When South By Southwest Interactive launched in 1994, there wasn't much to it: a couple hundred participants and a handful of panel discussions, all crammed into a few rooms at a Hyatt in Austin. Back then, the festival was really only half a festival—as evidenced by its title, SXSW Film and Multimedia—and was eclipsed by the vastly more successful SXSW Music Festival, from which it had spun off.'
Today, SXSW Interactive welcomes more than 30,000 registrants to Austin each March and has become a coveted launching pad for startups (including Twitter and Foursquare), a hunting ground for tech investors, a laboratory for forward-thinking ideas, and a lavish five-day party that's often referred to as “geek spring break.”
But its two-decade history suggests the now-famous festival is quite a bit more than that. Within SXSW Interactive's march from obscurity to prominence is the story of digital culture itself. 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. 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.
A glance at the résumés of the dramatis personae enlisted for this oral history speaks to SXSW Interactive's remarkable breadth and scope: In among the technologists, bloggers, investors, and founders of companies such as Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare are billionaires and a homeless man, rock stars and a pedicab driver, comedians and civil servants. “Something really interesting happened when you brought together all these people with very different backgrounds, interests, and expectations to mingle and get drunk and sleep together,” says Lane Becker, a blogger and entrepreneur, who has missed only one SXSW since 1997. “That is pretty much how culture happens.”
This is their story: a topsy-turvy, occasionally sad, sometimes contentious, frequently messy, but ultimately triumphant chronicle of how what began as little more than an afterthought grew into one of the most important cultural and economic incubators of the new millennium.
The inaugural “film and multimedia” festival is held at the Austin Hyatt, attracts some 600 attendees, and more or less ignores the Internet.
Roland Swenson, president and cofounder, SXSW: It was kind of in the ether a little bit. I had been thinking about some event that would cover developing technology in music and media.
Louis Black, cofounder, SXSW and The Austin Chronicle: A bunch of us who started The Austin Chronicle met as graduate film students. Roland Swenson was an undergraduate. We started SXSW Music in '87. In the back of our minds we wanted to add a film component. Nothing major—we just thought it would be nice to have a regional film festival along with the music event. In '93, we felt established enough to add a film festival. A guy named Dewey Winburne came to us—first he talked to me—about adding a multimedia component, with an emphasis on CD-ROM. I think Roland had the bigger vision that at some point we were going to have to expand to include new media. But Dewey was the inspiration.
Dorothy Gilbertson-Winburne, middle school teacher: I met Dewey in the early '80s, and we were married the summer of 1983. Dewey wasn't just this technology person. He was an educator. He knew philosophy as well as he knew theology. He could work on a VW van just as easily as figure out some tech system. I don't want to be presumptuous and say he was a Renaissance man, but in many ways, he really was. Dewey was leading a couple organizations and also doing some things with the city of Austin and their telecommunications, advising them. That time period, everything was new. He had a strong vision for what was going to come next.
Swenson: We met this dude named Dewey Winburne and we recruited Hugh Forrest from our organization to help put this all together. That was sort of the genesis.
Hugh Forrest, director, SXSW Interactive: I started working at SXSW in 1989. I was hired not because of my intelligence, technical acumen, or creativity. I had a Mac Plus computer and they didn't. SXSW spun out of The Austin Chronicle. They had their database functionality on an old typesetting machine. I was doing an alternative publication called The Austin Challenger. They called me up 10 days before the event and said, “Can we move the database to a computer?” I said, “That's what computers are for.” “Well, how about your computer?” That's when I came aboard. We started planning in fall 1993 for this combined film/multimedia event. I was designated to head this multimedia thing but didn't have any idea what we meant by the word multimedia. My technical expertise ended at the Mac Plus era. That first year, it was a combined film and multimedia event. I always felt like we were out of place and didn't fit into the larger whole, which at that point was clearly music.
Peggy Ellithorpe, volunteer manager, SXSW, 1994–2004: We were this unproven, redheaded stepchild sucking up the music conference's resources. It was a very small group of us. They crammed film, multimedia, and the music production into one office. Three of us bounced around on one Apple IIc.
Forrest: There was lots and lots of talk about who would speak, what sessions we would have, who to get involved, who at that point was doing the most innovative things in Austin in the brave new world of multimedia. But in terms of a big picture—“This is where the event will go this year, then in 5 and 10 years”—I don't think there were those kinds of talks, or if there were I wasn't privy to them.
Black: Dewey was very involved in planning the content and brought a lot of local people into the mix—the Human Code people. Human Code was a player in town at that point.
Gary Gattis, software director, Human Code (now CEO, Spacetime Studios): Human Code was an early CD-ROM and multimedia company in Austin. We were doing interactive cartoons and stuff for Apple to include on CDs it would send out to people.
Lynn Bender, owner, Desert Books; founder, GeekAustin: As SXSW moved into the interactive space, there was this rich local community to draw from, and for the first couple years it was mainly local people who were speaking there.
Richard Garriott, founder, Origin Systems; creator, online game Ultima (now creative director, Portalarium; astronaut, Space Adventures): In most any other city in the country at that time, if you tried to put a company together that included a couple of sport-coat-and-tie-wearing yuppies, some pocket-protector, can't-give-you-a-good-handshake computer nerds, as well as some hippie-freak rock-and-roll poster artists, those three walks of life would not get along and respect one another. When you come to Austin, those three walks of life are intermingled throughout the city. At SXSW, my group of nerds was embraced by the rock-and-roll hippie freaks, and the business suits were welcomed into the community.
Forrest: If you can recall back in the early '90s, for most people, we were pre-Internet at that point, so what we were covering was CD-ROMs. We thought CD-ROMs were the next big thing. And they were for a couple years.
Swenson: One of our first years, we set up what we called the World Wide Web Theatre. We loaded browsers onto all these computers. There was a line down the hall for people to go in, use the Internet, and see it for the first time. So we did it again the next year, but there was no line because everybody by that point was on the web every day, all the time.
Ellithorpe: We thought it was going to be a film festival with a multimedia panel track. That turned out to be incorrect. At the last minute, we realized that the multimedia panels were blowing up. At the same time, the film panels were not. We had them placed in the larger ballrooms. So the next day, we just flipped everything. We put the multimedia panels in the big rooms and the film panels in the smaller conference rooms. That was what determined that this could be its own thing. The next year, it became the SXSW Multimedia Festival.
Garriott: Prior to the first SXSW Multimedia, the business of creating multimedia and games wasn't something most people thought of as relevant or real art. They didn’t think it was nearly to the level of cultural importance as music and film. Being invited into SXSW began to make us feel credible. It was right about that moment when a whole bunch of things began to change. That was the moment when my job, which used to be this shunned, nerdy thing that no one thought was culturally interesting or relevant, became culturally interesting and relevant.
Forrest: In 1995, one of our biggest speakers was Todd Rundgren, who was pioneering how bands could use CD-ROMs and have videos on the disc as well as songs. My memory is that I felt Todd Rundgren was one of the cool people who were a far smaller part of our audience or our speakers than these people who seemed like they were straight out of the Revenge of the Nerds movies.
Swenson: One of the signature things of the early days was having Todd Rundgren give a keynote in front of a room full of people developing content for CD-ROM, and saying that the CD-ROM was dead; everything is going to live on the web. People were quite upset by this announcement.
Todd Rundgren, musician, producer: I have almost no recollection of that speech, but likely I was talking about interactive music. That was a seminal time in terms of record companies realizing, “We do have to put our music on servers eventually.” Likely I was doing one of my spiels about the possibilities of music delivery in the future when things migrate online.
Gattis: CD-ROMs moved on. It all kind of collapsed at some point. The data became more and more cumbersome. We quickly outgrew CD-ROMs.
Forrest: In the second year, we were able to pull Microsoft in as a sponsor, and it pulled Willie Nelson in to play the closing party. It was a little surreal, but you could convince yourself at the time, “Tech is going to be huge! Willie Nelson and Bill Gates are off in Seattle doing code together!” I remember thinking, This is going to be easy. It slowed down considerably after that. 1996 was another down year at the end of a tech cycle, and we fell on harder times. We realized we didn't quite understand what we were doing then.
Swenson: We kind of wandered in the desert for a long time trying to figure out, What is this going to be?
Forrest: We didn't want SXSW to be overly academic. But there were not a lot of social events during those first few years. We were trying to do more parties, to bolster up that evening portion. We had an event at a bar called the Electric Lounge and I remember telling them we'd have this big crowd coming over. For whatever reason, the big crowd never materialized. The bar had its full staff, and at peak we had, like, 20 people. The bar manager was like, “Can we close down?” I had a beer for $3 and tipped him $40 in hopes of making up for him being there all night. What's strange about that is, like many things in Austin 20 years ago, the Electric Lounge has long since been torn down and replaced by an office building, which is where the SXSW office is. I'm talking to you right now in approximately the same spot where I tipped the guy $40 to pretend he was having a good night.
Honoria Starbuck, artist; faculty, Art Institute of Austin: The best part of every SXSW Interactive is Bruce Sterling's rant, the very last thing on the program. It's a tour de force of close observation, forward and backward thinking, contextualization, wordplay, multiple perspectives, fiction, realism, surrealism, history, horror, humor, and downright brilliance. I would never miss a Bruce Sterling rant.
Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk novelist: Somebody needs to deliver closing remarks, and why not me? I've been around forever. Usually, I talk about things that make me really happy or quite upset. They're not intended to persuade. They're not motivational speeches. They're more about our experience as people who are sharing the contemporary techno world.
Forrest: Bruce Sterling traditionally did a party at his house. It was this great vibe where Bruce would give a talk and hand out flyers with directions to his house.
Sterling: The fact that it was a private home where children were being raised seemed to lower people's guards. People had discussions who would not talk to one another under normal circumstances. It wasn't this mad scramble for business advantage that you sometimes see at events. There were moments when people were too drunk to leave and they'd missed their last flight. I had to put up guests on a couple occasions. I'm told people who met in my house became lovers and spouses. It was a place to meet a fellow spirit. There just weren't that many geeks around at the time. It was pretty rare to find an impromptu dating pool.
Douglas Rushkoff, author, media theorist: South By was the freaks table at the party. It's like when you find the freaks table in high school, you realize, “Oh, good. There's a place in the lunchroom I can eat safely.” That's what it was.
Sterling: This final party in 2004 got so big the police came. You couldn't do it in a private home anymore. That really changed my relationship to the event.
Forrest: Multimedia seemed more reflective of CD-ROMs, whereas Interactive seemed more reflective of the quickly oncoming Internet revolution—operative word here being seemed.
