Why I avoid tribes at SXSW

This year was my fourth time attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Four times isn’t that long but it is long enough to assess some of the changes that have come with the experience.

For years I have bragged about the festival’s awesomeness. To me it’s like the Online News Association conference but with people who have similar interest across dozens and dozens and possibly hundreds of different career directions. The core interest in technology and innovation is similar across the board. I love that so much. Tools like Group Me made it easier to stay in touch with friends inside your already existing tribes: career path, friend history… heck I had a Group Me of people I only see during SXSW. Tools like these make it easier to stick within your comfort zone.

One tool that emerged during the festival that tries to make it easier to discovery serendipitous meetings through technology was Highlight. It shows you people you randomly passed by during the day and gives you a look at their background. I happened to be in rooms with fascinating people. It ranged from scientists and space engineers to reporters and authors. Highlight will tell you if you have similar interests based on your Facebook profile and connections. It was cool to discover people I’ve never met who are friends with my Facebook friends. I talked to a couple of people through the tool to say hi and introduce myself. (A passive introduction is by “highlighting” someone you might want to meet.) The challenge of actually talking face to face with people you’ve highlighted is the fact that by the time you have a moment to look at the app and see who are the interesting people in the area, they’ve already left and you have to go above and beyond effort to find a chance to meet this person face to face again. (Oh, and I continued my #PowerFriends power strip friend-maker. I love meeting people by sharing hashtag-based electricity.)

That’s why I kind of miss pre-app SXSW. (Yeah, Twitter existed… but Foursquare was just getting started three years ago! My how times have changed.) My best moments were and remain the random eye contact conversations in the hallway, while you charge your phone or wait to order a beverage at the bar. My favorite meetings have always happened this way and it happened again this year. I met brilliant librarians, filmmakers and leaders of popular social media tools that I love to use.

This tribal SXSW is probably going to continue. But I will focus on breaking through it and I highly recommend working outside of your comfort zone when attending a massive conference like this one. I tried very hard to balance the combination of sessions, serendipitous meetings and reunions. The more years I put under my belt and the larger this event gets, the harder it will be to keep my focus on new experiences. But for now, SXSW remains worth it to me.

6 comments ↓

#1 Astrojoey on 03.18.12 at 4:13 pm

Interesting points Jen. Times are rapidly changing. Thanks for the article:)

#2 Jen Reeves on 03.18.12 at 4:55 pm

No problem!

#3 Jessica Malnik on 03.19.12 at 12:19 pm

While this was only my second time at SXSW, I couldn’t agree more. I ended up turning off Highlight on the second day- partially because of battery drain and partially because it was a distraction. The best people I met and conversations I had didn’t come from an app. They came from sitting down and striking up random convos in the Blogger Lounge or talking to people while waiting in line for the shuttle at 1am. Or even randomly walking into Twitter friends on 6th Street or in a bar. That’s probably my favorite part of SXSW. The random serendipity. No matter how hard Highlight or Glancee tries, I just don’t think they can ever completely achieve this.

#4 Susan on 03.19.12 at 12:26 pm

Wow. Highlight sounds really cool. I’m starting to understand and appreciate what you do.

#5 Martha Kang on 03.19.12 at 12:45 pm

Did you ever read that book Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shytengart? Highlight kind of reminds me of that book, which talked about knowing the stats of people you pass via app without ever meeting them or even saying hello.

#6 Jen Reeves on 03.19.12 at 1:48 pm

Martha, my friend Brad was just telling me about this book. He said the exactly same thing!

Leave a Comment