SXSW 2006: Blog Bubble Bursts

I’ve been back from SXSW Interactive for more than two weeks and yet I still haven’t posted my thoughts. The reason? Well, I wrote something that was very negative and I’ve been sitting on it. I’m going to post it now, unchanged, but I will add that my malaise seems to have been shared by a number of people. And it appears to be affecting a number of conferences, not just SXSW. I heard a lot of complaints that ETech wasn’t so great this year, for instance. And tech conferences seem to be sprouting up all over the place like weeds. All part of the new “Web 2.0” bubble, I suppose.

But before I post my depressing screed, I will say that I managed to have a pretty good time nonetheless. It’s just too bad that I only get to see some of these amazing people just once a year. For evidence of my merrymaking, check out my photos on Flickr. I’ve posted my photos from 2001 and 2002 on there as well. Ah, nostalgia!

Read on if you dare…

SXSW 2006: Blog Bubble Bursts

I’m not quite sure how to preface my remarks about SXSW this year. I certainly didn’t start out writing something so negative. As always, I had a great time, but there was a vague sense of disappointment in the air this year among my friends. Although blogging has been growing for a few years now, this was the year I felt it fully entered the mainstream. Just as Toyota Prius owners no longer honk at each other, or iPod owners no longer nod at strangers with the same white earbuds, bloggers no longer seem connected just by virtue of being bloggers, and this saddens me.

SXSW 2000 has been described as the bloggers’ “coming out party” and since I started attending in 2001, it’s always felt like a blogger’s conference more than anything else. I loved that at Break Bread with Brad, everyone wore badges with their URL on them. Not what they did, or how much money they made, or even where they lived. I loved the egalitarian spirit of that. Even though a mythical “A-List” soon appeared, along with a backlash, that seemed more like a junior-high expression of cliquishness and jealousy than a serious social disruption. But of course, money changes everything, and SXSW is no different.

It’s strange. Some of the internet nerds I met five years ago are now running technology companies, some are millionaires. And I’m pretty much the same person I was then. It seems like it’s become necessary again to ask someone what they do, or where they work, as if that were more important than who they were.

We’ve stratified to the point where the web designers and the bloggers and the user experience designers and the technologists and the journalists and the venture capitalists don’t even know who each other are. The designers come to discuss design with other designers, the technologists come to present panels and then party with the other technologists. A few years ago, people primarily identified themselves as bloggers, and their jobs came next. I’m not sure if anyone else felt strange that one of the keynotes this year featured two famous bloggers, who were trying to make it their occupation.

All the talk this year was about the new Internet bubble. There was lots of free beer and a closing night party that featured music so loud that no one could talk to each other. There were lots of panels that featured titles like “Does Your Blog Have A Business?” and “How to Blog for Money by Learning from Comics” and “Sink or Swim: The Five Most Important Startup Decisions”. In fact, I haven’t heard the term “monetizing” for many years, but it poppped up again and again this year.

Before the conference, I decided to upload my photos from my first year to Flickr. After I came home, I compared them to my 2006 photos and there is a definite difference. I’m now in the process of uploading photos from other years and I find it amazing that just a few years ago, in the lobby bar of the Omni Hotel, you could find a group of about 30 people who were behind some of the most interesting web sites around. Now many of them are too busy working at their internet companies to attend, or if they do come, are busy with other “business” people or preparing for their panels on monetizing the blogosphere with Ajax or some other Web 2.0 twaddle.

I’m not opposed to advances in technology in themselves. It’s just that I think we’ve lost quite a bit of the spirit that made the original emergence of weblogs so exhilarating. In many ways it was unavoidable, and I’m sure that I sound like a typical crank, longing for the old days. But it hurts me on a personal level when some of the people in my photos from 2001 or 2002 don’t even acknowledge me anymore.

I was joking before the conference that I found many of the web designers in attendance intimidating. They weren’t much of a presence in 2001, and I definitely began attending the conference as what I described as a “scruffy blogger” rather than as an internet professional. The people I still hang around with most would probably fit that description as well, although many are brilliant writers, journalists, web designers or technologists. Back then, though, self-applying the label “blogger” to oneself was enough to gather a similar crowd of early adopters around. I used to proudly claim that I’d found my “tribe,” but this year, for the first time, I felt in danger of losing it.

No doubt, I’ll be back in 2007, but a few of us have begun discussing some of these disturbing changes and what we can do about them. If anything, there will be even more people there next year, and by most measures, this would be considered success: for SXSW, for the internet businesses, even for blogging. And many of the effects I’m describing are the natural outcomes of that success, and are probably unavoidable. But I’m not ready to give up something I love this much, and I’m curious to see if anyone else felt the same way as I did about this year’s conference. David Pescovitz of BoingBoing quoted Timothy Leary at the Bloggies this year, concerning feeling like an outsider: “Find the others.” Others, are you out there?

8 thoughts on “SXSW 2006: Blog Bubble Bursts”

  1. This year was rough for me too, and it was a very different conference from even last year. It felt more stratified and too big to really mingle like I did the last two years. I don’t know if it was me changing, or the conference, but I didn’t meet near as many people in different disciplines as I have in the past. That’s kind of disappointing as that was my favorite thing about the conference.

  2. I really loved this year in terms of business. I pay for my employees to come and so it was nice to get actual value out of the speakers and the money I have invested. While I love the social aspects of it, it’s nice to meet and talk in panels about things that are pushing us forward.

    Personally, it was a little more crowded but I think that was Austin as much as our conference. I think what it will take is just someone organizing the post events a little more and having peeps that missed this year come back.

    Just my .02

  3. I lived in Austin for almost 10 years. What you’re seeing is a microcosm of what has been going on in Austin for a very long, long time. The same things you note about SXSW are the same things, that in a larger sense, led me to move away from Austin recently. While you’re lamenting the SXSW scene…. ask yourself… did you ever see any Black people… a Black man at SXSW??? One, or two? Or as many as you see in other places the size of Austin? As you guessed, I am a Black man, a PhD from UT-Austin. As I saw Austin grow from a town into a traffic-snarled, lilly white town, I watched it become a great symbol of the great Divide between Black and White, Rich and Poor, Americans and Hispanics…

    The worst part…most Austinites… don’t even notice or recognize the homogeneity of the town ontheir side of I35 as being something of concern.

    Just turn on the ADT… protect me!

  4. Hi James,

    Sorry to be a bit late on this, but this is my first day off in a long time…

    Funny, for me 2001 Interactive was the most overwhelming and negative SXSW experience I have had in my years of attending. 2001 was large, 3 tiered (marketing, design, and technology), and very few people were friendly. I was desparately glad to see my Music friends when they showed up.

    All of that changed in 2003, when I entered the elevator of the Hampton Inn after checking and Jish greeted me and was very friendly. 2005 was the best year for friends and meeting new folk.

    I had a fear that this year it would be 2001 all over again and it was not, thank God. While the panels were a bit unmemorable, the social part of this year was good.

    Yes, this year was big and I didn’t get to hang out with as many friends as I wanted to, it was a true delight to see so many of my Brit / European and American friends after being in Ireland for grad school all year.

    I do agree with you that it was disappointing that many folk could not come or did not come this year due to work, etc. I will say this, maybe it is up to those of us who love the conference as an experience where we have the ability to meet new folks and hang out with old firends who enrich our lives to not let it get taken over by the biz talk and other unsavory bits. I will be at 2007 and have several ideas on building the community.

    smiles, jen ;o)

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