Nearly twenty years ago, I attended my first South by Southwest conference. At this point in my life, I have no idea about the specifics. I couldn’t tell you what I did and whom I met. All I know is the experience changed my life for the better.
I loved the conference – and the city – so much that I moved there in 1995. (And again in 2002 after I left Wired.) In the ensuing years, I returned to the conference every year. I returned for Music, then for Interactive, and finally for Film. Now, I return for them all.
I have done this conference as press, as an attendee, as a panelist, as a moderator, as an emcee, and always as a nerd. These days I do some panel vetting as part of the Advisory Board, I evangelize about the conference and I’ll be emcee’ing the Accelerator for the third year.
I tell you all of this narcissistic pabulum as a way to convince you that what I’m about to tell you has some merit or weight to it. Of course, this being SXSW Interactive you are more than willing to – well – interact with this content however you’d like. (And I know you will my Nerdikins.)
What I’d like to offer you is my SXSW Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse (and my handy dandy map to all things Not-SXSW related in Austin that you must do):
PART I: Your General Health
- Wear Comfortable Shoes: I’m not the first to say this nor am I the last. But trust me on the sunscreen. Er, shoes. You will be walking all over Thor’s creation and by the end of day one, your feet will be barking. Big deal, you say, it’s only one day. Yeah, SXSW replies, there are 5 more days of this. (11 if you’re tough and stay the whole time.)
- Drink Water: Runners know this to be true. You don’t wait until you’re thirsty to hydrate. You hydrate while you go. There is booze everywhere. You will not be sleeping. You will be surrounded by 12,000 germ-infested Nerdizens on Spring Break.
- Sleep: Every year, the post-SXSW Plague strikes down thousands of Nerds. South by Southwest is like kindergarten: a petri dish of illness waiting to happen. Got some down time: take a freaking nap. You’re missing something for sure. But you’ll be missing something every second of the conference. There’s too much going on.
- Run…in the morning: It’s hot in Texas. Really. Freaking. Hot. If you aren’t used to it, it will get you. You are not badass. You are not tough. You are a human in a really hot climate. (In the summer, it’s not uncommon to have 100 degree weather.) Plan on getting your outdoor exercise out of the way early. Maybe it will be mild. But don’t chance it.
Part II: The Conference (Shit Not To Do)
- There Are No Cabs: Austin wasn’t made to house tens of thousands of people massing downtown. It’s a slow-moving, mosey type of town. You will not get a cab. And if you do, you shall wait at least an hour for said cab. At least. If it comes at all. You will not get a cab.
- You Can’t See Everything: There are more than 300 panels going on. There are 10 different venue locations. This means you can’t see everything. Don’t try. You will not enjoy yourself if you try. Pick out a few topics you want to learn more about and find a few panels.
- Don’t Show Up Just In Time: If you show up at the last minute to panels, keynotes, parties…really anything, expect to wait. And don’t expect that wait to yield entrance. And really don’t expect your name to help you line jump.
- Don’t Just Hang With Your Friends: If you spend all your time with the people you already know, you’re missing the point of South by Southwest. It’s cool to have a posse. It’s cooler to have a new posse every day.
- Big Parties Are For Suckers: You think you want to go to the big parties. You hear there’s an open bar. The music will be kicking, you say. Maybe that’s true. You won’t notice though because the line is around the block. Plus, there’s no place to sit. And you can’t hear anybody. Or get back to the bar.
- You Are Not Famous: Austin in home to Mike Judge, Sandra Bullock, the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. You – no matter who you are – are not famous. Most of the people staffing these events are Austin-ites. Name dropping yourself will only make you look foolish. Unless you are Richard Linklater. Then you are famous and you should totally name drop.
- Don’t Write That SXSW Sucks Post-Conference Blog: Some of you will want to. You’ll ignore these rules. You’ll get locked out of a party. You’ll find there are no V.I.P. rooms at a conference with the name “Interactive” and be bummed. You’ll find that when the nerds gather, few people are impressed with Internet fame. You’ll want to rip off a “SXSW Sucks” blog. My advice: don’t do it. Because Google Alerts never misses a blog, and you’ll likely be back at some point in the future. And the database doesn’t forget. It’s okay to criticize. It’s okay to be brutal. But don’t be petty about it.