Rushkoff: When we came together at South By, it was to encourage one another to keep on bubbling. We all lived in places where people thought the Net was some little fringe phenomenon that was going to come and go. At the time, to be an Internet person was to be a member of a counterculture. There were a lot of counterculture values wrapped up in it. Also, there were a lot of drugs at early South By. There was always pot, but I remember some guys doing speed and coke. I was kind of surprised to see web people doing that. Coke seemed more like a stock-market drug than a web drug, which was more pot and LSD.
Lane Becker, blogger and longtime attendee: The vibe back then was everything being new. All the technology stuff still seemed like magic. It was people who were into it for the sake of being into it. It hadn't become a cultural thing yet. It was still really subcultural then. There was a guy there with a huge device and he was telling everybody that it was an MP3 player. We were all like, “A machine that plays MP3s? That's crazy.” There were early games people, people who were online diarists who would eventually become the proto set of bloggers.
Jaron Lanier, lead scientist, National Tele-Immersion Initiative; author: The special thing about SXSW is it's the first place where I felt that I was starting to see a more balanced approach to tech that wasn't so fanatical. Getting away from Silicon Valley helps. It's a little bit more part of the real world because it's also a culture festival. I mean, in Silicon Valley, it's just so single-minded, and SXSW is a place where you have the same kind of intensity level as Silicon Valley but in a broader context.
Mark Rolston, chief creative officer, Frog Design; founder argodesign: 1998 was an aimless year. SXSW survived through some aimless years as a multimedia conference because the film and music conferences don't have to change every year: Get a lot of bands, get a lot of movies, great. You could do that for 100 years in a row. But the multimedia conference is part of an industry that's constantly changing. So it's had some years where I remember coming away wondering what exactly the point of it was, thinking it's going to run out of purpose. But then something else would happen.
Jason Calacanis, entrepreneur, blogger: It was still so small back then because no one in San Francisco or New York wanted to go to Texas. The idea of going to Texas was counter to everything New York and San Francisco stood for. We thought Texas was oil, guns, and pickup trucks. We had no idea what “Austin” was. The way they got everyone there was to put them on panels.
Forrest: We still didn't have a skin on our wall in terms of a startup that had popped at SXSW. So we didn't have all the investors and hundreds of startups coming to the event in hopes that they'd be the next company that popped.
Calacanis: There were no VCs to speak of. The Internet was as much about art back then as it was about commerce.
Forrest: Dewey was very much the visionary from the beginning, but by '99, he was not working on the event full time.
Rolston: Dewey was a really sweet guy and had some really crappy background. I do recall him getting caught up. There were a lot of companies, like Chipp Walters's, that got an investment. We were trying to get investments. Dewey may have felt left out. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but at some point, I think he felt like, “I want to do more.” We had conversations with Dewey about coming aboard here, but he had an outsize view of what he was worth, so nothing ever happened. My guess is he maybe felt disappointed in himself, like he was missing the boat. In those years, there seemed to be a boat to be missed.
Gilbertson-Winburne: I don't think it was so much the train is leaving the station. Dewey wasn't trying to jump on the next big thing or follow the money that way. The way his mind worked wasn't to make the best product to make a lot of money. He really did try to live his principles. But he struggled with addiction off and on during his life, so I think that was more at play than the train leaving the station.
Chipp Walters, CEO, Human Code (now VP of engineering, Compass Learning): I think in a moment of weakness, he just killed himself. We couldn't believe it.
Dave Evans, founder, Austin Area Multimedia Alliance (now VP of social strategy, Lithium Technologies): You know people who are that balance between genius and energy? Everything is going fine, going fine, going fine, and inside they're just tearing themselves apart? Every time you saw Dewey, he was happy, working on stuff. Then all of a sudden you get this phone call and it's—wow. I don't know how we all collectively missed that that was happening to him, but we did. My wife and I were in Lima. When we returned, that was the first message on my voice mail. We had to pull over.
Black: Dewey was so effervescent and light and enthusiastic and supportive of the community, just an amazing person, but you always had the sense that there was another side to him, a sad side. I had no idea it was that heavy.
Swenson: I've never really talked about his suicide publicly before, and I'm not sure what I want to say about it other than it was extremely sad. Dewey was just one of those guys who burned very brightly. He had emotional problems; he'd had a tough upbringing, been in trouble. There are still a lot of questions about why, although I think it was basically depression and an imbalance in his chemistry.
Gilbertson-Winburne: At the funeral home we were stunned because it was just people lined up the block and it didn't stop that night. It was students he had taught, people he'd worked with, people from our church.
Walters: I have never gone to a funeral that had more people at it. You couldn't even get in.
Evans: It was really hard. There was a social services award created in his name, the Dewey Winburne award, and his wife, Dorothy, received that award the first year for her work in supporting Dewey in getting all this going. My wife and I received the award jointly the second year.
Gilbertson-Winburne: Dewey was about the dialogue, the conversation. Even with South By, it's not only what happens in the sessions, it's a conversation, in the hallways, in the evenings. What South By does really well is create this festival, and then it's about what do we do with the human connection, with this dialogue. The people behind South By keep that in mind.
Paco Nathan, cofounder, Fringeware (now chief scientist, Mesosphere): The thing we said at the time was '98 had some serious art; '99 had a whole bunch of marketing fluff. People came because they sensed there was money. We had a bunch of people who had no idea, walking about going, “Internet! Internet! Internet!”
Ellithorpe: We had all these companies that were throwing crazy, wild parties over the top of our event that all of our registrants could get into. Frog was definitely one of those companies that had the money to bankroll a big fat party like that.
Rolston: My company has hosted a party for SXSW every year of its existence.
Jared Ficklin, principal technologist, Frog Design: 2000 was the year it went from the Frog party to “the legendary Frog party.” That year, it lasted only an hour and a half before the fire alarm went off and we ended up in the street. When Microsoft was a sponsor, we had Kinect boxing, except you were controlling 400-pound robots. The crowd is different from any other event. We had stuff break down. [One year] we had this blue screen of death, and I am coding to get the thing to work. I'm in a panic. I hear, “Try your capsulation!” which is geek-speak for leaving out a parenthesis. I didn't know I had an audience watching me code live. When I complied, the thing was back up and we got applause.
Evans: The money that was being spent during the dotcom era and the excess—there was craziness. We all just believed that this technology was so profound and the change was so significant that when the Nasdaq was at 5,000 or whatever the peak was in 2000, we just thought it was going to keep going.
The dotcom bubble officially pops during 2000's SXSW Interactive, when the Nasdaq peaks at 5,046 and quickly goes into a free fall. Registrations drop off for the 2001 and 2002 conferences, settling at just over 3,000, where it will more or less sit all the way until 2006.
Derek Powazek, production manager, HotWired; creator, Fray.com; creative director; blogger: It just felt like everything was falling apart. There was that feeling of, like, “Maybe this is over. We had a good run and now it's going to be something else.”
Nathan: The bust hit and the following year SXSW was really great because hardly anybody was there, but the people who were there were actually practitioners and they were pretty damn good.
Ellithorpe: The tech bust affected not only Interactive, but heavily affected Music because the record labels weren't spending any money on conferences. Those were very tough years for SXSW to continue to operate. The directors took pay cuts, and they turned off our 401(k) matching. We were all given the right to take three months off, unpaid, with the guarantee that our jobs would be there.
Forrest: They were some lean years. That was the first time we laid off any staff at SXSW.
Ellithorpe: The years got really hard after that first tech crash. We spent many late nights in the colder months here in the Austin offices—which was a house—just working, burning the midnight oil. Doing events like that, they really wear you down. When you put in 150%, and you know your whole team is doing that, and the money just isn't rolling in because the economy crashed, it's demoralizing. Those years were so hard on Hugh. He may not want me to say this, but I know he wanted to quit. He wanted to quit so badly.
Forrest: I have said that many times and will probably say it two or three times today to my staff: I'm a quitter! [Laughs] Roland always felt we were on the right course. He was more optimistic than I was. I remember thinking to myself and saying to other people, “I don't see a light at the end of this tunnel.” There was a certain degree of frustration. It just seemed like we were yelling into an empty room. What are we going to do to change all that? In the summer of 2004, I had what might be termed a personal crisis; I moved away from Austin and essentially took a leave of absence from SXSW. Shawn [O'Keefe] was leading most of the day-to-day operations in my absence. I read a ton of self-help books and learned to meditate. I know that reading those books and learning to meditate were essential to adopting a more community-centric approach for SXSW. There are strong parallels between new-age values and the open-source movement.
Becker: If you believed that the web was about more than just the transactions, SXSW in the late '90s and early 2000s, especially after the dotcom boom, was the place to go. The only people still paying attention to what was happening online were the people who congregated at SXSW and were asking this question about what is the web as a medium for personal expression. That group sustained SXSW, and SXSW sustained that group over the next four years.
John Halcyon Styn, blogger; cofounder, Hug Nation: I was blogging—not blogging, but putting things into a weekly story as part of a network of independent publishers—in 1996-ish. At the time, there weren't that many independent publishers. People like Jason Kottke, Derek Powazek, and Jeffery Zeldman; we were all on this email list. I was talking at SXSW about how to run a successful web zine. It was a time when I was in San Diego, and there was not a huge awareness of the web there. I remember being at parties and hearing somebody say, “w-w-w,” and I'd go approach them. So SXSW was this magnet for all these people who not only knew and were a part of this huge wave, but they were building it and imagining it.
Heather Gold, blogger, writer, comedian: I went to do a panel. It must have been entertainment related. I was very involved in early music on the web. I was part of the team at Apple that helped do the earliest webcasting. The guy who picked me up at the airport was incredibly drunk. I was like, “I need to get out of this car.” We went right to the opening event. I looked for the safest-looking person in the room, walked up to him and said, “I need you to give me a lift back. I can't get in the car with this person.” That guy and I are still good friends to this day. That's my first moment at SXSW. I will always remember that.
Powazek: I was working at Blogger and we launched right before SXSW. I want to say this was '99. Blogger was the talk of SXSW.
Meg Hourihan, cofounder, Blogger: Ev Williams, the cofounder of Blogger, had been to SXSW with some of his friends from Nebraska in '99. I didn't go. In 2000, Blogger was really taking off. We had a lot of users and had built up a really nice community of people supporting us. Derek Powazek convinced Hugh Forrest that weblogs were becoming important and there needed to be a panel on it. So Derek organized what was called the Weblogs Roundtable and invited me to speak. That's the first public speaking I had ever done.
