How to Fit in At SXSW

The article below originally appeared on the Houston Chronicle’s Techblog 

Off to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin (see my previous post about it here ).

Already the blogosphere is abuzz with anticipation. From Dave Nunez’s guide to SXSW:

There is a LOT of ad-hoc and errr… “multitasking” side chatter going on during the panels. People whip out their laptop and start clattering away taking notes, browsing and IM’ing. In some cases they’ll be supplementing what the speaker is saying with quick google searches or playing peanut gallery in an IRC room, “Can you believe she just said that?” or “This speaker is pretty good. How is the speaker in your room?

Here’s how to fit in among a bunch of entrepreneurial creative geeks:

  1. Don’t mention these words: Microsoft, Time-Warner, SBC,, myspace, George W., friendster, copyright reform, Grokster, comment spam. In this crowd, it’s dangerous; you might subject yourself to rants lasting 30 minutes or more.
  2. Scoff at the previous speaker’s remarks and mention an even hotter buzzword, (“Didn’t somebody already show the technology doesn’t scale? Aren’t people using CalDev now?”)
  3. Bring an extra extension chord for hooking up your laptop. Great conversation starter.
  4. Don’t act amazed when you meet a female geek.
  5. If you work for IBM or Apple, don’t talk about it at all. Geeks could care less. They’d be more impressed if you talk about a comic book you are working on or a flash video game.
  6. Take photos indiscriminately. (Everyone at sxsw is taking photos of themselves, friends, the elevator, the lights, the nearby dumpster). (See these flickr photos tagged sxswi ).
  7. Be shameless about self-promotion (with buttons, cards, stickers, flyers, pink hair , radical T-shirts, etc). Every other person I meet seems to start a conversation like this, “I run, this cool new site that uses blanketyblank technology to help you do blanketyblank.” Even if you don’t have a shtick, feel free to mention some vaporware you plan to release soon.
  8. Act slightly uncomfortable at parties. (Your level of external discomfort is inversely proportional to your level of god-given talent).
  9. Ignore anyone over 30. Maybe they were doing interesting things back in the last century , but now they are here merely to reminisce about the boom and hear the speech by Bruce Sterling (quintessential old-timer geek). The only exception to the above rule is if an over-30 has sold his web innovation to yahoo, in which case he is treated like a hero.
  10. Whenever the subject of wireless convergence or community wifi comes up, look ahead with a wistful expression and sigh.
  11. If you run into a web luminary while in the bathroom, resist the urge to gush over his recent blogpost or podcast. Trust me–don’t. (I learned the hard way after 4 years of attending). The luminary is in the bathroom for one reason–please respect that.
  12. Everyone’s energy level is so high here that it becomes fatiguing very quickly. Sometimes you’ll meet a cool geek during a “downtime moment”, in which he’ll be impassive and incoherent. Let him be. He’s probably in a state of recharging. Don’t write off these people too quickly; the next time you meet him he might be fully back to his extraordinary self.
  13. Understand geek modesty. Every blogger/web designer will say, “My site currently sucks, but I’m working on something that will look awesome when it comes out.” That’s perfectly normal. (It’s always funny when a presenter accidentally stumbles upon an old/incomplete page that looks terrible; we laugh not at him but with him. All of us have legacy/archived webpages that look awful in contemporary browsers and we never had time to fix).
  14. The fun of going to SXSWi is running into people who are incredibly talented and famous and you have never heard of. It’s a little like waiting in line at Walmart behind two people who won the Nobel prize for chemistry last year. On the outside they look perfectly ordinary, and even if you hear them talk, you wouldn’t have a clue they were famous or brilliant. Enjoy it. At my first SXSW I ran into a tattooed renegade flash artist named Josh Davis . I knew he did something with Flash, but I ended up talking instead about his trip to Yugoslavia (I had gone there too recently). We had the usual 5 minute exchange of witticisms, and he invited me to his demo the next day. I hedged, saying, maybe I’ll come, but I would have to check my schedule (truthfully, I wasn’t particularly interested). “No,” he said, “you really have to see it. It will be incredible!” “I’ll try,” I replied, walking away, noticing a crowd of 30 people three feet away looking at us, awestruck. As I went for refreshments, one of them tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “That’s Josh Davis. He’s big. I mean, really really big! He’s like the most famous flash artist on the planet!” (The next year I did see his demo, and yes, it was incredible!).
  15. Don’t worry about faux pas. Even the geekiest among us haven’t heard of 70% of all the cool things out there. Ignorance is embarrassing only if you let it. At some point you’ll discover that the person with whom you’d been exchanging your incoherent and ill-informed Ajax technology was in fact the brilliant person who invented it last year. It’s probably wise not to disparage any product or web technology unless you 1)actually know what you’re talking about and 2)you have checked to make sure the person you are talking to didn’t invent it or write a book about it.
  16. Fanboy moments. It’s ok to walk up to some lowly artist or geek and rave about something they did. In your mind this person might be famous, but often nobody else probably thinks so. Last year, I had my first fanboy moment (yea!) when a total stranger came up to praise my Austin Sucks essay. A year before that, I ran into Cameron Barrett, a blogger I’d been following for over two years. When I saw him, I was incredibly nervous; did he realize how religiously I’d been following his daily reports about the web? Cam was unfazed by the encounter and went on to the next panel. Clearly, he didn’t find it awkward/humbling/or wierd. That’s good.

Check back tomorrow for my report about the conference’s first day.

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer ) writes fiction under various pseudonyms.