I’m back in Houston and I have so much I want to share with you about my experience at SXSW! Before I get into the specifics of what the panels were about or what I learned, I want to just explaining what the hell it is is that I’ve been doing for the past five days.
This was my first time at SXSW as an attendee. I was there last year because my company was throwing a party, but I simply drove in for the party, partied, and went home the next morning. Because of my limited view of the conference, I was pretty nervous for this year; I just had no idea what I was heading into. I don’t know what you already know about SXSW, but I felt like my experience was incredibly different from what I was expecting after reading about it for the past few years. Everyone just acted like they walked in there and just totally got it; I had never read the experience of someone who considered herself an outsider. And that’s how I felt this weekend.
Beyond feeling like an outsider, I really just felt like I was back starting college for the first time.
First, some background: South by Southwest (SXSW) started as a music festival, but now it’s evolved into a 12-day conference for interactive media, film, and music. It’s held every year in Austin, TX and people come from all over the world to attend. The interactive portion mostly focuses on sessions — solo talks, duos, panels, meetups, and organized group conversations. Film and music also have sessions, but these portions of the conference are more about film screenings and concerts, respectively. There is also a huge trade show. When you’re not in sessions, you’re eating or drinking. Food is the unofficial fourth festival at SXSW and taking in Austin’s amazing food scene was as important, as far as I could tell, as going to sessions. And then there are the parties. Companies are eager to make an impression with this large group of “early adopters” so they throw parties and give away free food, drink, and swag to attendees, hoping the attendees will starting using their product. The parties go on all throughout the day and late into the evening and are great for networking.
You can buy a badge for one portion of the conference (interactive, film, or music), or get a combo badge that gets you in to one, two, or all three of the conferences. Once you buy a badge, you can get into all the events for that conference. I quickly found out that just having a badge wasn’t enough to get into all the events. A lot of parties (and sessions, for that matter) have really long lines and a badge doesn’t really guarantee admission; other parties (or film screenings or concerts) happening in Austin during the week are open to the public and you don’t need a badge to get in. I found the fact that a badge only sort of guarantees your admission to the sessions and parties pretty ridiculous when you consider that badges cost anywhere from $500 to upwards of $1500, depending on when you buy them and which conferences you’re attending.
I think knowing the cost of the badges is really important to understanding how I felt about the culture of SXSW. It’s not cheap. A lot of people don’t pay for SXSW out of pocket — their companies foot the bill — but you can assume that most people there either can afford to be there or work for a company that can afford to send them. Part of the reason I felt like an outsider was because I couldn’t really afford to be there; the only reason I was able to go was because I was a mentor.
I had actually applied to do a panel, and besides just wanting to hear the sound of my own voice at SXSW, I knew that if I were a panelist, I’d get my badge comped, and that was really the only way I was going to be able to attend. While working on my panel application I felt, in a lot of ways, like I did when applying for scholarships when I was younger. That is, I was crossing my fingers that I could prove to them that I deserved to be there, even if I couldn’t afford it. I was excited by the opportunity to attend, but really nervous that I wouldn’t make the cut.
The panel I had pitched with two friends ended up getting waitlisted, but then I got an e-mail out of the blue in January saying that I had been chosen to be a SXSW mentor. It was a new program this year and I was thrilled to find out that I had been chosen, but I was immediately hit by feelings of fear that they’d soon realize they made a huge mistake and anxiety over everything else I’d have to pay for to actually attend.
Like I said, a lot about SXSW felt like going back to college. Well, imagine getting a scholarship to a top school you couldn’t afford to attend otherwise…and then finding out that the scholarship only covered tuition and not room and board, books, or any of the social activities you were expected to do. You’d probably still want to go, but it would be stressful figuring out how. That was the position I was in for the past couple months. I had to pay for my hotel, which was going to be around $700; I didn’t have a roommate because I hadn’t known if I was going to make the cut or not so I didn’t make arrangements. I also had to pay for my own travel and food. I recognize that I was incredibly lucky to have my badge paid for at all, but after finding out a couple weeks ago that one of my regular employers hadn’t taken out any taxes in 2011, the timing was just pretty bad. I considered not going on more than one occasion.
While I don’t like getting into my personal finances this much, I feel like this is an important disclaimer — you should know that how I experienced SXSW was very much influenced by my awareness of the cost of the conference.
First, the fact that I felt like the poor kid who didn’t really belong made me super anxious going into SX. I was hyper-aware of all the wealth around me and, really, the wealth of the whole tech industry. I didn’t really feel like people cared that it was so expensive or that the attendees might all enjoy a certain level of privilege, so I actually found it fascinating when the “homeless hotspots” sparked controversy among attendees a few days ago and the national news media picked up the story. Many attendees who were upset “zeroed in on the divide between its impoverished vendors and Internet-bubble customers,” while others argued that those outraged were mostly outraged because they didn’t want to be reminded that homelessness exists while they juggling two iPhones and debating which amazing restaurant they could go to for their next meal. Even before that happened, though, the high cost of attendance just made me a bit wary of what the other attendees might be like or what the general attitude was going to be.
