SXSW Survivor

4 Apr

A Tweet of mine that got posted on a sign during the SXSW Interactive craziness. Photo by Rob Quigley

I’ve been approaching this blog post with a weird trepidation that’s gotten worse the longer I’ve put it off. Typically when I have a column run in the paper or something significant I had published to share, I post it here right away. But for what feels like two months straight, almost everything I wrote about was related to South by Southwest Interactive and it got to be so exhausting posting and posting and posting about that elsewhere that I just had no gas left to come over here and repeat myself. So a month and a half of columns, two big pieces I wrote for CNN, literally dozens of SXSW-related blog posts, a major profile I did for the Statesman and more has just fallen through the WordPress cracks of non-updates around here.

How badly have I been procrastinating on this? I DID A MANUAL UPDATE TO WORDPRESS that had been nagging me for months just so I’d have an excuse to do something else before starting this post. I FTP’d my ass off just to delay the inevitable. “I can’t write the SXSW post,” I thought to myself, “not with an old version of WordPress! That would be disgusting!”

Don’t get into a procrastination contest with me. You will lose. Eventually. Years from now.

So in order to make this as painless as possible, I’ll just run through all the content. Please bear with me. I don’t expect anyone to go through and click and read through all of this material. It’s a giant mountain of writing and some of it is by now out of date and of no real use to anyone but me for the purposes of having it all in one place.

But despite all my grumbling about how much work it was and how exhausting I feel after it’s over, SXSW Interactive really was pretty great and magical and worthy of note, or we would never put the kind of effort we do into covering it the way we do. I have to keep reminding myself of that and remembering that I actually thought we did a better job this year and I had more fun and less frustration than in 2011 covering the event.

So here we go. Strap in!


On March 3rd, I profiled the opening keynote speaker of the festival, Baratunde Thurston, who recently published a very funny book called How To Be Black.  He was a great phone interview and I got to see his keynote and a much smaller party event where he was just as charming, super-smart and insightful.  So glad I got to meet him this year.

I wrote a column for CNN that got a lot of attention at the fest called “The Changing Culture of SXSW.”  I wrote a similar piece for the Statesman last year, but I got the feeling that a lot of newcomers to the fest (and perhaps CNN readers) weren’t as familiar with the fest’s origins and how it’s evolving.

I also got to write a lighter piece specifically for newcomers at CNN with tips for first-timers to the fest.  Coolest part of that one was that the story made it to the top-of-the-page center spot on for a little while. (Screen shot above).

On March 11th, we did an interview with Jennifer Pahlka that ran as a Digital Savant column.  She founded Code for America, a group that’s doing some amazing stuff nationwide with city data and an army (or brigade) of volunteers and fellows. She also delivered a keynote at SXSW Interactive.

I didn’t have a column in the paper on March 19th due to SXSW Music coverage, but the day before, I had a pretty large wrap-up of the festival in the Sunday paper detailing some changes this year and some of the hype and money pouring into the fest.

That set the stage for the next week’s column, in which I more overtly ask the question, “Are we in a social media and apps bubble that’s about to burst?”  I get to use the column as an outlet for my anxiety sometimes.

And this week’s column was about a big trend we saw at the fest, a bunch of financial services and mobile payment add-ons that count point to where we’re going as far as paying for stuff with our phones instead of with traditional cash or credit.

News and other articles

SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest. Photo by Julia Robinson, for the American-Statesman

Had a bit of an early scoop when I found out from Apple that they weren’t planning to do another pop-up store at this year’s SXSW.

My favorite thing I wrote leading up to the fest was a profile of SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest that ran on the Saturday of the fest.  It was a story I was surprised we’d never written before in all our years of covering the fest.

A few days into the fest, the story broke about “Homeless Hotspots.”  We ended up running a piece in the next day’s paper about the topic, which ended up being one of the most talked-about things at Interactive (especially by people who weren’t at the fest).

We ran daily stories in the metro section wrapping up what was going on, like this one.

In the weird lead-up to the fest, Apple announced the new iPad and I ended up being mentioned in a CNN story about it because of a Tweet I wrote while it was being announced.

