Tuesday was Changeover Day at South By Southwest. The people from the Interactive conference packed up and headed out, and the people from the Music festival rolled into town. (The people here for the film festival, including me, overlap with both, so we're very mellow, you see, just hanging out at places like the Alamo Drafthouse, standing in line and asking each other what we thought of whatever film we saw most recently.) A hotel shuttle driver said the other day that the way his job changes when Interactive leaves and Music arrives is that, as he delicately put it, Interactive people are a little more likely to "know their limits" when they're coming home on a shuttle at 2:00 in the morning.
The time I spent at the Austin Convention Center going to panel discussions during Interactive made me finally understand why khakis and polo shirts really descend upon Austin in such numbers. Surprisingly, only some of it is for the free parties. Part of it is that Interactive people know their limits.
Not in the way the shuttle driver meant, where they're less likely to lean out of the shuttle and throw up. And not in the way the shuttle company representative meant when she told me on the first day that the shuttles ran until 2:00, but that I should keep in mind that when it's 2:00 in the morning, "it takes a little longer for people to board a shuttle."
No, the people in the Convention Center know their limits with a certain terror. They've seen Twitter come along and become a great marketing asset, except when it's a way that an otherwise manageable person can blow up his career or give up information he wasn't supposed to. They know MySpace went, in a period of a couple of years, from representing Young to representing Old. They like Facebook for reaching clients and customers, but they seem to suspect that it won't be the way to reach people ten — no, five — no, maybe two -- years from now.
The overarching question of SXSW Interactive is, "What are we going to do?"
It is a place that is acutely aware that your business model probably went out of date while you were in a panel talking about it. It might be obsolete before you launch it. Somebody is trying to make you unnecessary right now — both your business and you personally.
What are we going to do?
That's what accounts, I think, for the relentless optimism of so many the official discussions. Some of them identify problems and needs, but much of the conference amounts to 25,000 people discussing how they're not going to (figuratively) die. I envisioned at times walking up to every conference room and ballroom and seeing a sign on the door that said:
9:30 Someone Who Knows Something
11:00 Someone Who Knows Something
12:30 Someone Who Knows Something
2:00 Someone Who Knows Something
3:30 Someone Who Knows Something
5:00 BBQ/Margarita Reception in ForwardThinkSpot Lounge
The problem, of course, is that nobody really knows for sure what's going to happen. It is at this home of discussing how to cleverly reach people that someone came up with the idea of having homeless people carry portable WiFi hotspots, paying them a tiny stipend and allowing them to take donations for access, which they'd then get to keep. If this experiment had been framed as homeless people operating portable WiFi hotspots for a fee, it might actually have gone all right. Instead, the people who participated had shirts on that said, "I'm A 4G Hotspot," which was predictably received as dehumanizing and gross by a lot of people. The difference between "I Run A 4G Hotspot" and "I'm A 4G Hotspot" is the kind of thing they'll have a panel about here someday.
The line between excitement about possibility and terror about change is vanishingly thin. It's stunning to realize the opportunities that exist to put things into people's hands in the ways they actually want them, and if you can figure out how to do that, these discussions are like hearing doors unlock. Of course, the anxiety is constant as well, and the pace constantly accelerates. The rise of Pinterest seems to have been so recent, for instance, that they didn't even have enough lead time for panel content about it, but by next year, they'll probably have panels about how to avoid the pitfalls of it.
In light of all this unrest, there's something oddly comforting about the legendary difficult logistics of SXSW, which were exacerbated last weekend by rain that forced everyone inside and onto shuttles and buses — in the sun, everybody walks a lot. Inside the convention center, there is anxiety and excitement about apps and social media and print versus digital and unimagined worlds of robot domination and free WiFi for everyone. Outside, the effects of bringing 25,000 people (and that's just the attendees) to town are predictable: There aren't enough vehicles to move people to the not-enough hotel rooms where they're staying. There aren't enough places to sit. There's an hour-long wait — at least — for everything. People sit on the floor charging their dying phones with cords that aren't long enough.
The people here are trying, somewhat seriously, to figure out how to manage the future, but during the conference, you run all day into the basics: Transportation, food, power, bathrooms. You cannot attend this thing and not know, at some level, your limits.