4 ways SXSW is like Davos (and one way it’s not)

I’ve never been to the World Economic Forum in Davos, but Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker has, and in the most recent issue he laid out his view of the world’s most famous executive conference. And you know what? It sounds a lot like South by Southwest Interactive, which, for the last decade or so, I have attended — whether I like it or not, since it’s in my backyard and everyone I know hits me up to crash on our floor.

What? They have sessions?

Many Davos participants rarely, if ever, attend even one [of the sessions]. Instead, they float around in the slack spaces, sitting down to one arranged meeting after another, or else making themselves available for chance encounters, either with friends or with strangers whom they will ever after be able to refer to as friends. [The New Yorker]

At SXSW, people will spend weeks across every conceivable social network convincing you to come to their panel (and, thus, justify the cost of their attendance). Just don’t expect those panel pimps to return the favor. I meet a good percentage of people who never go to any of them (aside from whatever panel brought them to Austin in the first place). Looks like Davos is the same way.

The eternal search for the new hotness

Another admonition: no matter how much you do, you will always have the sense that something else, something better, is going on elsewhere. On the outskirts of town, three men are hunched in the candlelit corner of a pine-panelled Gaststube, discussing matters of grave importance. You may think you don’t care about such things, but the inkling burrows like a tapeworm. The appetite for admittance can become insatiable. [The New Yorker]

The conversation from every party, panel and pathway to and from SXSW boils down to this: “What are you doing next?” The obsessive quest to attend the next hot (fill in the blank) is exhausting — and almost laughable if people weren’t so stupidly serious about it. The sense that the grass is greener even influences apps heading into the event, where polls, predictive apps for parties and even the insane use of group texting, as happened last year, all help play into what I think of as the anti-Zen of attending a conference.

You go because everyone else goes

Davos is, fundamentally, an exercise in corporate speed-dating. “Everyone comes because everyone else comes,” Larry Summers told me. A hedge-fund manager or a C.E.O. can pack into a few days the dozens of meetings—with other executives, with heads of state or their deputies, with non-governmental organizations whose phone calls might otherwise have been ignored—that it would normally take months to arrange and tens of thousands of Gulfstream miles to attend. [The New Yorker]

As for many industry events, people hit SXSW because they can catch in one place a huge subsection of the corporate, media and venture capitalists that they need to talk to. SXSW has grown in the last few years from having a very small venture capital and big corporate presence to almost being overrun by big-name businesses sponsoring parties. And the VCs? Back in 2004 or 2005 a few showed up, but since about 2009 they are everywhere (except at the panels, see point 1) searching for the new hotness (see point 2).

It’s just like high school!

There are as many Davoses as there are perceptions of Davos. Schwab might use the term “stakeholders,” and the stakeholders may be partial to the word “silos,” but another term that springs to mind when you are there is “cliques.” There is a tech crowd, a finance crowd, a media crowd, the spouses. (The annual meeting this year was merely eighty-three per cent male, in part because the W.E.F. imposed a quota.) A certain ferment occurs where the cliques overlap, but as often as not they pass in the night. [The New Yorker]

SXSWi has gotten so large in recent years that it now has separate venues for media, tech, film and a variety of other tracks at the event. What was once a decently sized show in the convention center has sprawled to 15 venues around Austin, which requires the use of a shuttle to get around. So like tends to stick with like. Which is a shame, because it’s when different groups interact that the most interesting events occur. Thankfully, there are still the parties.

Nerds are welcome

He found it noteworthy that while the scientists were expected to present their ideas in terms that laymen could understand—“We’re expected to do science lite”—the economists and the financiers hadn’t indulged their scientific counterparts with any primer for the financial crisis or what was happening in Europe. This was, to his eyes, a sign that the scientists and philosophers were window dressing. “I never felt excluded,” he said. “But it suggests that ultimately this isn’t for us.” [The New Yorker]

And finally, here’s why SXSW is still worth attending. Davos may cater to the financier and business set, but SXSW Interactive is all about the geeks: the more into robots, programming or something equally esoteric, the better. I’ve sat through some hard-core nerd panels and seen some fantastic after-hours displays of geekitude. The conference also embraces new technologies and encourages participants to contribute. This can be beneficial, such as taking questions via tweet, or it can devolve into a mob mentality that’s ugly to see. But for now, SXSW is still about the web, and it takes the principles of interactivity and geek worship seriously.

Bonus reason: the food

While I’ve never been to Davos, I’m willing to go all-in at the baccarat table that the Swiss Tex-Mex won’t hold a candle to the creamy jalapeno sauce at Chuy’s, the Mexican martinis at the Cedar Door or the mole sauce at El Chile. Actually, if you’re coming from out of town, forget that last one. I want to eat there next week.