Hod Greeley had scheduled himself to attend 20 tech panels at Austin’s annual South By Southwest long-weekend tech conference.
By Sunday night, he hadn’t made it to a single one.
“I knew it was going to be about relationships,” said Greeley, the San Jose-based director of Samsung’s U.S. developers. He did make it to the PayPal party at a neighborhood barbecue joint. “I didn’t really figure out just how much,” he said. “All of a sudden I got here and realized, no one’s even awake in the morning to go to the panels.”
At this year’s SXSW festivities, which ended yesterday, attendees quickly dropped almost all pretenses of being at a newsworthy or educational tech summit. If the annual TED Talks cost almost $10,000 to rapturously watch presentations from business leaders, SXSW is the opposite, a sort of rainy, barbecued bump-and-grind where the enormous book of panel schedules looked quaint.
The signature moments of the whole event were when AOL’s self-proclaimed “digital prophet,” Shingy (David Shing), swung on a Mashable-branded wrecking ball, and when Silicon Valley venture capitalist and author Ben Horowitz and entreprenactor Ashton Kutcher awkwardly rapped along with Nas.
The New York Times and Valleywag Party When There Is No News
The New York Times had its own SXSW party in the back of the San Jose Hotel, where Fred Armisen of “Portlandia,” Brian Stelter of CNN, and New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson stood around a picnic table piled with ribs and potato chips; a metal bucket of beer was on the ground.
Conversation revolved around the need to hire more tech writers at various publications, what would happen with all these journalism startups, and the general acknowledgement that there was no news at this festival.
At the Valleywag brunch (barbecue and an Austin specialty, scrambled migas), Sam Biddle, the feared (by some) New York-based reporter behind the Silicon Valley-skewering site Valleywag, said he was nervous about running into Path founder Dave Morin.
“I’m pretty sure Dave Morin will punch me in the face. Like, he has to, right? I consistently make fun of this man’s wife,” said Biddle, who was holding court at Lambert’s BBQ. “I’d understand. I’d take a picture of the black eye and get like 100,000 clicks.”
But it’s not quite a full boondoggle. People — conference attendees and those who are savvy enough to not even buy a pass — carefully schedule dozens of events back to back, hitting every seedy bowling alley, antler-filled bar, patio and dirt-floored dance club they can. So, one night, I decided to do like the professionals — RSVP to everything I was invited to, and talk my way into the rest.
Some companies — Facebook, Mashable, Yahoo and Spotify — took over whole houses. And once I’d arrive at one, someone would always say, “Oh, well this party is fine, but have you been to Dropbox?” Venture capital firms like Bessemer and General Catalyst tended to take over steakhouses. While lovely parties and with much better appetizers, they felt a little like the parent bar at Disneyland, a refuge for those not ready for the drunky wilds of 6th Street.
Before going anywhere, I stopped for a breakfast taco at a food truck and sat with two University of Texas students who were gearing up for their evening schedule.
“You talk to the guy on the other side of the fence, and they’ll always let you jump it,” confided 20-year-old Stefan Allen, sharing one of many townie tips.
Lights outside the Yahoo house party cast a branded-purple hue down the block. There was a “Flickr Turns 10″ celebratory wall, long tables for co-working and a “Humans of SXSW” photo display. Upstairs, the entertainers — comedians, in this case — were having dinner between acts. Downstairs, the hardwood barn-like space, normally known as Brazos Hall, was quiet. Bartenders wore purple suspenders.
“We have to check them in every night and pick them up in the morning,” one bartender told me. “They’re very serious about these purple suspenders.”
Of course they are.
A young couple was laughing and chatting in the middle of the room. I asked what division of Yahoo they worked for.
“Yahoo? This is our first Tinder date,” said 24-year-old Austin native Tony Jacobs. “If you look confident, they don’t ask for badges. Especially when it’s quiet like this.”
(In contrast, my badge had been checked by three separate PR people at the door, an entrance harassment that I am sure is somehow all Kara Swisher’s fault.)
“It’s been the best date of my life,” said Ellie Rieder, also 24.
“I got my first kiss in front of Seth Rogen,” Jacobs said.
They started talking about how it felt when they matched (Tinder is a “hot or not”-style mobile dating/hookup app). Two of their friends walked up.
“Hey girl! You got in, too,” Reider said.
“Yahoo’s too easy. Open bar, no line? I’m like, ‘Is this a trick?'” said her friend, 23-year-old Kelsey Janisch.
“You can follow the free food Twitter accounts. It’s all about acting quick,” said Greg DeTomaso, 23, who said he had crashed about 25 tech events. “And that’s not even counting the side events.”
Jacobs and Reider said they’d be hosting a SXSW Tinder party the next night. The premise is that you play Tinder for a few hours and then invite all your matches to the party.
Actor Adam Pally from “The Mindy Project” took the stage to do a stand-up set in front of a hundred or so people watching from folding chairs.
“When I ask someone their email, and they tell me it’s @yahoo, I judge them,” Pally said, trashing his hosts.
The next comedian kicked off with a joke about uploading your Flickr photos to your Friendster account, referencing the defunct early social network. Zing!
Back at the PayPal party just a few blocks away, Snoop Dogg was playing on an outdoor stage, while VIP guests stood around eating crab cakes and mini meatballs in a house with a view of the stage.
On a patio behind the VIP house, Greeley and Mike Nabers, both executives at Samsung, compared the size of their business-card stacks.
There were ice sculptures with the PayPal logo carved into them and spots to put vials of vodka shots. Some attendees were playing a game called Shark Punch, in which the player wore a headset, spun in circles and jabbed into the air.
“We were working in educational games, where people take apart molecules, and we were like, what else could we do with this? Oh, I know! Punch sharks,” said John Coursen, one of the game’s creators.
On the concrete patio behind an ice sculpture, a young poet sat cross-legged, typing on a Smith Corona typewriter. Her name was A.R. Rogers, and she had been a busker until the venue, Stubb’s BBQ, hired her to do poetry for them on party nights. At the PayPal party, attendees were encouraged to approach her, tell her a secret, and then she would write a poem “inspired by their truths.”
What was she working on at the moment? A poem inspired by a party goer, who had whispered she “just wants to get laid.”
At the upscale Driskill hotel bar, a little before 2 am, people sat on cowhide couches in wood-paneled nooks, chatting over cocktails and bar snacks they actually had to pay for (or at least expense).
Back at the Marriott, the concierge said the entire hotel was out of mini-fridge booze.
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