Evan Williams, cofounder, Blogger; cofounder, Twitter: The whole Blogger team went in 2000. I suspect we wanted to boost Blogger, as well as just mix and mingle with those in our community of early web geeks. Meg had been asked to be on a panel about weblogs, which may have been the first one at any conference ever.
Powazek: I have the distinction of saying I held the first panel about weblogs at SXSW. It was Jason Kottke of Kottke.org, Matt Haughey from Metafilter, Meg Hourihan, and me. Ben Brown stood up and delivered an impassioned plea about how blogs would destroy the Internet. [Laughs] Because he wanted the Internet to be about 3,000-word storytelling, and blogs were, you know, ruining all that.
Hourihan: Jason Kottke, who's now my husband, that was sort of how I met him. He was the other speaker on that panel. I knew who he was—we had emailed a little—and I had been reading his site forever. That was one of the really exciting things about going to SXSW, meeting these famous bloggers, like Jason, John Styn, Anil Dash, and Heather Champ.
Styn: That was a special time. Everyone felt like peers. I remember when Ev Williams brought Blogger T-shirts to one of the after-parties. I was wearing a women's Blogger shirt around the party and people were taking pictures of me. I felt like I was doing him a favor. I had just hosted the Web Awards. Everyone knew who I was. A few years later, there were these crowds of people around Ev. Everybody wanted a favor from him. I don't know if we spoke after that.
Williams: For me, it was a chance to meet people from the web whom I admired—although I didn't get as much of a chance to do that as I'd hoped. When we were already planning to go, I got asked to be on a panel at Esther Dyson's PC Forum conference in Arizona, which overlapped. So I ended up going to Austin for 24 hours, flying to Arizona for PC Forum, and then going back to Austin to hang out with the team for the music part of SXSW. The motivation for going back was just fun.
Becker: You look at the people who were there at SXSW then, it's like a who's who of people that did stuff on the web. Ev would obviously go on to start Twitter. My company, Adaptive Path, I met half the people I started that company with at SXSW—Jeff Veen, Peter Merholz. Folks from HotWired were there, the people who would go on to start Flickr. Anil Dash was there.
Anil Dash, blogger; new-media development, Village Voice Media; VP, Six Apart (now CEO, ThinkUp): The first time I went was 2001. I'd been following it when it was still Multimedia. It was about CD-ROMs and Macromedia in the late '90s, so I felt like, “I like the Internet. This isn't for that.” I tuned it out. Then in 2000, the early team at Pyra, the company that made Blogger, all said they were going. That was the declaration of, “We're all sort of adopting this event.” In 2000, I was broke and couldn't go. There was a core of 20 to 25 bloggers who were there in 2000. By 2001, there were, maybe, 50 of us.
Stewart Butterfield, cofounder, Flickr (now cofounder and president, Tiny Speck): Up to the early part of 2000, I was working at a consultancy, doing web-development stuff. On the side, I had been writing a blog since '99. It seemed to me, at the time, that SXSW was the center of all the big, innovative risk taking and experimental art online—the writing, the personal site management, the blogging, and also all the cool web design. It was the elite of the web industry but not in the sense of the ones who had raised the most money for their startup, but in the sense of the people who were the voices I liked listening to online.
Dash: One of the most critical people to bring the community together from 2000 on was Brad Graham. Brad passed away [in 2010]. He was probably one of the first dozen bloggers on the Internet and the first prominent gay voice. He's also the guy that coined the term blogosphere.
Hourihan: He did this site called Bradlands. He also organized these meetups, Breaking Bread With Brad.
Dash: It was just drinks. He rented out a bar on his own credit card. It was the icebreaker for the whole weekend on Friday night. We were all introverts who spent so much time behind our keyboards, and Brad would get everyone together in a bar and connect everyone. It was probably the most fundamental cementing of the early community at SXSW. Otherwise it would have been a bunch of people going to a conference rather than what it became. Brad's an incredible, seminal figure who has been overlooked.
Deb Schultz, VP of marketing, new media, and technology, Wall Street Rising; director of marketing, Six Apart (now cofounder, Yes by Yes Yes): Thinking about the character of what South By was back then, it was creative. People might've been doing stuff in business, working with big companies, but they had a creative, indie sort of affect to what they were doing. And it was a smaller community. It was the one time of year, the one conference, that got everyone together.
Dash: In 2001, there was a launch party for Adaptive Path. That was the first time anyone did a launch at SXSW. They rented out part of a bar like Brad had done. It was such a radical idea in 2001. There were no startups launching, period. The consumer web was dead. The idea that somebody—let alone someone in our community—would be buying drinks for people was incredible. They were good friends of Ev Williams. That's why, more than any other reason, it occurred to Twitter to have a launch at SXSW—five years prior, their friends had done the same thing. This was a community where we had always done this. That first party was the first time where it was a place we were all going to go; someone is going to buy us drinks and we can cut loose. Also, the celebratory act of someone launching something was a really big deal. Our friends were risking their careers and savings. It was a different thing from when VCs paid for the party.
Jason Goldman, business manager, Blogger; VP of product, Twitter (now cofounder and COO, Obvious Corp.): I first went in 2003 because that was post-Blogger's acquisition by Google. We were acquired in February 2003. I remember when we got to Google it was sort of a priority to get funding to go throw a party at SXSW. Ev had been going there for a long time, and it was like, “Look, this is what we do. We go to this conference. This is where all of our people are. It's our one thing.” Google had never heard of SXSW in 2003. It wasn't on Google's radar. Going with Ev in that post-acquisition time was awesome, because it was like one of the community's own had won. We were able to throw a nice party and give away a lot of swag.
Dash: In the sessions in '02–'03, the architecture of the social web is being created. We were talking about, “Should we have comments on a website? If we do, what would they look like? If we're going to deliver real-time notifications on the site being updated, what would they look like?” There would be an entire session about people having an avatar to show they're online. That seems trivial now that a billion people in the world have one. I feel like this was that passing of the torch from the presocial era of the web to the blogging and social networking era. That sort of thing doesn't happen without some dialogue and some sort of social context where people bounce these ideas off each other.
Gold: I credit that SXSW scene with giving birth to what is called web 2.0. People were talking about community when there were zero clear business models. It was an academic conversation. What we were doing felt important to us. All these people had a religious conviction from the beginning.
Butterfield: I knew it was going to be important and that the kinds of things we were doing—i.e., using the Internet as our primary means of social interaction—were something. But I still wasn't able to extrapolate from my mind what it would end up looking like, say, five or seven years later.
Gold: Once Flickr started happening, it was clear everything was going to a completely different place. Because of Flickr, companies had social media departments and had budgets. It spawned its own astronomical growth.
Becker: All of that happened because there was this group that was very invested in the web as an idea, a place of opportunity, exploration, expression, whatever it might be. Those people had gotten to know one another and care about each other through the venue that is SXSW Interactive.
Dash: There's a photo I took in 2002 of a bunch of us at dinner. Most of the core, early bloggers are around the table. Ev Williams, who did Blogger and Twitter; Nick Denton, who had just started Gawker; [Stewart] Butterfield of Flickr. You name it, down the list.
Becker: That photo, it was one of the early dinner parties we had, at Güero's. Anil put it up on his website a couple years ago with arrows at everybody's forehead naming the companies they ended up starting. This place was a serious locus for a lot of what would end up shaping the web. A lot of the thinking, a lot of the people, and a lot of the players—some of them have become absurdly wealthy and famous as a result and others haven't—but pretty much every person that was there at SXSW ended up having some sort of significant impact on the way the web developed.
Gold: The thing that I liked and cared about is that none of these people were interested just because they were making a lot of money. I would definitely put Ev Williams in that category. Most of these people I described at SXSW are artists in a way. Lou Reed just died. He was not the richest musician. Brian Eno said everybody who bought an early Lou Reed album made a band. In early times, there were not that many bands. We were like that era of the web. To me, this was our CBGB.
Becker: It was a pretty magic time. Everything from the Algonquin Round Table to the Frankfurt School in Germany to the origin story of Saturday Night Live or Black Mountain College in North Carolina—all of these places are really significant crucible moments, and that was what was going on with SXSW in terms of people caring about something, inventing a technology, thinking that it was going to have an implication for the world. It was a set of people and cultural circumstances, and a particularly intense time that gave birth to a bunch of critically important things.
Hourihan: Huge stuff came out of what appeared to be a dormant period on the web. The dotcom landscape was completely decimated and it actually became this environment for all these new, interesting companies. A lot of that did come out of that time and those connections that people made at the conference.
Becker: If you look at the way that the world works now, you can point to very specific things, like Twitter and blogging and the changes that are happening in the music and publishing industries, and you can actually point to this set of people, this set of thinking, and the stuff that came out of it and say, “Holy shit. That worked.” That moment was amazing and that moment will never come back, not in that way. For a different set of people, at a different time, for different reasons, something else will happen, but that was ours. That was the moment that we had, and that was pretty fantastic.
Rolston: Friendster was big for one year, definitely.
Dash: There were multiple panels about “What does Friendster mean?” It was almost to this profound philosophical level. There were these things that we thought were going to matter that just didn't.
danah boyd, researcher, Tribe.net; digital director, V-Day (now an author and principal researcher, Microsoft Research; fellow, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society): In 2004, I remember I sat in the middle of the Hilton bar and got into a huge debate with Ev Williams. I'm sure alcohol was involved. I don't remember everything, but we spent a lot of time talking about what was valuable about LiveJournal, and what was different with Blogger. He ended up hiring me right after that. I went to work for him at Google based on that encounter.
Dash: The Omni hotel's lobby was the only place open late. When it was small enough in the early years, lots of us would just gather there. It's funny to think of this, but not everyone had a cell phone yet, let alone a smartphone. You had people just saying, “You can't call me, just meet over there.”
Jeff Rider, show director, 20x2: There were always these unofficial after-parties in the lobby of the Omni hotel. There were so many people staying there that every night it evolved into, at 3 or 4 in the morning, nerds drinking beer, hanging out with their laptops, sharing ideas. In those years, it really was like Nerd Spring Break or Nerd Summer Camp. There was a real sense of community.
boyd: At the time at SXSW, it was a matter of figuring out who could snag enough resources to throw a party because there would just be maybe two parties per night. It felt intimate. People dressed up, looking silly, dancing. So it had a lot of that Burning Man vibe. Part of what was amazing about it is the porousness between companies. There wasn't a feeling of competition. When we were talking shop, there was an openness that really was an ethos of the technology industry at the time. Remember, we were still in the trough between the first boom and the second one. The MBAs had disappeared from the Valley and the marketers hadn't yet arrived. It hadn't become so high stakes.
