SXSW Physically Assaulted Me

Thoughts from a First-timer Who Happens to Live Here

My laptop lost a key. My iPhone’s screen shattered. My back has a whole new pain it never had before. My liver has been compromised.

SXSW physically assaulted me.

Observing SXSW from afar, it had always seemed like the kind of event that I would enjoy—one that I could really immerse myself in. That’s why, when I moved to Austin, I looked forward to not only attending SXSW, but counting myself among the locals. People warned me about the crowds and the traffic, but I was excited, because I lived here. I already knew Austin.

But SXSW had an uppercut that I never saw coming. No one told me that I was going to get beat up like this.

For me, it started with good fortune. I had a platinum badge, and with it came full access to all that SXSW had to offer. I didn’t pay nearly full price to get this badge, but I did feel like I had to get my money’s worth out of it. So, I planned to do everything I could.

And so began my “Regret List.” I realized I would have to stop keeping track of all the things I couldn’t, or didn’t, do about half way through day one. This is hard for a person like me who yearns to maximize experiences. TThus started the mental abuse. The physical blows would soon follow.

I am proud to say, for 5 years,  I had never needed a case for my iPhone. I cherish my Apple products, treating them like the finely engineered, overly-designed, expensive objects that they are. So, when my MacBook’s keyboard lost a key and my iPhone’s screen cracked, I knew my head wasn’t right.

I was foggy from trying to keep up with panels, seeing former coworkers, taking notes… forgetting to eat and then drinking before I could remember if I had eaten. Did I have enough battery left to send out another Instagram, check the schedule and look up a location on Google Maps? If I went to a charging station, what panel would I miss?

I couldn’t complete thoughts and sentences weren’t stringing together. What was happening to me? What was this hallucinogen? (I promise you, I wasn’t on any.) This was a mental and physical state that had the side effects of a prescription drug—minus the 9 hour erection.

But here I am, 9.25 days later, somehow better for it, and with these thoughts for other future attendees who live here in Austin:

  • Car2Go is your secret weapon. Locals have the advantage because you need a membership card to use the service—something out-of-towners just can’t pick up—and it certainly has its privileges. Park where you work, and then use Car2Go to get you right up to the Convention Center door. The traffic close to events is actually not too bad, as most people are avoiding the area, and so I found myself saving 20 minutes of walking at a time. Walking itself isn’t bad, but you may not have 20 minutes. I spent about $30 total on Car2Go for all of SXSW. Some people paid that in parking for one night, I’m sure.
  • When you’re at SXSW, you’re not living at home any more. You get to sleep in your own bed, but you might as well not even say you’re “at home.” I learned this the hard way, being torn between the once-in-a-lifetime nature of SXSW events and my family. For us optimizing-types, it doesn’t help with that foggy feeling. I recommend acting like you’re out of town or sending your family on a vacation while you do SXSW. I wish I had—for their sanity more than mine.
  • Memorize the schedule. Comb through it and mark the stuff you don’t want to miss. You’ll hate yourself for overlooking a talk or band that played 30 minutes ago while you were talking to someone you’ll never see again.
  • Forget the schedule. Follow someone you like/trust to whatever they are seeing. (Yes, both of these contradict and are true at the same time.)
  • Enjoy the serendipity and happenstance that occurs frequently. Depending on how long you’ve worked, you will run into tons of people you know. Unlike other conferences I’ve attended, you won’t be in a confined space with the same people all the time. When you see people you know stop and enjoy the conversation. You will most likely not see them again, despite how well you may plan to do so.

And so, I am happy to close the door on this first SXSW experience. Like many victims of abuse, I know I will find myself back with SXSW next year, thinking and hoping I can navigate it all better the next time.

By Ben Thoma