South by Southwest is a music festival, one of the country’s largest. It turned 25 this March and is always held in Austin in the spring. Half its age but just as influential is South by Southwest Interactive, the sister festival about technology, ideas and the very near future. SXSWi turned 16 this year and topped 15,000 attendees. And though SXSW’s nerdier sibling now has, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the eyes of the technical world upon it,” the festival is still significantly attended by artists, designers, business people, book publishers and journalists who wouldn’t know a line of programming code if you mugged them with it.
Writers have been coming to SXSWi since its earliest days. Science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling has given a closing day presentation for nearly a decade. Jonathan Zittrain, Steven Berlin Johnson, and Clay Shirky have all promoted books there. And I was fortunate to introduce Malcolm Gladwell before his Blink keynote in 2006.
And yet even when lubricated with breakfast tacos and Shiner Bock, South by Southwest Interactive intimidates even the most outgoing, least literary among us. It’s big, loud, forward-thinking, and impatient with tradition, characteristics few writers affix to themselves. It is also not friendly to Luddites or slow adopters. Do you know what a “hashtag” is? Does not knowing bring you pride? If so you’ll find few kinsman here.
You should still go. I’ve attended the last 11 years and few events (perhaps BookExpo America and the invention of Twitter) have been as valuable to my own writing endeavors as South by Southwest Interactive. I may be on the louder, impatient side myself, an ESTP disposed to hosting parties rather than crafting prose. But hang on to your doubts for a second and allow me to break down why I’d like to see more of my literary colleagues at SXSWi next spring.
1) New Ideas. South by Southwest Interactive is the birthplace of the future. Trends, technologies, and social movements you’ll read or hear two years from now will present themselves first at the conference. If you’re the kind of writer whose imagination generates more than enough material, congratulations. I often need something from the outside. And a peek into the near future, getting a sense of what Emerson calls “gates, possibilities, strings of tension waiting to be struck,” gets me going. Nothing says “Get to work!” like knowing there’s an incredible future just ahead, and knowing you’ll miss it if you sit still.
2) Our kinda future. The festival doesn’t trade in a future defined by flying cars or Chicken Kiev served as a pill. Instead, it’s deeply rooted in examining important sectors in the midst of transformation. For us writers, that means publishing, a topic the conference represents amply and well. This year featured an entire track of sessions grouped under the heading “Future of Journalism,” which included sessions on ebook platforms, transmedia storytelling, intellectual property issues, and the future of long form storytelling.
If the content isn’t compelling enough, come for the attendees. South by Southwest Interactive is now on par with BookExpo America and The O’Reilly Tools of Change conference as the gathering place for the people who care most about where books and writing are going. They are the ones who will invite you to dinner then talk into the night about great books and what an exciting time it is to be a reader. I know these folks and have been lifted in the whirlwind of their enthusiasm. You’ll only want to be set down long enough to a) start writing like mad and b) figure out when you can see them next.
3) Uncomfortable = Good. I’ll be the first to say that being a newcomer to the festival is like freshman orientation week at a giant university. You’ll feel lost, overwhelmed, too shy to approach everyone you don’t know, and worried you’re not smart enough to be there.
I’ll also be the first to say that this is a good thing. Why? Because I’ve just described the creative state writers volunteer for when practicing their craft. Frank Conroy called it writing from the edge of what you know and the barely-lit corner of what you understand. We don’t write from our lover’s arms nor ignite motivation from a late Sunday in bed. Bravery in the face of unknowingness is one of the great skills of our trade. At SXSW Interactive, you get to both exercise it and recover with comrades afterward (See #2).
4) The Nonfiction Edge. For nonfiction writers, journalists, and even fiction writers who like to jump the fence, SXSWi is overflowing with great stories, characters, sources, and trends. And at its gargantuan size, it’s entirely possible to avoid whatever’s drawing the most media heat and still walk away with 10 great ideas for articles, profiles, blog posts, and essays.
5) Late Night Dining. As with any conference, if you’re doing SXSW Interactive correctly, you won’t be eating or sleeping at normal hours. Austin is one of America’s great towns for late-night dining, with several of its mainstays growing their own produce and offering past midnight food you won’t regret the next morning.
6) A Natural Escape. The Austin Convention center sits just a few blocks from Lady Bird Lake and the beautiful stretches of running trails along its banks. Unique to SXSWi and conferences of its size, is an easy escape, not just into the dark of your hotel room but into nature in spring. I take the opportunity at least once to recharge there.
7) I’ll Be There. Since I’m a conference vet, every year I invite literary newcomers to spend time with me and my conference brothers and sisters. There’s a spot for you next year. Just say I.
Kevin Smokler is the co-founder of Booktour.com who has served on the SXSW Interactive Advisory Board since 2004. He lives and writes in San Francisco.