Explaining SXSW to my Dad

It’s the week after SXSW, and I’m still pulling my thoughts together. There’s been a lot of retrospective articles posted already in the blogosphere—yikes, is this the first time I’ve typed “blogosphere” out loud?—so I’m not sure what to add. The burning question is how to explain SXSW to my 70+ year-old Dad. He’s pretty hip for a man of his generation, having bravely battled the demons that Hewlett-Packard pre-installed on his notebook computer. How do you recognize a laptop demon? It asks for your credit card number every time you try to do something useful. ATTENTION MARKETING ASSHOLES! STOP PUTTING CRAP ON MY DAD’S COMPUTER!

Where was I? Oh yes, SXSW, and how to explain it to my Dad. It’s very much not about being a marketing asshole. I find it interesting that I want to explain SXSW in the first place. When I go to E3 Expo, resplendant as it is in spectacle and raw marketing dollars, I am not nearly as moved; at most, I experience an optically-induced twitching. Someone described SXSW to me as being like “Burning Man for Web Geeks”, which might make sense to me if I had ever been to Burning Man. Neither of these analogies are helpful anyway, since I’m pretty sure Dad has not been to either. I can imagine Dad at E3: “Too bright and jumpy.” he would comment. Of Burning Man: “It is very noisy.” Then we’d get back in the car and drive home, and Dad would spend a quiet afternoon practicing the cello and catching up on Taiwan news. “China is being a bully again”, he would inform me, brow furrowed in consternation. “Taiwan must be free of such oppression.”

What does help is that Dad is an ordained pastor, a doctor of philosophy, and a former missionary. While I rejected the trappings of organized religion as soon as I entered college, over the past few years I’ve noticed an odd convergence between my life and Dad’s. It centers around the notion of congregation: a gathering of people that adhere to a common faith.

“Dad, I’ve just been to a conference called South By South West Interactive. It’s a 4-day conference that celebrates the Internet and the people who are actively building upon it as an extension of their community.”

“I see”, he might say. Uh oh, I’m already losing his interest, time to try another approach.

“Let me try again. Dad, do you remember what it was like to work with people who really believed in the church organization, putting aside their petty desires and contributing selflessly to the group because it would uplift everyone? Not just people in the congregation, but everyone that the organization could reach?”

“Mmmm.” Dad might accede, wondering when I would stop talking and let him get back to his online newspaper.

“That’s the feeling I got from SXSW. On the surface, there were a lot of things being discussed: technical web design, blogging, and internet business models for example. There were lots of people who would be regarded as quite famous in their particular parts of the Internet too, so it was a little bit of a celebrity experience. Sort of like how you’re well known in the Taiwan Church community for helping draft the Declaration of Human Rights, but not all that many people outside of the Church know this.”

Dad wouldn’t be saying anything by now, so I’d press on before he had a chance to take a nap or start cleaning some new part of the house I hadn’t yet discovered was cleanable. But I think I have his attention.

“What I found most interesting was the nature of the attendees. The celebrities there, well-known designers and accomplished businessmen, tended to share a common thread that I don’t see anywhere else. They were all contributors to some kind of community. They all either started it, gave back to it, or have brought people into it. These people are famous because they’ve empowered people with their ideas and tools, shared their knowledge, and have done what they could to promote those ideals. Every one of them. And everyone who I met at the conference believed, deep down, that this is the way things should be. By attending SXSW, I discovered that yes, there is a community I want to be a part of. I want to contribute to its growth in my own way by promoting these values. That’s not to say I don’t want to make money, but I know now for certain that there’s a way to do it without dehumanizing the experience.”

I would pause for a few minutes, as I am right now at the cafe, before continuing. My thoughts are with someone who I haven’t thought of in a while, who would have been intensely interested in the transformative experience I’d had.

“I think Mom would have loved it.”

Amen.