How an unlikely mix of nerds, rock-and-roll hippie freaks, and business suits grew into the tech worlds most-talked-about annual gathering.
When South By Southwest Interactive launched in 1994, there wasn’t much to it: a couple hundred participants and a handful of panel discussions, all crammed into a few rooms at a Hyatt in Austin. Back then, the festival was really only half a festival—as evidenced by its title, SXSW Film and Multimedia—and was eclipsed by the vastly more successful SXSW Music Festival, from which it had spun off.’
Today, SXSW Interactive welcomes more than 30,000 registrants to Austin each March and has become a coveted launching pad for startups (including Twitter and Foursquare), a hunting ground for tech investors, a laboratory for forward-thinking ideas, and a lavish five-day party that’s often referred to as “geek spring break.”
MEMORABLE PANELS FROM THE FESTIVAL’S FIRST DECADE:
1. INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS FOR MULTIMEDIA (1995)
“What will be possible as … we move toward an age in which text, graphics, audio, and video will be simultaneously delivered to our desktops?”
2. NET SURFING: WEB BROWSING (1995)
“Sample the high-octane Internet environment by taking a Net cruise.”
3. THE WEB IS DEAD? (1996)
“Is Marc Andreessen the next Bill Gates? Or is [it] the other way around?”
4. ANARCHY (1997)
“New communication technologies heighten the potential for both social rebellion and government control.”
5. STREAMING VIDEO TECHNOLOGY (1999)
“How streaming video … will impact our traditional notions of home entertainment.”
6. WEBLOGS (2000)
“How and why weblogs are changing the way we express ourselves on the Internet.”
7. WEARABLE COMPUTERS (2001)
“The next generation of computers will be a fashion statement embedded directly into your clothing.”
8. THE REVOLUTION ISN’T OVER (2002)
“In the wake of the tech meltdown, there are still numerous new trends and opportunities.”
9. HOW TO FUND A SMALL INTERNET BUSINESS (2003)
“The heady days of high-dollar venture-capital investment may be over, but…”
10. THE IMPACT OF WI-FI WIRELESS INTERNET ACCESS (2003)
“The number of Wi-Fi hot spots will explode … making Wi-Fi the peoples choice for connectivity in the future.”
Photo by Gary Miller
But its two-decade history suggests the now-famous festival is quite a bit more than that. Within SXSW Interactive’s march from obscurity to prominence is the story of digital culture itself. SXSW was a hive of activity for early web denizens and hackers around the turn of the century, and a birthing ground for the social media revolution that reshaped modern life in the second half of the ’00s. Its emergence from the shadow of the music festival it grew out of mirrors the transformation of geeks into modern society’s newest rock stars.
A glance at the résumés of the dramatis personae enlisted for this oral history speaks to SXSW Interactive’s remarkable breadth and scope: In among the technologists, bloggers, investors, and founders of companies such as Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare are billionaires and a homeless man, rock stars and a pedicab driver, comedians and civil servants. “Something really interesting happened when you brought together all these people with very different backgrounds, interests, and expectations to mingle and get drunk and sleep together,” says Lane Becker, a blogger and entrepreneur, who has missed only one SXSW since 1997. “That is pretty much how culture happens.”
This is their story: a topsy-turvy, occasionally sad, sometimes contentious, frequently messy, but ultimately triumphant chronicle of how what began as little more than an afterthought grew into one of the most important cultural and economic incubators of the new millennium.
I attended Mindcamp in 2006 held in an unused, eerily empty office building in the southern Seattle industrial lands. Folks geeked out on projects and played a game called Wolverine with great intensity. I did not understand the game nor much else.