SXSWi is supposed to be a semi-utopia, where synergy flows and serendipitous connections are rampant.
What SXSWi is, or, rather, what the social layer of SXSWi is (and for many attendees, the social layer is the conference’s raison d’être) is a caste system with somewhat fuzzy edges. What I’ve noticed in my three days here is the employees of buzzy tech companies tend to stand close-shouldered, opening only for people who work at similarly big, tech companies, Ashton Kutcher, or prominent VCs.
This is especially true in the evenings, which are dominated by parties thrown by these companies and the massive lines of attendees not close enough to the buzzies to walk right in. Standing in one of these lines is a depressing testament to the power of hierarchies: there are the whiners and the eye-casters and the bros who ride their egos and weak connections to the front of the line, only to be sent back. Standing in line, you begin to believe the voice in your head that tells you you’re not worthy; you feel both akin to and repulsed by your fellow scuzzies.
Not being one of the buzzies, I don’t know if they get a kick out of their distance from the scuzzies. I’m guessing that they don’t think about it at all. Why go to the effort of making friends with someone who works at a random startup when your friends’ friend who works at Uber is right in front of you?
Here’s why: perspective. It’s good to have a lot of them, from as many works and walks of life as you can find. The tech mafia seems to have one perspective: mobile apps are good, and money is better. And by surrounding themselves with like-sighted people, the perspective becomes a mantra becomes a fortress.
Here’s another why: we’re not in high school anymore, and cliques are for dicks.
In one of Anil Dash’s typically stellar essays, he speaks about the web we lost, the web in which user flexibility and access to data were defacto, where links where a form of expression or editorializing, where one small company struggling with the cost of maintaining its free blogging software turned to its users and competitors for help, and got it.
That web stands in opposition to the walled gardens and turf wars of today, and I think the gap in ideology between the two is replicated in the social cultures surrounding them.
Enough sniveling, Here’s my proposal: from now on, SXSW badges list neither name or company–just a registration number. You want to know who someone is, and what they do? Ask them. And let that question turn into a conversation that turns into, say, lunch or drinks or a party invite. For the parties aren’t going away–as long as there are brands, they are going to need to assert their relevance through free alcohol and Lupe Fiasco. But, doing away with identification on badges may return the word party to its old, old roots: not to divide, but to share.