I did a preview of this year’s Screenburn Arcade event for the Austin360 print section, which had a very cool cover on it (you can see it below: from Street Fighter x Tekken.)

Austin360 cover by Adrian Zamarron.

And then there were perhaps 100 or so blog entries that our staff wrote.  It was a great team this year and I was thrilled to have a great mix of staffers, freelancers and editors working with us and contributing so much writing, photos, videos and more to the Digital Savant blog.

I don’t even know where to begin as far as the daily stuff goes because it’s all just a blur, but I interviewed Segway inventor Dean Kamen, got a nice swag bag, took some pics at ScreenBurn, caught an important mom blogging panel, met Tobey Maguire and saw Leonardo DiCaprio at a party (weird story), watched Kevin Smith go way over his allotted time, got terrified by Ray Kurzweil, saw Al Gore interview Sean Parker, caught Jay-Z, Sleigh Bells and Major Lazer all on the same night (crazy!), and got the scoop on this year’s 27 percent jump in attendance before anybody else.

I also received one of the weirdest voicemails of my life right after the fest ended.

That’s far from all that I wrote and just a fraction of what the whole staff produced in the five days of Interactive.  Looking back on it nearly a month later, I’m kind of amazed.

Photo by Vivien Killilea, via Getty Images Entertainment, provided by Mobli.


I only told a few people this last year and one of them, eventually, was my editor, but I think a week or two after 2011’s festival I swore to myself that this was the last year I was going to put myself through this, that somehow I was going to get out of covering the festival in 2012, no matter what.

As with having a second kid when you start to forget what having the first one entailed, I stopped thinking like that by the time March 2012 arrived and I’m glad.  This year’s fest was busier, larger and crazier than the year before, but I think I did a much better job balancing work and fun. In 2011, the ratio was completely out of whack and I went home feeling like I’d burned myself out and missed it all with my head stuck in a laptop.  This year, I made sure to devote lots of evening time to friends I never get to see, to be more open to ditching things on my schedule that weren’t absolutely necessary and, as always, resisted trying to set too many appointments and driving myself crazy trying to get from place to place.

On the Sunday of the festival, I forced myself to miss a panel and instead go see a band I’d been wanting to check out live, Wild Child, at a tiny, practically empty live show.  That turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of the entire fest and it was a completely private moment away from from the throngs.

One of the nights of the fest I got to see Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal and other comedians do stand-up for a Bob’s Burgers event.

I took my bike to the fest this year.  First of all, I forgot I had a bike.  I had to pump the tires and wipe off the dust and ride it to make sure the damn thing still worked.  Work it did.  I even bought a fancy bike lock, transported the bike to Austin and rode it around.  The first two days of the fest, it rained, so that was useless, but the rest of the festival it got me where I needed to go much faster, and was a nice way to end each night, crossing the Lady Bird Lake bridge to the newspaper parking lot when I’d usually be trudging back on foot.

I took care of myself more.  On two nights of the fest, I stayed at my brother’s new apartment in Austin instead of commuting back to New Braunfels.  I made a point of finding decent food to eat and drinking tons of water instead of just skipping meals like I usually did.

And I brought more phone chargers and gear (like a simple plastic bag to put in my bike seat when it rained) that saved me lots of headaches.

Mostly, though, my editor and I just planned the crap out of the festival.  We went through 1,000+ panels multiple times, had scads of Google Docs we shared and just really got our heads in the game a lot earlier than we usually do (and our planning usually begins in January).  We were just better prepared this year and that preparation paid off, especially when we were thrown curveballs. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now my editor Sarah is really organized and great at planning.)

Good experience, pretty amazing festival, and I don’t even feel exhausted or burned out talking about it.

But talk about it I will stop because it’s practically all that’s come out of my mouth for months and that needs to end.  Until, you know… January of 2013.

A few more pics:

3 Responses to “SXSW Survivor”

  1. Claudia Snowden April 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Outstanding. Had to share on FB. SXSWi is totally exhausting in every way, but one of the most exciting and important events in the country. Fabulous wrap-up.

    • Omar G. April 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Thank you, Claudia! Wish I had posted it sooner, but glad you read it.

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