Why does the tech world get a throwdown in Austin when the banks have had to cancel their bashes? The news out of South By Southwest shows that Web hipsters are every bit as bankrupt.
Intellectually, that is, as opposed to financially. Most people attending South By Southwest Interactive admit that they're there for the chance to hang out in Austin with the same Internet buddies they hang out with in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Without the parties, what's the point? That's always been the case with South By Southwest. It's just that with the economy prostrate and the social-networking bubble thoroughly popped, there's not even money to skim from the froth.
There's still enough money to pay for tickets to Austin, of course. But in good times and bad, SXSW has always suffered from a lack of purpose. The music and film festival which gave birth to it has real songs and real movies to talk about. The attendees of SXSW Interactive have nothing to look at but each other, and nothing to listen to but their own kind. Surely that explains why it ends up being a group grope of self-congratulation over little at all.
Ah yes, the bubbly parties. Facebook threw a party celebrating the launch of a tool for linking Facebook friends to iPhone apps, completing the circle of two recent technological fads. And Dennis Crowley's Foursquare — which may be based on code he sold to Google, his former employer — facilitated so-called "flash parties" at bars for those who couldn't get on the official party invite lists, or didn't care to wait in line. Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, launched Wefollow.com, a directory of users for Twitter, to help navigate the mess of messages broadcast on the service.
In other words, the best and brightest of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley are working on iterations of existing software for the most frivolous of purposes. There's not even a fundamental innovation in this round of tweaks meant to help you waste time more efficiently. (Gawker Media, the publisher of Gawker and Valleywag, threw a party of its own — but at least my colleagues were open about their intentions, which seemed to involve getting a bunch of geeks liquored up.)
It all reminds me of Camp Cyprus — the group of 20 Web cognoscenti, a gaggle of Facebookers and startuppers and wantrepreneurs who flew to a rich kid's dad's vacation home on the Mediterranean last fall and created a video of them cavorting in swimsuits to celebrate their own brilliance to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." It was an incredibly tone-deaf gesture at a time when Wall Street was imploding and people were losing their jobs.
Except the economy hasn't gotten any better. And South By Southwest Interactive has more than 10,000 attendees. So doesn't that make its excesses 500 times worse?
A few people had the sense to avoid this particular trainwreck. Ev Williams, the CEO of Twitter, gave it a pass — even though the tech crowd at SXSW did so much to popularize his status-updating service. That the likes of Rose and Crowley are the stars of this year's South By speaks to how far it has fallen.
I first attended South By Southwest a decade ago, when the dotcom boom had 12 months left to run. Mark Cuban, then the head of Broadcast.com, gave a keynote speech about Internet video; he sold his Web-video startup, Broadcast.com, to Yahoo a month later for $5.7 billion. Under Yahoo's ownership, Broadcast.com went on to not be YouTube.
The difference between then and now: Thanks to the delusions of public-market investors, there was actually money to be made from what Internet insiders admitted were inanities. Now there's no money and no hope of making it. There's just the frivolity left.
Videographer Richard Blakeley quizzed bloggers on the highlights and lowlights of this year's South By Southwest.
Scenes from South By Southwest: (photos by Scott Kidder and James Del)
Tumblr founder David Karp has a new Tumblrette, Stephanie Wei! Update: Okay, we've gotten this whole who's-David-Karp-dating thing straight. Stephanie Wei was recently spotted with Karp at a birthday party for Briana Swanson. A tipster explains:
Karp is most definitely dating Stephanie Wei though, to the annoyance of many. Her friends were calling and emailing me asking if he was gay or not a couple of weeks ago, and now they complain that she's always with him.
Pop17's Sarah Austin shows off her intellectual property.
Former Valleywag editor Nick Douglas puckers up to Laughing Squid's Scott Beale.
Lifehacker editor Adam Pash demonstrates how to open a beer bottle with a piece of paper.
Facebook employees pop champagne with sparklers, just in case you missed the point that they were drinking champagne.
CollegeHumor's Ricky Van Veen and Tumblr's David Karp attempt to locate South By Southwest's point.