Strange Memories on This Nervous Night at SXSW

Mr. Webb.

Rick Webb co-founded The Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency, and is now a writer and angel investor in the tech industry.

Like a merchant marine making his annual port of call, SXSW Interactive sails off into the night. We feel vaguely dirty and exhausted, but also fulfilled and edified. Do merchant marines edify? I’m sure they do.

The frothy mix of tech, advertising and media, having arrived to the party through the years in that order, has been shaken-not-stirred to a bubbling brew of publicity-fueled frenzy where corporate alliances battle mightily to prove new business models. The modern equivalent of the SkyTeam alliance is now the tech company-big brand-media property. Are you a gold member of Twitter+American Express+Jay Z? Free show for you. A platinum member of the alliance? Free tacos. A million-miler on the Samsung+Twitter+Techset mileage program? Swag and laptop charging all around. Google, much like Virgin America, goes its own way with its mileage program, and the perks are as shiny and new as USB at your seat and WiFi in every flight: The Shins, The Ting Tings, Black Star and Jimmy Cliff. Also they took over the best bars in Austin (on Rainey St.) that hadn’t been previously tainted by SXSW. I am bitter.

And, standing over on the side, like Bob Geldof looking at Peaches, is the proud yet slightly bemused mother, the official SXSWi festival. Brilliant, talented and inspirational on its own, it looks at the spawn that it has created with a mixture of pride and terror. For the festival itself has been stellar: the panels are as good as ever. The lineup has been fantastic. Crowds have been enthusiastic, perhaps goaded into increased panel attendance by two days of miserable, relentless rain.

We can only blame Bob Geldof for Peaches so much. I mean, yes, he got his start in rock music and spawned this thing that is kind of awesome and strange but sorta terrifying, but he can only be so responsible for it, and besides he’s busy now trying to solve world hunger, educate the masses and eradicate poverty using the media. Plus, he’s gotta take care of Michael Hutchence’s daughter. Okay, maybe this metaphor breaks down here.

I love SXSW, and have come into it with an absolute, unequivocal assumption of positive intent. And I have had a good time (chiefly owing to my mantra of rejecting FOMO, and seeking out empty bars and small groups of good people.) But it is hard to be blind to the massive marketing efforts being expended here this week. SXSW has become a petri dish not just for technology, but for the technology, branding, and media conflagration that is becoming modern mass communications. The tech bloggers gave rise to mommy bloggers and politics bloggers, and SXSW Interactive attracts them all. Because a blogger is a blogger the SXSWi panels are still one of the best places on earth to learn how to be a better blogger. Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point philosophy blends with modern social media tactics and puts a giant marketing bullseye on the backs of everyone who attends, because a blogger is the modern day equivalent of the kid in the Lower East Side who sports a sweet new running shoe. It hasn’t reached the hysterical levels of Oscars and Sundance gifting suites yet, but it will in the next year or two, without a doubt.

Thus, it was not without some measure of schadenfreude that I witnessed millions of dollars of promotional budgets literally be washed down the drain as two days of unprecedented rain shut down virtually every NikeFuel, Bing and parking lot bar. I mean, I have the utmost sympathy and respect for my friends who worked hard on all of these things. I feel for them. And I’m as responsible as anyone for this mess we’re in, I admit. We are all here for work, so that probably explains our mixed feelings about this. We love our work, but I wonder if we don’t also subconsciously know that this Jay Z/Twitter/Amex partnership isn’t just a beta test for next year’s Bonnaroo and Summer Stage. And do we feel okay about that? We’ll save the in-depth soul searching for another day, but suffice it to say there are moments where it feels kind of icky.

Maybe SXSW is becoming like NYU. You can learn anything. The professors are brilliant. But the temptation to drop everything and hit the Village or the Lower East Side or the meat packing district is fierce. Why should I go to a panel when I can see Cults play down the street with free beer and tacos and I can get there in a free pedicab? I SHOULD go to class, but… tacos! And so I find myself on the verge of turning into the curmudgeonly old granddad, retired and happy, hanging out in the sun with a margarita, having only attended two years of college, haranguing his grandkids at NYU to make sure they attend all their classes. Cake Shop is cool, sure, but CBGBs was cooler—and even so, I should have been going to class. And you should too. You could be learning something real and good from those fine people. At least until the rain stops. Strange Memories on This Nervous Night at SXSW