Festival in Portland. Quoted in The New York Times, Baio said, “This thing, whatever it is, is about love. It’s about using technology to make something you love.”

An earlier Times post about the inaugural event, XOXO Aims to Be an Alternative to South by Southwest, reads:

“Andy Baio, a well-known blogger who helped build the fund-your-project site Kickstarter, and Andy McMillan, who organizes a conference in Belfast called Build, are working on an alternative. Their festival, called XOXO, will try to recreate some of the best aspects of an event like SXSW but without the headache-inducing crowds and marketing noise.”

And last year in August, SXSW launched its own spin-off event in Las Vegas: SWSX V2V. From the About page:

“SXSW V2V is an extension and re-imagining of the legendary SXSW experience with an emphasis on the creative spark that drives entrepreneurial innovation. This four day event brings the startup and venture capital communities together with the creative industries that have helped to make SXSW so special.”

In the FastCo e-book, there’s a selection of V2V reviews like this:

PATRICK CURRY, CEO/founder, Tsugi

“I was a mentor at V2V this [past] year. It reminded me a lot of the early SXSW years. There are a lot of weirdos and maybe we don’t all quite fit in together and are not exactly sure what this new event is, but we think it’s something important, so we’re there.”

HEATHER GOLD, blogger, writer, comedian

“When you’re committed to things that change, you have to accept where they’re at. Not only was SXSW in its time the modern web’s version of the Algonquin Round Table or Patti Smith’s CBGB or whatever you want to call it, but it was our chance to be together in person. The web has changed. I don’t think you can re-create what SXSW was then entirely, because it was the beginning of not just the medium, but a new way of thinking about the world.”

Greg Oates covers hotel/tourism development and travel brand media. He has toured over 1,000 hotels in 50+ countries. email / twitter

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