Gold: Not only were the stakes lower, we were dismissed. People thought we were idiots. The business guys, with the blue denim shirts, those people thought we were fringy and wacky.
boyd: Nobody cared about it but us. It was that time when there wasn’t a monetization strategy—there was a survival strategy. We all hoped more people would recognize the potential value of these services, but we never imagined that they would become so mainstream. We never imagined a world in which people would be talking about social media marketing as a thing. Everybody was willing to just relax and be social because it didn’t matter.
David Hornik, general partner, August Capital: VCs were not looking at consumer deals at that time; they were afraid of them. They certainly weren’t engaging in social media.
Goldman: You had people who would talk very openly about the stuff that was interesting to them at that time because it felt like a close community—a group of people who had a similar outlook on sharing stuff. Everyone had been kicked in the face pretty hard in 2000. It was certainly the case that the dominant narrative in business was, “Oh, the Internet was an interesting idea—too bad it didn’t work out.” So this was a group of people who were like, “No, it’s still going to work out, just not the same way.”
Dash: For the first six or eight years, even the taxi drivers would pick you up and ask if you’re there for the music festival. They’d say “What? Interactive? Is that the Internet?” In ’05, Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk. He wasn’t nearly as famous as he is now, but it seemed like, “Wow! A grown-up came to SXSW. This is someone who is a big deal.” That really jumped out. Gladwell was a big recognition of this maturity of the community.
Swenson: The first nine years were pretty lean. I don’t think we really could’ve called Interactive truly profitable until maybe 2004. But the thing is, Interactive would bring in enough money to take care of the hard cost. It wouldn’t necessarily be profitable, but we believed in the idea. We kept putting one foot in front of the other, and at some point it just reached a critical mass of some really smart, engaged people who began to view us as critical for their efforts—to be able to come here and associate with the folks who were signing up for SXSW. That became an important part of their business lives and personal lives. Coming here just meant more to people as time went by.
Dash: I would also say ’05–’06 was the first time there was a backlash of people saying, “Oh, it’s too big. It’s too crazy.” Obviously, now they say it every year. But I didn’t hear about it until ’05. It was funny because it was already a cliché by ’06 or ’07 that people would say they weren’t going because it was too big.
Baratunde Thurston, director of digital, The Onion (now cofounder and CEO, Cultivated Wit; Fast Company columnist): For some people who had been going a long time, my first year, in ’06, was like the last of an era. It was the brink. It was that first year that South By was too big. I hear people say that now and I’m like, “Oh, I was the guy who ruined South By in 2006.”
Dennis Crowley, founder, Dodgeball; cofounder and CEO, Foursquare: We first went down in 2006 with Dodgeball. SXSW was something I had always wanted to go to, but it always overlapped with another conference I would go to called ETech. Then once we were at Google, we figured SXSW was more of a consumer thing, so we decided to go see what it was all about. I remember just being like, “These are all the people who built all the stuff that I love—Blogger, Flickr, whatever else was around in 2005 or 2006.” It was a lot more of a party atmosphere than a lot of these conferences we’d go to.
boyd: 2006 was the first year that Dodgeball came out at South By. The reason I remember Dodgeball was that it was really the first of your text-based mechanisms. When Dodgeball was being used en masse, I remember it blowing up my phone in all sorts of ridiculous ways.
Crowley: Dodgeball didn’t have a ton of users, but all of them were at SXSW. To see all those people running around, coordinating with each other, using the stuff that we built, I was like, “Wow. This is the future. This is very clear. This is how this stuff is going to work.” Because we knew there were tens of thousands of people using Dodgeball, but we had never met them before. To go somewhere and meet people who were using our products, seeing them connecting with each other, I was like, “Holy cow, we’re onto something really powerful here.”
Thurston: Dodgeball was a really cool way to have a network intelligence. I remember getting hooked on it and loving it. But I get back to Boston and it’s crickets, you know? It was me and one other person who had brought Dodgeball back to Boston. That was not enough, so it was useless.
Crowley: The Blogger team was having their party, and we aspired to be one of the companies that could do something like that. So we were basically like, “Hey, can we hijack and make it the Blogger/Dodgeball party?” So we went to Kinko’s and printed out a sign for, like, 150 bucks, hung it up on the stage. Then, I remember the Blogger guys being like, “Crap, the DJ didn’t show up. Does anyone know how to DJ?” You know that scene in the movies where someone is like, “Is anyone here a doctor?” It was like the same thing but, “Is anyone here a DJ?” Me and Alex [Rainert]—my partner at Dodgeball—we actually know how to DJ. So we ran back to the hotel, got our laptops and our iPods, and had a big hip-hop dance party. It was awesome.
Growth and expansion continue for the festival into 2007. Attendance soars to 6,843, and the program expands to 150 panels featuring more than 450 speakers, including Dan Rather, Digg founder Kevin Rose, and Sims creator Will Wright.
Forrest: Certainly 2007 was this watershed moment and turning point. It really wasn’t until 2007 and Twitter that the idea of products launching at SXSW became a significantly viable one.
Williams: Though many people think Twitter “launched” at SXSW, we actually launched about nine months earlier. But we went to SXSW strategically because we knew that of the small cohort using Twitter at the time a good portion would be there, so there would be a sense of critical mass that would make it interesting.
Goldman: We knew the overlap between the 50,000, 75,000 users who were on Twitter and the people who were going to be at SXSW was high. It was a really good place to get people using the product, which was the goal at that point.
Williams: We put screens in the halls where we knew people would hang out, so people would see others they knew using this product and be motivated to sign up themselves.
Shawn O’Keefe, festival producer, SXSW Interactive: They were like, “We want to put these plasma displays in the hallway,” and we were like, “Okay, sure.” That first year, nobody understood how powerful the social media thing was going to be.
Tim Ferriss, author, The Four-Hour Workweek: They had big-screen monitors with the Twitter stream of everyone using Twitter. People were like, “Oh, my God, that is so much volume,” which is really hilarious in retrospect.
Alex Payne, platform lead, Twitter (now president/owner, Syntax Atelier): We would hang back and watch the foot traffic as people walked by these displays, stopped, and marveled at this weird phenomenon of people talking about what they were doing right that second or what they had just heard in a talk. As the days wrapped up, we watched as people started using them to find where the best parties were. All of the behavior on Twitter at that point was very emergent.
Goldman: You would be in a bar and it would be horribly crowded, then someone would get a tweet—they weren’t even called tweets then—that said, “Hey I’m moving down to Congress to go to this other bar.” All of a sudden the bar would empty out as everyone got buzzed with the message that people were moving down the road. It was all SMS then, so it was very noticeable if people were getting a message. That was very powerful because you could directly observe an impact in real time on the physical world.
boyd: I still remember the year of Twitter, where people went from obsessively recharging their computers to obsessively recharging their phones.
Rolston: Everyone was talking about Twitter and the real-time-ness of it. It’s emblematic of what’s interesting about SXSW. It’s not a business-level discussion. Plenty of people are chasing money—can’t get away from that—but on balance, it tends to be a lot of discussion of the social phenomena, or “How cool is that?” It goes back to the strange hippie-cyberpunk mix.
Goldman: The big thing I would emphasize is it’s easy in hindsight to be like, “We knew what we were doing exactly, we knew the product we were building, and we went to SXSW to show that to people.” The reality is we were trying to validate assumptions, trying to figure out what the thing was and what was interesting about the thing we had built.
Payne: Ev and Biz [Stone] and those folks had been going to SXSW for a while, so they were very much in their element, surrounded by friends. Everyone was in a great mood. It helps to be in an environment like SXSW: The sun is shining, beer is flowing, there’s good Mexican food everywhere. It was a little bit stressful for the techie folks involved. We spent a lot of the weekend fixing stuff on the fly.
Blaine Cook, lead developer, Twitter (now cofounder, Poetica): The first year Twitter was at South By I was back in San Francisco, making sure that the site stayed alive. For the two and a half months prior to SXSW I had been the only engineer on the project, so we weren’t that far ahead of the curve in building up a lot of the scale and the architecture. I’m not sure how much we did in advance. Mostly it was just doing the screens and making sure they worked.
Williams: SXSW in 2007 was huge for Twitter. It was at that moment we started to see real growth for the first time. That created a lot of buzz within the tech world, which led to press, which led to more growth.
Rolston: I don’t think we saw the hit it would be. Maybe I’m sounding like I’m offering a contrarian opinion, but I think there’s a lot of looking back and saying, “Yeah, we saw it happen right then.” Because, of course, now we know Twitter is successful. Then, I think it felt like another one of the crazy things people were putting on the table during the conference. It felt awesome right then—like Myspace felt awesome one year, and Friendster felt awesome one year.
Payne: SXSW was really important for Twitter. Maybe I’m biased, having been on the ground there, but we saw a surge of adoption. People had come from all over the world to SXSW that year, and a lot of them took Twitter back with them. So it allowed us to reach more communities.
Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com: My first year I came to SXSW Interactive because I was invited to speak on a panel. That was the same year I discovered Twitter, which we then brought back to Zappos. We encouraged employees to join Twitter as well.
Goldman: If you look at the history of Twitter, people think we went to SXSW with no users, came back from SXSW, and it grew like a hockey stick for six years until it IPO’d. That is just not true. But you can point to these big public moments, and SXSW was the first of them. There was a usage spike as a result and there was an awareness that happened because of SXSW. All of a sudden we knew that a much larger number of people than us got it. It is no longer just the 10 of us in this one room who think it’s awesome.
Payne: I was already excited about working at Twitter, and I left SXSW in 2007 really excited that it was a project with some staying power rather than just something we were going to hack on for a couple months then move on.
Goldman: It wasn’t like we went home in 2007 like, “Oh, we got it all figured out.” It was another process of discovering what Twitter wants to be.
Brian Solis, blogger, author, and principal, FutureWorks Labs (now principal analyst, Altimeter Group): 2007 was Twitter’s breakout moment and as a result was SXSW’s big breakout moment. Twitter brought out this great sense that SXSW was the geek spring break and that those who weren’t there were missing out. 2007 or 2008 were those shifting years where Interactive was starting to become bigger than Music.
Payne: I found it very weird going back in 2008. There was this weird reverence. I introduced myself to people like, “I work at Twitter,” and people were all, “Oh, holy shit! That’s so cool!” I was like, “Is it?”
