Finding your circle of awesome (a lesson from SXSW)

Weird, one-off disclaimer: Apologies if this gets nerdier in places than our regular program. I'm still processing the events and information of the past week, and via sleep-deprived filters. Which means that given my own standards, I probably should wait to post about it here, but given my iffy memory, I thought it best to strike while things were still relatively vivid in my mind.

Rumor has it that last year, attendance at SXSWi, that's the Interactive (or "nerd") portion of the Austin-based South by Southwest festival, increased by 40%.

And that this year, it increased by 40% again, making it bigger than either the Film or Music portions of SXSW, both of which have been around far longer.

Even if the numbers aren't quite as staggering, it hardly matters: the reality was more so. On this, my fourth trip to SXSWi in five years (I skipped what would have been Year #2), there were more people here/there/everywhere than even last year, which was crazy-packed. And I'm not even talking about parties, which, save one quickly-corrected exception, I've learned to avoid altogether in favor of the mix of planned meetups and small, impromptu gatherings of friends (usually with a ratio of one old friend to two new, to keep expanding The Circle of Awesome).

At (impromptu) drinks on Sunday night1, a couple of old-timers were telling tales of South-bys past, specifically, of the first particular South-by they passed in the hallways, rather than the sessions.2

It's no news that some of the best stuff that goes down at any conference is of the decidedly unofficial variety; that's the whole reason behind BarCamp and its fancier forebear, Foo Camp. But hearing it confirmed by two now-established pillars of the design community made me wonder why other longtime members of Camp We Were Here First are so angry about the growth of the conference in recent years. Didn't they first find each other in the sessions of the conference in the halls, and move it to the halls themselves? And weren't we all here now, together: a bunch of old- and medium-timers, who met the same, weird way, through a crazy-quilt of Internet sites, social media hubs and real-life hallways, fueled by a mix of intention and openness?

Why the fuck is everyone so goddamn angry?

Of course, it's not everyone; it's not even all the oldsters. It may be just a vocal minority who's ticked off, amplified by the echo chamber of the social web. It may even be me drawn to some icky-but-human, lowest-common-denominator gossip. I get dark when I get tired.

But I'd have to have been far denser than I am not to detect the noticeably rising tide of hatred toward newcomers, who were being labeled either clueless tech n00bs or opportunist douchebags (or both), but were definitely charged with interfering with the "real" reason for the conference.

Okay. So what is the real reason for a conference? Education for all? High-level exchanges with peers? As someone wisely suggested3 on a recent post lamenting the dumbing-down and up-sizing of SXSWi, if you want to make it more about the focused exchange of knowledge and less about lazy, liteâ„¢ and/or dig-me sessions (not to mention booth babes, sponsored parties and other corporo-effluvia) move that shit to Rochester, NY in the middle of winter: you can enjoy all the high-level conversation you want, unmolested.

I had a rather different experience with content at SXSW 2010: I attended more panels this year than I had in the previous two put together, including one excellent core conversation on interviewing best practices. And in case it's not obvious from the context I've tried to establish here (hey, I'm fuzzy!), there would have been no conversation on interviewing best practices had SXSW not grown in size to include the bloggers, podcasters, videobloggers, and yes, mainstream journalists who are now drawn to South-by.

(And speaking of mainstream journalism, thank God-or-whom/whatever that the tent is big enough now to include them. I, for one, would like to see journalism survive into the next century, and that's not going to happen unless people on the other side of the tech divide, the "right" side, the one that's been coming to South-by since the beginning, the NEW side, extends a hand and helps them over.)

I get that change is hard. I get that everyone's default reaction to it, mine included, tends to be fear (sometimes expressed as anger or sorrow). But everything was new sometime, just as everyone knew nothing and no one at one point. Are you still only friends with the people you knew when you were seven? Do you still watch only The Brady Bunch and/or Matlock? If so, please, please work on expanding your own Circle of Awesome, wherever you choose to start your search. Even if you start with Netflix.

My own Circle of Awesome has grown to include all kinds of people: the ones who have been there a long time and the ones who showed up for the first time this year; the freaks and the other freaks who are scared of those freaks and the freaks who don't even realize they're freaks. People who eat meat and people who won't even eat their vegetables cooked. People whose eye for design dazzles mine and people whose use modal windows makes my heart sieze up.

It's less a circle than it is a busy, constantly growing series of circles that overlaps like a Venn diagram with a z-axis. Yours might look different. Yours must look different. You might have to look harder to find Your People in some places than others. You might decide that some places are best avoided altogether (especially when you're running low on tolerance and/or capacity).

Does this take time and energy to manage? You betcha. Do my worlds sometimes collide in a way that is nervous-making and even uncomfortable? Uh, yes. Yes, they do.

But I've been surprised and delighted at how my life grows richer the more I expand my definitions of what works for me to include the generically excellent, love, tolerance, humor, playfulness, and leave behind the old cues I used to rely on: what "looks" right, what sounds familiar, etc. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to find the good in everyone, much less that I'll bring us all together in one room to sing "Kumbaya," but that probably has more to do with me and my insecurities than them not being able to find their own areas of overlap.

It is a process of looking for the positive rather than the negative, and of moving, not stopping.

Except to rest, of course. Which is a process I will be heavily involved with over the next 48 hours...


1Okay, technically Monday morning. What? It's South-by, Jake...

2That's a term old-timers use, by the way, "South-by." So now you can pretend to be an old-timer. Until they change the secret handshake again.

3Alas, I cannot find it now, but I'm fairly sure it's embedded in the lively comments section of this post by long-timer Jolie O'Dell. I'll add here that if I'd been groped in public (or private, without my permission), it would have colored my perceptions, too. I have a healthy fear of crowds that stems from a Who-concert-like experience with a line for the city bus during my high school years that has me steer clear of any situation where crowds are likely to gather.