Part III: The Conference (Shit To Do To Rock SXSW’s Face Off)
- Talk To People: South by Southwest is way too big to tackle in one year. Or five years. Or twenty years. Instead of trying to see and do everything (see #2 in Part II), introduce yourself to everyone. Particularly in those few panels you’ve decided to attend. You know the ones you arrived early to see. Talk to people in the hallways. Invite them to lunch. The value of SXSW is – like Soylent Green – the people.
- Do Lunch: I make sure I leave the Austin Convention Center area every day for lunch. And I leave with people. New friends, old friends. Whomever I can convince to come with. Don’t worry about what they do or why they are here. Just grab them and go to lunch. (This is also part of Part 1: Your General Health)
- Plan: There are 10 venues this year and a crazy big schedule. But you can use the filtering tools to find some of the interesting panels that you want to see. Don’t plan a Wall-To-Wall experience because you’ll need time for lunch. And that lunch will lead to you experiencing other panels. Still, have a simple game plan every day.
- Make Your Own Party: Grab some friends. Grab some newbies. Grab strangers walking down the hall. Head out and create your own South by Southwest adventure.
- Walk Screen Burn + The Vendor Space: While this isn’t a traditional convention, it’s still good to check out some of the vendors and game companies. You can meet some nice folks and – trust me on this – many of them know what’s happening around the event because they ask everyone who comes by.
- Do Dorkbot: It’s an all-night event, but do it.
- Do Plutopia: It is an all-night event, but do it.
- Help A Nerd Out: A few years ago, I spent my entire South by Southwest shuttling people around town. It was the best South By I’ve ever had. I met people from around the world. I had great dinners. I had great conversations. And…it’s led to lasting friendships and trips to Europe. Being a helpful little nerd is the best kind of nerd to be.
- High Five A Volunteer: What’s hard to imagine is that the actual staff of South by Southwest is quite small. Most of the folks working this event don’t get paid. (They may get wristbands, but they work for it.) And the staff that does get paid works all year to pull this event off. I see just a small part of the work they do and it makes me want to pass out. If you see a volunteer or a staffer, say “Thanks” and give them a high five. It’s the righteous thing to do.
- Check Out The Bats: The largest urban bat colony in North America lives underneath the Congress Bridge in Austin. Like good vampires, they come out as the sun goes down.
Part IV: Returning Home
- Home Will Be Sad: You will experience a bit of a let down when you return home. You will want to quit your job, school, life…everything, and return to South by Southwest. Take a deep breath and do what the rest of us do: get on Twitter and count down the days until it begins again.
- You Will Get The Plague: Despite my instructions (that you ignored), you have gotten sick. It’s pretty terrible. You will be knocked out for 2-4 days. Plan accordingly for it.
- Follow Up: Remember all those people you promised to follow up with? Do that. You have started to form a new Nerd Posse.
- Send Feedback: The South by Southwest staffers read everything you write about the event. They respond to much of it too. And they take it to heart. Keep that in mind as you write your follow ups. (See #7 in Part II.)
- Power: You will be walking around with a multitude of electronic devices. There are a limited number of outlets . Want to make friends? Bring a power strip.
- Follow The Organizers: Make sure you follow @H_Forrest (he oversees the Interactive festival) and @frandy38 (he programs the Music panels).
- Don’t Forget The SXSW Social Network: It’s tough to keep up with thousands of attendees, but you can use some of the tools created by South by Southwest to organize, find, and talk with folks you know before you get down to Austin.
- Use The Back Channels: Panels are fun, but the back channels are better. Want to get to know your attendees? Make sure you’re participating in the Twitter stream during panels and keynotes. Other folks are reading. Make virtual friends real.
- Follow LaughingSquid: Certainly you should find your way around the SXSW-Twitterverse on your own. But start with @laughingsquid.
- Definitely Go To The Closing Party: While I’m not advocate for most parties, the Media Temple closing party is always one for the ages. People are tired, sad, thrilled, exhausted, and huggy. It’s the end of Interactive. 360 days until the Nerds Unite. You don’t want to miss this.
That’s what I have for you, my good people. I’m sure there is more. There is always more. Feel free to add your thoughts below. Or send me a note via Twitter — @thebradking – and I’ll update as we go along.
I hope to see you around the block. Maybe we can grab some lunch.