Powazek: After that, everyone wanted to become known as the thing that launched there, that broke out just like Twitter did. What that meant is, when you were walking around downtown, you had people in pickle suits yelling at you because everyone was so desperate for that attention. Twitter was such a specific thing that was so well suited to SXSW that it’s hard to replicate.
Forrest: Certainly in recent years, the fact that we’d leveraged and marketed so much that Twitter launched at SXSW has helped us grow but also has become a bit of an albatross. It is now something that virtually every mainstream organization asks: “What’s this year’s Twitter?” But from a marketing perspective, having those kinds of skins on the wall is good.
Becker: That era of SXSW, 2007 was its swan song. I had started my last company, Get Satisfaction, and we decided to throw a party called 8-Bit at SXSW. 2007 was the last year we could get everybody into the party. In 2008, we called it 16-Bit. We would go on to do a 32-Bit and, I think, 64-Bit. By the time we threw 32-Bit, we were competing with 15 other parties. I just thought, Why am I paying for the free alcohol when other people seem to want to pay for it?
Rider: You could kind of sense around ’07 or ’08 that SXSW was becoming this behemoth that wasn’t going to be controlled any longer.
Powazek: It went pretty quickly from being our private clubhouse to the rest of the world being there. As SXSW got bigger, there’s a moment of, “Maybe we should put the brakes on.” And by the time you’re there, it’s too late. It keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Becker: 2007 wasn’t just a transitional year for SXSW, it was a transitional year for the entire web. Twitter is starting to break out, and the normal world is starting to pay attention to the web again. It’s not that SXSW was transformed, it’s that the way people saw the Internet, the way people saw network technologies was transformed. SXSW just went along with that.
Solis: We were on Facebook all the time, and there he was onstage in front of all the cool kids. It was everybody’s first time to really learn more about him.
Thurston: The Sarah Lacy–Mark Zuckerberg keynote interview. I was there for that. This is pre–IPO Facebook, but it’s still one of the most important companies in the world—to this community, definitely. There are overflow rooms, and thousands of people are tuning in. There’s a level of curiosity from people who want Facebook to work. There’s a level of criticism and issues with Facebook censorship, how the messaging tools work or the reliability of service. There are questions about Zuckerberg—is he the right person, this college dropout, to lead a billion-dollar company? He didn’t do a lot of media either. So you had this rare access to a clearly important person about a tool we all use and have issues with.
Dash: I was sitting there with [tech journalist] Sarah Lacy and Mark Zuckerberg right before they were about to go on. They were about to do their keynote and we were in the green room, and Mark was visibly nervous. He knew SXSW was a big deal among the older web people. So being able to go out there was a big platform.
Solis: You just couldn’t contain the excitement. The energy in that room was so amped up. Something was going to go down. It was so intense when you walked in there. People were dancing on the chairs because they were playing house music before, as they were bringing people into the room. Before anything even happened, there was stuff happening. I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a room like that again.
Forrest: There was this great energy. There were people dancing in the front row. The crowd seemed happy and into it. I could see he was not too comfortable with the number of people in the room—at least I assumed that. Bottom line is we didn’t do a good enough job preparing Mark or Sarah.
Omar Gallaga, technology culture reporter, Austin American-Statesman: Me and another reporter were in the front row. We got there an hour and a half early. We camped out with a video camera and watched it all unfold.
Thurston: A lot of her questions, as I recall, they didn’t matter. It was a lot of BS, almost human interest, morning-show stuff. This is such a rare opportunity, and there’s a finite time slot. We’ve got 45 minutes; why waste 15 on bullshit?
Ari Steinberg, engineering manager, Facebook (now founder, Vamo): My takeaway was that it was a developer-oriented audience and she was asking business-oriented questions and people didn’t really want that. My recollection is she was grilling him on business stuff, trying to be a little defiant and looking for a “gotcha.” The audience got frustrated with that.
Tim Nolan, content director, Firstborn Multimedia (now head of BBH Labs NY): He was getting grilled, dude. He was physically sweating. That was a bad moment for him. You can blame it on the lights onstage, but I think his level of shame caused him to sweat that one out. He was in front of his contemporaries. That multiplied the stress. Everyone he was talking in front of knew exactly what he was guilty of. Guilty is probably a strong word, but Facebook is notorious for swapping out its privacy statements and just making it extremely difficult to opt out of things like advertising or tracking.
Sterling: I think people were not on Zuck’s side at that point. They really felt he’d come there with something to prove and they didn’t like his attitude. They weren’t giving him a friendly hearing. It was a remarkably hostile crowd by South By standards. Usually, they put up with anything.
Steinberg: He had done a few big events, but this was definitely one of the first of that scale. At the time, he was still developing his public persona. That’s a challenging skill for anyone, let alone someone who has gotten where they are not through that but through good business decisions and building a good team and product. None of that correlated with being a good public speaker. I think the party atmosphere—people were riled up—combined with Mark not necessarily being able to fully handle certain types of questions, that combination was maybe a recipe for disaster.
Gallaga: It was a huge room of people, and being in the front row, you just felt the unease. You felt a physical wave of people’s discomfort and just the tide of the conversation turning. I don’t think there’s ever been anything as uncomfortable at SXSW as that.
Steinberg: We were in the Facebook section of the crowd. At the time, we were amused. It seemed like there was this spiral where the mood in the room set on people. While it was happening it was, “This is a little awkward.” Then it got more and more awkward.
Gallaga: At one point, someone shouted out, “Ask some real questions!” People started booing and shouting out questions. At one point, Sarah opened up to a Q&A, and then it turned into a free-for-all, people shouting out questions and just being very dismissive of her. It got very ugly. Then on Twitter, people were writing their own questions.
Thurston: I joined the Twitter back channel being like, “What is going on here?” That was actually important techno-culturally because it’s like the audience had a shared mind of its own; all these individual experiences and disappointment became a collective.
Dash: Without Twitter, the room wouldn’t have turned against them. That was one of the things that jumped out, separate from whatever he or she said. They didn’t know there was this whole back conversation going on.
Crowley: It was the first time I was in a room where everyone was on Twitter at the same time, and the back channel overtook the main event. It was one of those moments where it was like, “Wow. This is different. This is one of the first times where anyone has ever experienced this particular type of chaos, where the crowd is unruly, the crowd is organizing, and the people onstage are oblivious to it.”
O’Keefe: The traditional conference—one-to-many—the paradigm had shifted. Obviously, with these back channels in place now, conferences and events were never going to be the same. You’ve got a highly engaged, supercreative group of people who were able to take over that dialogue in real time and really turn the tables. It was kind of a fascinating thing to watch.
Thurston: In the audience, we all realized we could see and hear each other, so we were egging each other on. We were able to heckle without audibly disturbing the show. It affected the mood of the crowd. It’s very strange. It’s like there were two different events happening: There was the physical layer and the virtual layer. We had so much more information than she did. It was an invisible divide. That’s not new anymore, but at the time it was revelatory. It wasn’t all good but it was all-important, what happened there.
Forrest: A lot of the negativity toward Sarah was valid criticism in her not preparing enough, and one part was thinly disguised misogyny and gender bias in the tech industry. One of the mistakes we made, which was very basic in retrospect, we had these chairs on stage that just didn’t quite work. It created this weird body language between Sarah and Mark. So much of what I heard was she looked like she was flirting with him. It was a little bit of that, but that could have been mitigated if we had better seating. But she bore more of the blame from the public of how that thing went down than Mark or SXSW did. To this day, I think she feels pretty resentful that she was the scapegoat of it.
boyd: It doesn’t take long to figure out some of the gender politics that played out. The ways in which people started commenting became ugly.
Forrest: Some of the challenge here was that Mark was just not very savvy at that point. I’m not sure if he was just intimidated by the size of the audience or he was preoccupied with something at the time of the keynote.
boyd: Mark was never a part of the scene. He was never goofy and lighthearted and just hanging out with everybody. Ev, who was also awkward, was always hanging out with people. So Mark was doing a keynote not to a community that was his community but to a room full of strangers.
Dash: The reading I took on it was that he hadn’t been in the first wave of social web people, but that he wanted to be validated by them. Afterward, I was walking down the street and saw Zuck, Kevin Rose, and someone else. They were reassuring each other like after your team loses a game. They were obviously a little down, but being a little too macho to admit it. Like, “We’ll get ’em next time.” It was funny because there was a sense of bravado but also a little swagger because it was Kevin Rose, who was as hot as it gets then, with Digg. They were the cool kids to some degree.
Gallaga: I ran into Sarah probably three or four hours later at a rooftop party. She’d had a glass of wine or two, and I had a tiny point-and-shoot video camera. I said, “Do you mind if I ask a few questions?” She said sure. What she said got a lot of attention just because it was so far from what a lot of people wanted to hear from her.
Sarah Lacy [to Gallaga in the video]: The sad thing is a core group of people in the back of the room got so angry that they probably ruined SXSW for getting people that high-profile again, which is a little unfortunate. But a lot of people say they got a lot out of it, and, frankly, we broke a lot of news. . . . I’m one of the only women reporting in tech. I get this constantly and guess what? I’m still employed. So obviously some people enjoy what I do. It’s happened before. I’ve had way worse shit written about me on a massive scale and it blows over. It’s the reality of living in this realm and it’s the price of being high-profile, unfortunately. Not to understate it because most people who do it don’t realize how it hurts when you publicly attack someone who is, frankly, trying to do their job. Honestly, I felt great about how it went. I asked him a range of things. There’s a huge number of constituencies when you talk about someone like Mark. Mainstream press expects you to break news. People in the room want to hear stuff. I think we touched on a number of things, and I’d like to see someone else try it. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Gallaga: People wanted an apology, and instead she was very defiant and blamed it on the audience. That video became kind of infamous.
Solis: The whole Internet was in a firestorm over it. I remember taking Sarah and having a drink with her to get her perspective. I wrote this epic blog post to publish her side of the story. That helped make it less of a shit storm. I did that because that wasn’t what SXSW was about to me.
Forrest: That [Zuckerberg] interview and the disaster that ensued got us a whole lot of press and attention we might not have otherwise gotten. I certainly wish we’d gotten press for it being the best interview ever. It was the complete opposite end of the scale. In this Internet-connected world we live in, bad publicity is sometimes almost as valuable as good publicity. We survived that disaster.
Mike Rosenfelt, partner, Impact Venture Partners: By 2008, intimacy became difficult at SXSW. One of the things about SXSW from early on was the informality of it. It was those sidebar conversations, right? It was, “Let’s grab a beer at the Driskill,” “Let’s run over to El Arroyo and have some enchiladas,” and “Let’s catch up, or tell me more about what you’re working on.” That clearly was the strength. By 2008, it was like, “Come to SXSW Interactive and I’ll get backstage passes to see Zooey Deschanel sing.”
