SXSW Interactive Is Dead

Categories: SXSW, Tech

I am part of the mid-to-high-profile blogger/media crowd; I'm entitled, but I know how shitty I sound saying that I'm entitled. We're the crowd who demands VIP access. We are hurt when we don't get it. And yes, we feel more deserving than newer attendees, because even though we too were once n00bs, our circle is now the one putting on the panels and throwing the parties.

But it's become too hard to find our friends at the big parties. Because Gawker wants the publicity, it throws a giant party, and 4200 people sign up for a space of about 800 capacity. So Gawker sets up a VIP section that's pretty much like the regular section with a couch. And I end up spending half the night outside that section or talking over the fence to my non-VIP friends.

Tiered access cuts crowds apart and hurts people's chances of making meaningful interactions. The fence eventually shuts out more and more of us. Ashton Kutcher showed up at the Foursquare party, and the VIP balcony got so crowded that Foursquare's CEO couldn't get his own staff in. Contrast that to B.J. Novak's quiet appearance on the same balcony last year, when Ricky Van Veen oversaw a modest little CollegeHumor party.

As the balconies and entrance lines overflow, migrant crowds of big-shit and friend-of-big-shit bloggers seek the optimal balance between small crowd and free drink, some even develop algorithms and apps to aid in the process. We spend our time searching for a party, squeezing into the party, yelling to people about other parties that may be happening elsewhere, then giving up and grabbing beer with Scott Beale at the Ginger Man (so it's not all bad).

This is not sour grapes!

People can be just as unhappy on either side of the VIP fence. But that fence is a symptom of a disease. The disease is a crowd of new attendees that I don't want to meet. They may want to meet me, I don't know, but I think they mostly just want to sell me something.

Maybe I'm late on this, maybe SXSW Interactive already died. Gawker's publisher Nick Denton stopped coming years ago. (His former competitor Jason Calacanis showed up at the Gawker party anyway.) But I think a real phase change happened this year. SXSWi is now a tiered event. The social castes are set. And it is no longer a magical place.

Maybe the organizers can drop the most annoying sponsors or limit attendance or raise the price. The first is doubtful, the second only marginally helpful, the last unfortunate. So can somebody please tell me, how do I get into TED?

Follow us on Twitter at @nick and @sfweekly.

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