Last night, I was inducted into the SXSW-Interactive Hall of Fame in a whirlwind awards ceremony. I only had a flash of a moment to reflect so I want to take a moment here to provide greater context and appreciation to all who made this possible.
I started attending SXSW a decade ago at a time when the conference was extraordinarily small and “social software” was a glimmer in entrepreneurs’ eyes. The conference was spring break for geeks. It only took up a hallway in the convention center and if attendees weren’t attending sessions, they were probably sitting close to a power outlet in the hallway or drinking in the Hilton bar. As the day wound down, the evening would begin with some BBQ followed by a stroll down Red River where it was easy to wander into the different parties put on by not-yet-famous tech companies. It was small, intimate, and very very geeky.
I met numerous people at SXSW who changed my life. For example, an alcohol-driven debate with Ev Williams in the Hilton bar resulted in him inviting me to apply to work with his team at Blogger/Google. And an accidental encounter at a Sleater-Kinney show introduced me to the person who would become my lover and life partner. Through SXSW, I met countless friends and eventual colleagues. The conference became an annual break from reality for me, a chance to laugh and party and be silly with folks who valued tech in the same way I did. I will never forget how, only days after learning my advisor was dying, I was surrounded by loving friends in Austin who helped me remember the beauty of life.
Because SXSW meant so much to me, I was passionate about giving back, both to the conference and to the community. I helped organize panels that brought together different intellectual and professional communities. Along with the amazing women at Blogher, I helped Hugh Forrest (the conference’s amazing godfather) diversify the attendees so as to expand the audience. I gave numerous talks and helped organize parties and flitted around, introducing new people to old people.
The truth is that at this stage, the contemporary SXSW is a bit alien to me. I’m a geek. My rudimentary social skills allow me to mostly pass in most mainstream settings, but I am dreadful at casual talk and am drained by large crowds. Long lines terrify me and my hearing is pretty crap so I can’t have conversations at parties where the music overwhelms. So I often feel like a fish out of water in this new incarnation of cool. But whenever I go to Austin, I can’t help but grin with joy at how successful SXSWi has become precisely because I wanted to see a space where diverse voices could gather and engage over the future of tech.
And it’s in this context that I was both startled by and grateful for the induction into the Hall of Fame. SXSW has meant so much to me for so long that being inducted feels like a huge gift from a conference that has given me so much. I’m so very very thankful for having this event, even if I barely know a fraction of the attendees at this stage. And I’m honored by those who see me as a central part of this community, even if I feel like an awkward alien.
As I reflected on what to say upon being inducted (in the briefest of briefest formats), I realized that I wanted to share two critical values that I feel have long underpinned the community as I see it. I did so because I see these foundational values as central to SXSW’s success and key to the future of a healthy tech community. With that in mind, I asked last night’s attendees to never forget to:
1) Build technologies and experiences that make people’s lives better.
2) Take a moment to step back and listen to diverse voices.
Now that social media is mainstream and geekery is cool, it’s often easy to get distracted by the glitz and to relish the games of status that emerge. But what makes SXSW amazing is not the tequila or the Tex-Mex (which are both awesome), but the ideas and the people. My hope is that as this community continues to grow, attendees will continue to find innovative ways of using the event to challenge their assumptions and expectations. This is what has made the event magical for me and I hope that many more can feel that magic too.
Woah, you’re awesome. A huge inspiration for me and many others around the world.
Congratulations on the induction, and thanks for sharing your reflections.
I can relate to feeling like an awkward alien at a conference, and have felt that way even at conferences I’ve chaired. As I reflect a bit myself, I believe the pain of perceived alienation has driven much of my work in social software over the years.
I found myself thinking about the “gentrification of conferences” in reading about your experience with SXSW over time. The willingness to challenge assumptions and expectations tends to diminish as organizations or annual events grow, and as prospects for monetization increase.
I wonder where the next “spring break for geeks” will emerge, since I think there will always be a need for such smaller, more intimate gatherings of tech entrepreneurs.
Congratulations! It’s a well deserved honor. Thank you for all you’ve done for SXSWi and the community around it.
danah, You are the most deserving person I can think of for “any” award in this geeky area. Although we have only chatted briefly I have followed your work and ensure that my students all read everything you write. Your Q&A in the back of my chapter on social media in “Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation” (published ages ago when MySpace was “in”) was the most often commented on. Thanks for being you and being inquisitive and perceptive and taking oh so many perspectives into mind when you speak and write.
I feel honored to have been around you in those early 2000’s and also think that you deserve this recognition ten times over. You are selfless and give so much to so many even if they do not recognize it at the onset. Yet, you give and give and you do make such a big difference.
Ultimately you set the bar incredibly high and everyone of us who has a passion for something – anything – should look to you a model for turning passion into action and ultimately good.
Congrats and well deserved!
Ditto what Matthew Hicks said. I read every single thing you write (that I can access). You have taught me so many things, and caused me to think and examine my beliefs on so many issues. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, honesty, and experiences with what I imagine is a very large audience! Congratulations on your well deserved honor.
Congratulations, danah, on a well deserved honor, and thanks for you many significant contributions to our understanding of this strange new world we live in.