Sweet John Muehlbauer, sales team, T-Mobile (now director of social media, SiteGoals): You could tell Interactive had changed because there were a lot of events going on that weren’t going on in previous years. There were a lot more people downtown. The Zuckerberg-Facebook party—there were a gazillion people trying to get into this thing. This event was just huge. He had his own security team. You couldn’t bring a bag in. Imagine a bar that was packed, that had the nightclub feel with the pumping DJs, the drinks flowing, nothing but the movers and shakers in tech.
Gallaga: I think that 2008–2009 was when we started seeing people like Ashton Kutcher—real-world celebrities, people who are known outside of tech—showing up at the festival.
Steinberg: I went because I was invited to be on a panel, but the focus of the event was not the panel—it was the socializing, networking, and having fun. In principle, it was a work trip, but it turned into this big party. I came away almost feeling a little bit skeptical of the real value of attending. Had a few celebrity encounters, though—that was maybe starting to happen. I have a picture of myself with Michael Stipe from REM, and I want to say that Ev Williams is also in the picture. It’s a strange, random photo.
Ferriss: Of course, the bigger SXSW gets, the more surgical you have to be in choosing which parties you go to, which panels you go to, because you can be completely overwhelmed in the [paradox] of choice.
Kenyatta Cheese, COO, Rocketboom (now cofounder, Everybody at Once): Foursquare in 2009—it was great because they were solving a problem that everyone had. No one had actually tried to hack the problem of attending SXSW, trying to keep in it, to keep networking, to keep in touch with lots of people at the same time, in a way that could feel intimate. It was the thing you were able to integrate into your SXSW experience immediately.
Crowley: SXSW is a good place to show off anything social that you’re working on—photo-sharing apps, geo-location stuff, check-in services, group coordination—all the things that fall into the social media bucket, the ones that have more of a utility slant, like, “This will help you meet up with someone. You should use this because it will make SXSW better for you.”
Solis:: Twitter brought people together. Foursquare showed people where you were because you were checking in. I have this play on words to describe it. You know Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma? You flip the words and make it the Dilemma’s Innovator. That’s what those technologies became. They solved problems at scale and the problems were, “Where are the cool people? Where are the cool parties? What else should we be doing? Where should we go?” They solved SXSW’s problems.
Gold: Both of those things succeeded in those moments because they were good and there was a use for them. The year Foursquare gets created, it was really useful, because it was the year SXSW became bigger and it was harder to find your friends.
Steinberg: It seemed like in 2008 and 2009, every company wanted to be the next Twitter of SXSW. Foursquare was trying to be that and Gowalla was also trying at the same time. It was based in Austin, so it had a big presence. I remember it had an ad on the back cover of the program.
Forrest: Foursquare and Gowalla both launched at SXSW on the same day in 2009.
Crowley: Everyone thinks SXSW was the launch, but we never thought of it like we are launching our new company. It was more like we had built something for our 300 friends at SXSW to play with and want to get some feedback on it. Naveen [Selvadurai] and I arbitrarily said SXSW is the deadline. The prototype has to be ready by March 13, which is the day we fly down there. So we used it just as a finish line for us. We got about 80% of what we wanted with that prototype.
Josh Williams, cofounder, Gowalla: Prior to Gowalla, we had a design consultancy. We had launched a couple products there as well. We used South By to help us launch Blink Sale, an online invoicing service for creative types, and also Icon Buffet, which was a stock-illustration service. So by the time we were at the place that we were going to launch Gowalla, this mobile location-based service, it just seemed like the right venue to do it. We launched and Foursquare launched and it was like, “Oh, this is a thing.”
Crowley: I don’t think I actually saw the Gowalla stuff until we got down there. The big difference at the time was that Foursquare was meant to be multiplayer, and the original Gowalla was meant to be single-player. Our stuff was built on some of the original Dodgeball ideas: We knew the check-in was interesting. Knowing where your friends were was interesting. We could recommend places. The game mechanics were kind of a crutch to get people to explore different parts of the software because we had much grander ambitions from the beginning.
Josh Williams: We didn’t know Foursquare was being launched, and they didn’t know we were being launched until about a week in advance. It was two companies that had different perspectives on a similar concept, and that’s why it grabbed everyone’s attention. That kind of cemented the early days of a rivalry there. And of course, the following year, the hype factor dialed up quite a bit.
Thurston: The Foursquare versus Gowalla wars.
Josh Williams: Both companies probably could’ve afforded to focus on it a little bit less, but the media was playing that up: “Oh, there’s going to be this clash!” We all played along with it.
Crowley I think in 2009 we were holed up just trying to keep the thing up and running. It was super-rickety. 2010 was more like, “Hey, we made it a whole year and we have a company of 10 people now! They’re all coming down here and we’re going to show you the new stuff we’re working on!”
Alexa Andrejewski, founder, Foodspotting: In 2010, Foursquare, they just took chalk and drew up a four-square court on the sidewalk outside the convention center. We loved hanging out there, playing four square with the Foursquare team.
Crowley: That was our genius guerilla-marketing campaign: Let’s just draw a four-square court on the street and play. That will be how people find us. That worked out really well, but I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.
Josh Williams: 2010 was the first year you started seeing household brand names like Pepsi, Chevrolet, and CNN showing up in force. So there was this realization that you couldn’t just rely on happy-hour beers at the Ginger Man to get it done. You were going to have to have a little more visibility than that. That’s where you started to see more cross-marketing going on, startups aligning themselves with larger brands—and it wasn’t just us and Foursquare.
Crowley: We did a hip-hop dance party with, like, three other companies. It’s something that doesn’t usually happen at SXSW: It’s not live music; it’s not people chilling and listening to electronica. It worked.
Josh Williams: Looking back at 2010, it was largely a successful endeavor for us. It had a meaningful impact for us as a company in terms of growth and in terms of our numbers. The PR coming out of it was pretty great as well.
Crowley: They had their die-hard users and we had ours. It was a bit of an arms race for a while, but we probably pulled away in 2010.
Josh Williams: The struggles for Gowalla really didn’t begin until nine months after that. Going into 2011, things were more stressful because while we did pick up some growth, we were second place in the market. In isolation, it might’ve been fine, but in comparison to Foursquare, we were not where we wanted to be.
J.smith, blogger, JBrotherlove: It was 2009 or 2010 when we used the heck out of Foursquare. “Where is everyone? Driskill? Let’s head there.” “So-and-so checked in somewhere else. Let’s go to that party.” In fact, using Foursquare at SXSW is the best time ever to use Foursquare.
Rolston: Oh, yeah, everybody fucking checking in. Oh, God. That was one where I think it felt like a lot of people were jumping the shark. This very self-aware thing. It seemed forced. “We made Twitter, now let’s make Foursquare. We’re going to collectively bless Foursquare as this year’s ‘It Tech.’ ” It was annoying.
Crowley: SXSW was a great launching point. I don’t think it’s crucial to the success of it, but it’s helpful for the team to use as a milestone. It’s really the anniversary of the company, like, “Look how far we’ve gone in the past year.” We always use it as an opportunity to go down in front of a lot of people and show them the next chapter of Foursquare. Every year we have a different chapter that we can show people, and we always try to launch something right before SXSW so people can see it.
Dash: The striking thing about that launch was how SXSW was changed by it, not Foursquare. My takeaway was that SXSW was going to market themselves as “If you have an app, come here and you’ll be popular.”
Steinberg: Neither Foursquare nor Gowalla are in a particularly great place right now, so I guess it goes to show that it might have been more hype than reality.
Josh Williams: We had board meetings in the three to six months leading up to SXSW in 2011 where as a board we would say, “Yeah, for this specific location-based check-in niche of the world [we’ve] been beat.” There was some resolve to find a different path forward, but it’s really hard to pivot in public at scale at a big event like SXSW. In retrospect, there were probably shrewder ways we could have handled the situation. But even then I’m not sure it would’ve materially impacted our long-term outcome. Going into South By in 2010, both companies knew we were going to slug it out and the chips were going to fall. We decided to play a zero-sum game, and we lost.
Crowley: Everyone made it out that we were bitter enemies, but I’m pals with Josh now. I spent some time with him in 2010, and when I go out to San Francisco, we get coffee.
Josh Williams: It was a little bit of a shit show at the time, but now I think being past it, it’s kind of fun for both of us to recall those years, because it’s changed for them as well. The funny thing is, in retrospect, as much as SXSW has grown, it’s still largely early adopters and nerds who don’t necessarily represent America or the world as a whole. There’s a risk in building something specifically for that audience and ignoring all this potential outside of it. This idea of, “Let’s make exploring the world around you easier,” could resonate with a lot of people far outside the confines of Austin for a two-week period in March. That’s something we should have focused on more deliberately earlier on and something now that Foursquare is having to do at this point. The risk in putting your eggs in the SXSW basket is that it could give you a false sense of being made or broken.
Muehlbauer: My memorable moment in 2010 is when Ev Williams did the keynote from hell.
Dash: The Ev keynote with Umair was kind of rough. Again, the back channel. It was very parallel to Zuckerberg’s interview, where the room is reading one way and the only people who can’t read Twitter are onstage. It’s especially ironic because one is the cofounder of Twitter.
Umair Haque, director, Havas Media Labs; founder, Bubblegeneration; blogger: It’s funny, me and Ev left the venue, and we were like, “That was a cool discussion, right?” We didn’t really understand what had gone on at all.
Christopher Poole, founder, 4chan; CEO, Canvas Networks: People were going into the Ev one with Zuck in mind. Ev was a more verbose speaker, but maybe they were expecting such a contrast and it wasn’t radically different. Their expectations were too high.
Muehlbauer: So many people at one time were trying to pack into this room. Someone had dressed up as the Twitter bird standing outside and was trying to get everyone pumped up. Everyone was so excited, fighting for seats, sitting on the floor and in overflow rooms. Fifteen minutes into it they had to open up extra doors to let people leave. People couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. That is the only time I’ve ever seen that. The guy interviewing him was more of an Ev Williams fanboy, and the conversation just never got going.
Fred Benenson, product manager, Creative Commons (now data engineer, Kickstarter): You could tell Ev wasn’t really comfortable and was under pressure to give a Twitter keynote. Ev is just a product guy and liked building something good that people wanted. With a keynote speaker, people are looking for someone to give inspiration or really frame a problem.