As for the general attitude, I actually expected the attendees to be a lot douchier, and they really weren’t douchey. Or hipsters. I think the majority of people there felt humbled by the experience, even if they had a large disposable income or a really great job or a lot of followers on Twitter. Keeping with the college analogy, I also felt like going to SXSW was like getting a scholarship to a top school…only to get there and see that every other person there was also the smartest kid in her school, which was bigger and better than your school. I felt like a teeny, tiny fish in a very big pond, but I know now that a lot of other people did too. When you’re sitting in a session with people who work at the top tech companies in the world or who have written a book you love, it’s hard not to feel humbled, you know? I also felt like the only attendee who was there without a friend, coworker, or buddy; I was so incredibly relieved when I found out Meghann was going. Having her there, and later, another friend — another Megan — helped me relax so much. But I know now that even if I hadn’t had them I would have been OK because the other attendees were, for the most part, really good people and it’s easy to make new friends. While many certainly name-dropped or tried to make themselves sound like a Really Big Deal, on the whole I felt like most people were incredibly nice and friendly and I would have been OK attending solo.
The biggest way being there “on scholarship” influenced my experience was the fact that it made me feel like I needed to be awesome. It’s the same way I’ve felt every other time I’ve gotten a scholarship or financial assistance for some really cool opportunity: I felt that because I was so lucky to be there, I had to prove that I was grateful and also that I was the right choice. I’ve always found it hard to deal with combination of the shame of having less than others, the pride in your opportunity, and inability to talk to anyone about that without feeling ungrateful. If I had paid for myself to go, I may have taken slightly less than full advantage of everything going on at SXSW. But in this case, even though there was no one keeping track of what events I attended or who I exchanged business cards with, I felt a certain amount of pressure. I felt like I had to win at SXSW.
Winning at SXSW turned out to be a bit harder than I expected because of the logistics of the conference, which I wasn’t aware of until I arrived. I assumed all the interactive sessions were in the Austin Convention Center, but they were actually spread out all over town. This made it a lot more difficult to get to everything because you had to account for travel time. What made it even worse was the fact that some rooms were completely full 30 minutes in advance while others were still mostly empty five minutes into a session. The first day, I actually had to leave a session early to go line up for my next session. I got into it, but then was told I couldn’t leave to go to the bathroom because they wouldn’t be able to let me back in. It was really frustrating. That, plus the insane amount of rain we got over the weekend, wore me out, and as a result, I had little desire to go to the parties between sessions or in the evening.
But then I felt like both an ingrate and a kid who doesn’t want to go out partying because she might miss a class. I overheard a lot of attendees talking about how they were out all night partying, that they slept in, that they “didn’t make it to any session before 3:00,” and I felt like I was a freak for wanting to be in the sessions. But then I felt like a freak for not wanting to go to the parties. I mean, on the one hand, I felt like I really did need to go to the parties to win at SXSW, but on the other hand, I’m just not a high-functioning person when I have a hangover. I felt really overwhelmed by that pressure at times and struggled to balance the expectations of those around me with my expectations of myself and then what I felt like I could realistically physically and mentally handle. An acquaintance of mine who went to Harvard once told me that Harvard isn’t really that hard — getting in is the hard part, and once you’re in, you’re in, and the good name is enough and you don’t need to do amazing work. I felt sort of similarly about SXSW. I think a lot of people were just there because it’s cool and trendy to say you’re going and no one really seems to care what you do while you’re there, or they only care about what parties you went to or if you saw Jay-Z perform.
So for the first couple days, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough or meeting enough people and I felt very insecure. While it might be hard to understand why I’d care so much about a conference that seems like a big silly party, SXSW is something my industry takes pretty seriously and this was a big moment in my career. The stress I felt about SXSW was, in a lot of ways, a really tangible example of the stress I feel about my career, my writing, my blog, my ambition, and my own expectations. But as the conference went on, I just sort of stopped listening to all the “listen to what I just did at SXSW!” chatter going on around me and asked myself, Why am I here? What do I want out of this? What’s important to me? What are my expectations of SXSW and of myself? How little sleep can I operate on? Finding the balance between the guilt of not doing enough, the fear of missing out, the reality of the SX logistics, and the reality of my own limitations was difficult for me, but it got a little easier each day. By Monday, I realized that going to parties didn’t necessarily mean getting wasted; it meant going and networking over a drink, and it was worth doing not because it made people think you were cool, but because it was actually the best way to network and meet interesting people. And, most important, I realized was that a lot of people felt the same way I did — the need to be awesome, the need to take full advantage, the need to prove that they should be here — and just didn’t talk about it. At all. Ever. In any way shape or form.
So that’s why I’m talking about it and I hope that talking about it doesn’t make it sound like I had a shitty time, because I didn’t; the fact is, I had an awesome time and I cannot wait to tell you about the sessions and parties I attended. I learned a lot, connected with some pretty exciting people, and had a lot of fun. But that’s the same story of SXSW you’ve likely already heard; I want you to know that at least one attendee felt scared, broke, out of place, and insecure. No one ever told me that while yeah, it would be awesome, the idea that every newbie could just go by herself, know where to go and what to do, attend 20 parties and 40 panels, easily meet tons of important people, and just totally win at SXSW without experiencing any self-doubt is, actually, complete bullshit.