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SXSW Interactive: Spring Break for Geeks


by Stephen Becker 15 Mar 2011

South by Southwest is perhaps best known for its music conference. There’s also a film festival. But the Interactive conference drew the biggest attendance last year. About 14,000 people networked and learn about the latest and greatest in their field. But as KERA’s Stephen Becker reports many also came to Austin this year to cut loose and celebrate being a geek.

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South by Southwest is perhaps best known for its music conference. There’s also a film festival. But the Interactive conference drew the biggest attendance last year. About 14,000 people networked and learn about the latest and greatest in their field. But as KERA’s Stephen Becker reports many also came to Austin this year to cut loose and celebrate being a geek.

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By day, South by Southwest Interactive is a standard technology conference. People go to panel discussions with titles like “Unbelievable E-commerce” and “Web Designer’s Guide to OS Apps.” They network. Visit a giant trade show. And they hear plenty of high-tech pitches.

PITCH ONE: “It’s an open, OS platform. It can sit on top of android, it can sit on top of windows mobile, it can sit on top of simbian…”
PITCH TWO: “It uses drag and drop functionality and a complex behavior system in order for people to create games without having to deal with thousands of lines of code…”

But after 5, the laptops go back in their cases and the real interaction begins.

South by Southwest Interactive has a well-earned reputation as Spring Break for Geeks. Daily happy hours. Parties. There was even a Sexual Survival Guide presented on opening day for those looking for love or at least lust while they’re in town.

Organizers expect that 30-40% more people are here this year. And as the conference grows, it’s also outgrowing certain old stereotypes.

Shawn O’Keefe has helped plan panel discussions and speakers for the conference for 10 years. During that time he’s noticed geeks no longer look so … well … geeky.

O’KEEFE: “There used to be quite a difference between the interactive conference and festival and when the music conference and festival began in terms of types of audience – how they were dressed, what they looked like. We often say that the geeks want to rock, because there’s not the difference that we used to see.”

Saturday night, a company called Frog Design hosted a party in an indoor/outdoor space that holds 3,000 people. Still, a line stretched around the block. Inside, there were the usual free drinks and thumping music. Plenty of hipsters wearing scruffy beards and skinny jeans made the rounds. But this party also had stuff only a geek would love. A huge screen displayed a map of Austin color coded to reveal which areas had the most tweets emanating from them. (Of course, most of them were coming from inside the party.) Outside, a computer projected running times onto each porta potty to let you know how long they had been occupied.

These little touches might be lost on the larger world. But here, they help bind a community of people who often live their lives more online than in person.

Todd Jordan is a systems analyst from St. Louis.

JORDAN: “A lot of us are outliers and we don’t have a normal group of people we can hang with in our local communities. This is a great chance to hang together with people who are like-minded, have similar interests and be relaxed. It’s a way to just off-load and be a geek and you can’t do that anywhere else.”

Negin Farsad is a documentary filmmaker who made a film called Nerdcore Rising about the geek hip-hop community.

FARSAD: “South by South Interactive is definitely a chance for the geek community to celebrate itself and to be like, ‘I made this app, it’s going to be huge, you can eat my shorts.’”

That attitude cuts to the heart of the matter. These are the people running the world in the digital age. And if you hang around them enough, you get the sense that they know it. They may have grown up as social outcasts – the smart kids who spent more time playing computer games than football games. But when someone like Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world, there’s a sense that anything is possible.

Violet Blue is the online sex columnist who led the Sexual Survival Guide panel on Friday at SXSW.

BLUE: “It’s not revenge of the nerds anymore – that’s for sure. It’s turned into something where geeks are now the richest people in the world.”

Or, as South by’ Southwest’s O’Keefe puts it:

O’KEEFE: “The geeks have inherited the earth, yes.”

Who wouldn’t want to celebrate that?

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