Gallaga: The Zuckerberg thing was interesting in a lot of train-wrecky ways. Ev Williams was just boring.
Williams: Yes, my keynote conversation was apparently terrible. Some people blamed the guy interviewing me, Umair Haque, but he did what we asked him to do. I’m sure I was a bit boring and/or rambling, which I can be, and the SXSW audience is not a forgiving one.
Haque: Having spoken to the Twitter guys about it, one of the things we wanted to discuss was the philosophy and the mission and the point of all this stuff. And that’s precisely what we did. We discussed the idea of Twitter as a force for good in the world, and its guiding principles. Now, whether or not the audience wanted to hear that is not really my thing. I was there to have a discussion about stuff we thought was cool and important.
boyd: Ev always was awkward in large audiences, that was never new. His brilliance was always in the interpersonal. It was about being able to sit down and talk with him and realize how whip-smart he was. He wasn’t a performer. Biz [Stone] was the jokester. Biz was the one who would come out and tell crazy stories about Blogger. Ev was very much the thinker sitting behind him, imagining new forms of interaction and new possibilities.
Dash: Ev’s perception was probably still of when he had been going to SXSW 10 years prior. All his answers were about how to build a company and community, how to think about product. Umair had this very academic, jargon-filled way of asking him questions. Either of those could have succeeded five years prior, but the audience had changed. They wanted a rock star to come out and talk to them about their hot new band. That was like a clear demonstration of this not being for us anymore.
Haque: Having never been to SXSW, I didn’t really get that it’s very much a party. I think people were expecting pyrotechnics and a kind of victory dance. The idea I had and that the Twitter guys had was that it would be more of a reflection than a celebration. Maybe that was out of sync with the mood at SXSW. I think it points to the way the tech industry has gone. Now we find ourselves in a situation where a lot of people are lamenting the rise of “bro” culture in the tech industry.
Payne: I was still working at Twitter when that happened and it was certainly a little embarrassing to see the feedback—of course, on Twitter itself: “What’s up with this interview?” “What’s up with all of these softball questions?” and stuff like that. But I don’t think that’s Ev’s fault, necessarily. I don’t think he has an incentive to go into an interview and say, “Ask me as many difficult and uncomfortable questions as you can.” It was harmless, but maybe a bit embarrassing around the office.
Forrest: The Ev thing was not quite on the scale of Mark and Sarah, but just kind of disappointing because we had thought we’d done a much better job of preparation and it didn’t come off as so. But, again, disappointing that we’d gotten this great speaker who was in many ways the poster boy of all things great at SXSW, and it just didn’t come out that way.
Williams: The primary problem, I’d say, was a mistake in strategy. We tried to have a high-level, somewhat intellectual conversation. We thought that would be interesting, but it was completely wrong for the time and place. Had we made it a straightforward interview and just asked me about Twitter and the Internet, it probably would have gone much better.
Haque: One of the things that is so unfortunate about this whole thing is that when you look three years back and think about the founder of one of the most important companies in the world standing on the stage, announcing this set of principles—about human freedom, about liberation—in those three years, what has Twitter done? Here is the company that has not participated in all this NSA spying stuff, that has played a role in the Arab Spring. Now it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world and it’s squarely tied to those principles and that vision. But when we look at the tech industry today, people are lamenting exactly the loss of that ethos, the lack of that spirit. One of the things we do badly in the tech industry is that we focus so much on the surface of these things that we don’t actually go to the substance. So I think connecting those dots is actually really important. I mean, it’s three years later and we’re still talking about this. It’s indicative of how the tech industry focuses on really tiny things instead of taking on the big challenges in the world today. I would rather talk about how we end world hunger or poverty or fix the financial system instead of fetishizing the latest rock-star entrepreneur. What happened on that stage was a warning of things to come.
Though Interactive has always seemed secondary to SXSW’s more famous and glamorous music festival, by 2010 the geeks have taken over, with Interactive outdrawing Music. That growth starts to have big repercussions.
Powazek: The last time I went was 2010. It was so big. It was just wild. The SXSW in my brain was always something that was very enmeshed in Austin. There was time to be outside the conference center and get a meal at a place where there weren’t 5,000 other people. In my memory, the Austinites really liked us nerds because we weren’t the destructive musicians or the asshole film people. We were just a small, humble conference that happened before the real rock stars got there and turned the town upside down.
Goldman: When we would go, the nerds would have Interactive, and then there would be this day overlap when Music would start and you could tell because you would see all the web folks with their backpacks and laptops heading to the airport, and you would see the cool musicians rolling into town with guitar cases, wearing rock-star gear. It reminded me of high school. Those are the cool kids who have bands. We were the ones getting shoved in the locker.
Evan Gregory, singer/keyboardist, The Gregory Brothers (“Bed Intruder Song”): We came in 2011, and because we happen to straddle the Interactive and Music weeks, it was really funny to see the cultural handoff midweek and see the different populations waiting in line outside the clubs for all the different events. Not hard to pinpoint who is there for which part of South By. Everyone felt like Interactive was taking over SXSW as the heart of the event. You could really feel the momentum of Interactive week when we were there.
Scott Cannon, pedicab operator, Capital Pedicab: I’ve been a pedicabber a little over five years. When I started, Interactive was like a warm-up. It was fine, you made some money, but it wasn’t like Music. Music was where it was. Then one year, someone turned on a light switch at Interactive or something. Now the convention center is crazy with pedestrian traffic. We get a lot of our business from taking people from the convention center to whatever party Samsung or Dell or Twitter is throwing.
Forrest: I think it happened in January 2010 that Interactive had more registrations than Music. It was kind of fun internally when those numbers changed.
Swenson: We could sort of see it coming for a while. I made an announcement over the phone when it passed Music for the first time. We thought, “Well, that’s great! It will be a little bit bigger than music.” Then it just kept growing.
Forrest: I remember in the late ’90s when we were still very small, we were largely supported by Music. If we had to pay our own bills, I don’t think we would have survived. I remember saying to myself, friends, anyone who would listen, “This event is so hard to grow because the audience we serve is geeks and they can’t compete with rock stars and movie stars, which are the people coming into SXSW for Music and Film. There’s nobody on the computer side of the fence that matches that at all.” What I never conceived is how geeks would become cool over the past 10 to 15 years and how much that’s been a cultural shift with people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. The startup that happens in a garage and three years later whoever was involved is a millionaire—SXSW has benefited from that mythology.
O’Keefe: We did struggle with whether we should cap the event. It was a pretty intense internal battle. There were a number of opinions here, but ultimately we felt that if we did, it would change the culture. It would change access to the event by increasing prices to where independent developers would have less access. It would change the community in a nonorganic way.
Black: I don’t think there was a year since the early days that we haven’t heard, “This has gotten too big.” People always want us to stop selling more registrations or more badges right after they buy theirs. There’s no way we can stop the event. If we tried to stop it from growing, that would be artificial and really hurtful.
Powazek: God bless them. I’m really glad they’re successful. I remember the years where it was like, “Maybe this is it, right?” So I want them to be successful, but part of my role as an old-timer is to be, “Waaah! It was better when nobody knew my name!”
Hornik: In the early days, SXSW wasn’t an investor conference. Post-crash of 2008, there’s been this epic rise of the angel investor, and the professional angel. Those folks are very much likely to be at SXSW. There are a huge number of early-stage investors at SXSW now. It’s a hunting ground. The myth of Twitter has led a set of people to say, “I can’t miss the next Twitter. I’ve got to be at SXSW.”
O’Keefe: A lot of companies have been able to get significant funding from their participation in SXSW Accelerator.
Craig Newmark, founder, Craigslist (now founder, Craigconnects): I was a judge one year. My guess was that I could help sort out what efforts might be successful and contribute to the community. In retrospect, I don’t really have the business perspective required for that. Storify impressed me the most. I’ve since seen very impressive use of it to report stories where, in part, they were told via Twitter.
Adam Goldstein, cofounder, Hipmunk: We went the March after we launched, in 2011. We saw SXSW as an opportunity to get some visibility and potential investors. For Accelerator, we had to prepare a demo, put together a pitch. We won some category like the Most Innovative General Startup. It certainly elevated our stature. We reached a broader group of people and definitely made connections with people we ended up talking to during our subsequent fundraising. We also threw a party with a couple of Ashton Kutcher’s other portfolio companies. And [my cofounder] and I took turns wearing our Hipmunk costume around the conference area. I got stopped by a police officer for soliciting, because I was wearing a company costume within 20 feet of the convention center. So that was pretty memorable.
O’Keefe: There are a lot of brands that don’t necessarily work with us and they have a really weird experience of SXSW or leave a strange taste in attendees’ mouths. One that obviously was more on the ugly side was the group that came in and did the Homeless Hotspot thing in 2012. That was something that we found pretty offensive on a lot of levels, yet it ended up fostering a lot of discussion about appropriate uses of technology and some of the ethical and moral issues that technology can bring to the forefront.
Rolston: If you went one degree off and it was just people being paid to walk around and be Wi-Fi, that’s fine, but the fact that it was homeless Wi-Fi was tasteless. It was pretty heated.
Nolan: [Marketing firm] BBH has a history of trying to do work that’s “good.” The Hilton, which is right next to the conference center, is two blocks away from the largest shelter in Austin. If you walk anywhere downtown, you’ll see homeless people out and about. What’s another problem with South By? There was a need for that additional connectivity.
Saneel Radia, head of BBH Labs (now founder, Finch15): That dichotomy between the have and have-not is pretty prevalent. The original idea was around modernizing the street newspaper model. When you’re panhandling, many mainstream society members will turn a blind eye, will literally walk by you as if they don’t see you. But when you’re selling something, there seems to be more of a social obligation: You have something else to talk about which is this paper in your hand. So we just thought that was a pretty powerful shift in the dynamic between, unfortunately, fringe members of society and mainstream members of society.
Nolan: We just used that same thinking of that street newspaper but with a different commodity, and that commodity was Wi-Fi. We contacted Front Steps, which was the official outreach program. The participants were trained and briefed on the technology. We gave each of them a mobile hot spot and marketing materials. It gave them this almost microsmall business to manage for the time we were down there.
Radia: To get the password, you had to walk up and actually look the person in the eye, probably shake their hand.
Nolan: It was just misinterpreted from the start. Immediately what happened was it was picked up in some blogs, especially ReadWrite, which wrote a story without meeting anyone involved. This was just strictly shot from the hip about being dystopic, making people into products or antennas.
