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.