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5 things I’ve learned in 24 hours as a SXSW newbie

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Because I’m a journalist and somewhat of a nerd, which means I do things like read Romenesko and Poynter for fun every day, I’ve wanted to come to SXSW in Austin for years. I don’t remember when I first started feeling the pangs of missing-out-on-coolness-emanating-from-Texas in March, but I definitely muted the Twitter hashtag for at least the past two years and was deeply jealous of anyone I knew who went. When my journalism professors complained about having to go and moderate a panel last year, I thought they were the height of annoying. How could you possibly complain about hanging out with super hip people in a super hip city with tacos?

One of the most in-demand services in Austin? Phone charging.
One of the most in-demand services in Austin? Phone charging.

But now, less than 24 hours into my first SXSW experience, I’m sitting on the floor of the Austin Hilton charging all my dead iDevices, telling someone that, no, they can’t take my picture for a Tumblr of people charging things and wondering if naps on the plush carpeting are acceptable. My hair is looking sort of frizzy from the humidity and I’ve been offered more free drinks in place of food than I thought possible. (Please let me know if you see vegetables anywhere. To the lady who told me that “Bloody Marys are the same as breakfast,” no, that’s just not true.)

I’m texting people and complaining about various aspects of SXSW. And thank goodness, they’re reminding me to shut up.

Despite the warnings that SXSW isn’t what it used to be, and despite the frizzy hair and excess drinks, I’ve still had a blast in the 24 hours I’ve been here. I’ve found plenty of geeks, heard live music three different times, seen people I’ve only read about speak in person, and have bookmarked the idols I still want to meet.

So if someone tries to tell you it’s not as cool as it used to be or that it’s just over-hyped marketing next year, you should ignore them. And do SXSW your own way. (Even if part of the conference is moving to Las Vegas next year.)

Here’s what I’ve learned in my 24 hours here so far:

  1. Planes from San Francisco to Austin on the Friday before the conference should be re-labeled SXSW shuttles. They should be properly labeled as such, at least for other passengers who don’t enjoy the sight of startup sweatshirts, discussions of the Soundcloud party, or questions like, “Hey bro, is that a Pebble watch?”
  2. When someone asks if your name is “on the list,” you should always say yes. Similarly, if they ask if you’re with “event PR,” you should say yes, because it’s possible they said “NPR” and you just misheard them and it will be an awesome party. Similarly, when you hear “Facebook jazz party” it could actually be “basement jazz party.” These are all good calls.
  3. Pedi-cabs are apparently normal in Austin, and the drivers wear absurd costumes to stand out. I don’t know who thinks it’s a good idea to ride one. But people do. And they look like fools.
  4. Introduce yourself to everyone. Say hello. People are fascinating. I took a Sidecar ride (which was free) and my driver told me about his job tutoring inmates in an Austin prison. I took an Uber car (also free) and my driver had worked at a mortician’s office. A completely random person and I bonded over trying to sneak into a line for free sandwiches before getting kicked out of said line. Seriously, this is like extrovert central; embrace it.
  5. You’ll feel like you’re always missing out on something cooler happening somewhere else. I think that’s an inherent part of the experience. But I’ve decided I’m just going to roll with it, and enjoy whatever I’m doing whenever I’m doing it. My best time so far was sitting in the basement (not Facebook) jazz bar drinking gin and tonics with basically complete strangers. And there wasn’t a tacky Interactive badge in sight.

Think I’m an idiot for missing out on some crucial Austin tip or experience? I’m here till March 12 — tweet at me at @elizakern and let me know.

49 Responses to “5 things I’ve learned in 24 hours as a SXSW newbie”

  1. Enjoyed your article. I’ve been riding the fence about attending since I first learned about it three years ago, but didn’t feel I had enough know-how initially. Feel more and more guilt about it be cuse it does sound as if participants walk away with something professionally tangible, or is that just the buzz SXSW wants to send?

    • Eliza Kern

      I think I’d definitely come back again. The panels have been pretty interesting, but meeting cool people from places other than SF has been just as valuable.

  2. Nice Post! Did you go to the elephant room? Thats a Basement Jazz bar, that i find intoxicating! Southby is an amazing experience! I was wandering around Friday checking out sixth street, you know, wrecking havoc! I hope you have fun with the rest of your time in Austin!

      • I’m glad you like it. Every time i have friends visit Austin for the first time I take them there. Nothing like relaxing in a speakeasy listening to live jazz while you sip on Scotch. Makes me feel like I’m in the 20s! What else did you check out your last couple of days in Austin?

    • Eliza Kern

      I saw an awesome band last night, but because I’m here to write about Interactive, I didn’t encounter much music in my first 24 hours… Next year!

  3. Bernardo

    I have to be honest with you, I thought this was going to be a rant. You really brought the experience of a newbie to life (one that was weighing their own ideas and expectations vs. those of others that seem burnt out) and you now have me further excited to want to attend.

    I enjoyed reading!

  4. I heard that SXSW Comedy events – open to all SXSW registrants – have brought some of the world’s funniest acts to the festival’s diverse audience. You will have to let us know which is the funniest! Have a great time at SXSW!

  5. Have you been to Coachella? That’s a whole other degree. I live near there so I’ve attended a few (and only camped out, no hotels). Imagine not being able to charge your phone, its a whole other experience ;) being able to not use my phone was the best lesson of all

  6. Eliza, you shame me with my cynicism about this event. I was glad to hang out with you a bit last night and see SXSW through your eyes. I even loved that you loved the humidity, “It’s been so long since I’ve gotten sweaty walking some place.”

    That’s real positivity, there!