Jon Mitchell, writer, ReadWrite: I stumbled upon it, quite literally. One of the men who was offering those services was making a lot of noise about it as I was leaving the conference that day. I talked to the guys behind it on the phone and posted that initial story. Then the next morning, I went down and talked to Mark, one of the participants, and posted that interview in the same thread.
Radia: The first article, unfortunately, set the tone in a lot of ways. It was exceptionally negative and absolutely inaccurate. It basically said we were doing this for a brand or a phone network or mobile provider, that we were using homeless people to do it and keeping all the money as an ad agency. The individuals kept all the money themselves.
Mitchell: Of course they would say there are inaccuracies because they don’t think I characterized their intentions accurately, but I don’t think they had a very good sense of what their intentions were, really. They certainly seemed to believe that they had good intentions, but the content of their message wasn’t important to them. They didn’t see a problem with using these tactics as a means to an end and leaving out all the parts that draw attention to homelessness as a problem. They thought of it as a simple service, employing people who need money.
Dusty White, Homeless Hotspot participant: Why did I do it? I was down on my luck and I felt like it would be okay for me. A lot of people thought we got exploited, but I didn’t look at it like that. I met people from Denmark, London, Saudi Arabia. It was phenomenal. I feel like it helped me. I wish they could’ve done more for us. I ended up getting an apartment, but I’m not living in it no more. I’m back in the homeless situation now.
Mitchell: I hope these 11 people were set on the right track by this. But my major criticism is not about its impact on the homeless but its lack of impact on the participants of SXSW. My goal was to point to a callousness and numbness at SXSW. If this kind of gimmick is what passes for social responsibility there, I felt like it was a sign that the culture at this show wasn’t healthy.
Dash: The Homeless Hotspots thing was obviously grotesque on its face, but also really sad that this place that used to be for us trying to be thoughtful isn’t really that anymore.
Cheese: I feel like 2010 was the year a lot of marketing and branding came in. All of a sudden consumer-packaged-goods companies are putting together brand experiences, and putting these experiences together in the hallways. It signaled the fact that a lot of folks who traditionally weren’t paying attention to SXSW all of a sudden were. But it also changed the feeling of it in other ways because you were being marketed to. You’re standing around and people are pitching you, as opposed to having a conversation with you.
Nolan: By 2008–2009, corporate sponsorships really started taking hold. You would see things that the year before was a barbecue house and the next year it’s the CNN News Center Café or the Pepsi Extravaganza or the Google Dessert Bar. Bigger and bigger brands were becoming more aware of South By as a place where “the future is happening,” and they really started capitalizing on being there.
Bonin Bough, senior global director of digital and social media, PepsiCo (now VP of global media and consumer engagement, Mondelez International): I was the largest sponsor for six years, so I spent a lot of time understanding the ethos of the event. I always felt like we had an obligation, first and foremost, never to do any harm to the event, always to add value. So if you look at what we used to do there when I was at PepsiCo, we always treated it as a unique opportunity for us to show the future of how we saw digital tying into our products, our marketing, and so forth. We tried to create a really engaging experience. I’ve always talked about SXSW as the Davos of digital. You can feel this palpable entrepreneurial spirit.
J.Smith: The corporate presence is a bit unfortunate. I know that the conference needs to make money. I get that. But it’s so overwhelming that it doesn’t feel like a conference of web makers anymore. It feels like a corporate event. This year I went and every single building was covered and wrapped in IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung. It was like being in Vegas.
Crowley: People say that about anything as it gets bigger, but I can remember—maybe this past 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.
Schultz: 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.”
Forrest: We’ve certainly seen more and more attention from big brands. This is surprising in the sense that 10 years ago, we didn’t seem relevant to anybody. These campaigns—some are good, some are not so good. What I dislike about them is that they take a disproportionate amount of people’s attention. It’s very easy for someone to come to the event, see the branding and marketing campaign by X brand, and think that’s all SXSW is about. What’s often overlooked, we’re doing 40 to 50 panels about how tech can help the social good. People are creating apps for third world countries and the urban poor in the U.S. It’s harder to get that message out about all the things we’re doing that are a little less brand-centric.
Rushkoff: I wouldn’t blame South By for it. The industry itself changed. Every couple years that I would go to South By, like a lot of people, I would go, “It’s getting too big! It’s getting too commercial!” Every company is there. There’s the [Samsung] Lounge and Leo Burnett, and all these women in high heels, salespeople and marketing people. You go to launch your product. You see companies talking, “Oh, we’re going to schedule the release of this thing so we can announce it at South By.” What thing are you doing? Is it a piece of gum? What does it have to do with building interactive products? “Oh, we’re going to tweet about it.”
boyd: South By has been tremendously successful. And some people, especially who were there in the early days, will be like, “It’s not like it used to be!” And it’s not. But the thing is, it’s different and it’s really valuable for many people.
Gallaga: In the past two or three years, SXSW has been very celebrity driven. 2008–2009 was the year we started seeing people like Ashton Kutcher. Now you have Jay Z showing up in town, and people like Shaq and Jimmy Fallon. There was a weird party a year ago with Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. They were backing a company that was doing a party that wasn’t officially part of the festival. That was just a party that was happening during Interactive.
Yossi Shemesh, cofounder, Mobli: We knew that Mobli was in a stage where it could just hold its party and the party will get enough traction for what we needed. The fact that DiCaprio joined as an investor and there was some buzz around the photo- and video-sharing arena, we saw a lot of traction really from day one. This was our launch for Mobli 2.0. It was definitely a very intense time for us.
Forrest: Maybe 2012, I came across a party for a social media startup where Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire and somebody else were coming to the party. We thought it was a joke—these people wouldn’t be at SXSW. But we investigated, and, lo and behold, they turned out to be investors in the startup and they were there. Ten years ago, when we were struggling, I never would’ve guessed mainstream Hollywood celebrities would come to this event.
Jared Leto, lead singer, Thirty Seconds to Mars; actor, Dallas Buyers Club: I’m the founder of a startup called VyRT. It’s a place for people to broadcast live events in a really fun and social way. So I went to SXSW Interactive in 2012 to listen and learn. It was incredible. I met a ton of amazing people in all different verticals, did some panels, learned a lot, and left really inspired.
Ian Somerhalder, actor, Lost, The Vampire Diaries: I came in 2013. I’d founded RYOT.org and we were going to do a panel with Matthew Bishop, who’s been a hero of mine for a long time. When you’re sitting at 2 in the morning at a speakeasy, drinking bourbon, discussing rocket science with Elon Musk, it’s one of the coolest moments you’ll have in your life. Everyone is on the same playing field, whether you founded Twitter, you founded SpaceX, or you’re an actor on a TV show. It’s this cacophony of creativity and innovation. I realized my total geekness that weekend.
Crowley: There is too much noise. To do a big launch now, there are 50 companies that will do that, so it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. I can imagine other conferences are popping up, becoming the anti–SXSW.
Gold: You can’t pretend SXSW Interactive is about independent creators now. It’s just not. It’s not what it is anymore.
Solis: A lot of the original people are going to Yes by Yes Yes, or they’re going to the XOXO conference in Portland, Oregon.
Cheese: Andy Baio created XOXO in Portland in response to SXSW. I think his initial callout was about trying to recapture the spirit he enjoyed in the early years of South By.
Butterfield: A couple months ago, I went to the XOXO conference. There were a lot of people I hadn’t seen for years that I felt like were my people, the old-school web people, a lot of the people who went to SXSW. It was a similar size as SXSW was back then. It had that kind of intimacy.
Gold: There’s also Yes by Yes Yes, which was a completely agendaless gathering in Palm Springs last summer with almost all my old SXSW friends. In Yes by Yes Yes, there are more conversations about how to make the world better, about government and education.
Ann Larie Valentine, cofounder, Yes by Yes Yes: As we’re moving forward for next year, that’s the thing I would love to hang onto most, that feeling of, “It’s a bunch of nerds coming together, where they get to think their crazy ideas and talk about them with people who will not judge them.”
Muehlbauer: I attended in Vegas, and because of the small scope of it, it reminded me of the early days of SXSW Interactive, because of the collision factor.
Swenson: The Las Vegas idea was one of those that had been floating around for a while. We used to do an event in Portland called North by North West, and for a lot of reasons we stopped doing that one. We looked at Vegas as maybe a place to take it. At the time, Vegas was booming, and it was too expensive for us. This time, Vegas is kind of overbuilt in their capacity, and we’re bigger, so we can afford to do something there. It’s really a great city for events. That and we were essentially recruited by the Las Vegas Convention Bureau to do an event out there.
Forrest: Part of the strategy there is pushing gently some of the growth we’ve experienced at Interactive to another market that is probably a little better suited long term to handle that growth. When I say “long term,” I don’t think the idea is that all of the growth of Interactive is all of a sudden going to go to Vegas. But if the Vegas event grows quite a bit, it helps mitigate growth pressure off of Austin.
Patrick Curry, intern, American Institute for Learning; designer/developer, Human Code (now CEO, Fun Machine): I was a mentor at V2V this 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. You could pretty much walk up to anyone and be like, “Hey, what’s up? What do you do? Why are you here?” and get awesome answers.
Gold: When you’re committed to things that change, you have to accept where they’re at. I don’t think you can re-create what SXSW was entirely because it was the beginning of not just the medium, but a new way of thinking about the world.
Forrest: One of the challenges as an organizer, and having organized this event for a while, is seeing that kind of turn. On the one hand you wonder, “Why isn’t Ev Williams or these people coming back? Have we lost a bit of the core community?” But it’s kind of a good thing. It brings fresh people to the event, fresh ideas to the event, and helps us stay relevant to young, forward-thinking people.
Gold: I would give Hugh credit. Hugh cared about a lot of stuff. Did he do everything right? No. But it was more accessible than any other conference I ever went to.
Forrest: Ironically, in this Internet world, we are very focused on fast returns and things becoming huge successes very quickly. I say “ironically” on that because Interactive’s success is very much a testimony to patience and endurance. It’s like a band that’s been playing for 10 to 15 years and all of a sudden has a hit. You hear so many times where people will say, “How long has Interactive been around? Four or five years?” “Twenty years. You just didn’t know about us for the first 10 to 15.” We’re that overnight success that’s been around for decades.
Additional reporting by Skylar Bergl and Sarah Lawson
This is an excerpt from our new e-book, SXSWi Uncensored: The Complete Oral History as Told by the Entrepreneurs, Geeks, and Dreamers who Remade the Web. Author David Peisner led a team of Fast Company reporters who interviewed more than 100 people to compile—for the first time—the definitive story of the festival. It's available on iBooks or at Amazon.