SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy


Art by: Sue Zola


I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.



Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.



Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.



On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.


@rachelaubrey's shoe game tho…

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on


“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

FullSizeRender (1)

Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.



One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.


“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.


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Your Life Is A Transmedia Experience — Now With Pictures!

Last year, I wrote a post called “Your Life Is A Transmedia Experience.” In October, the post became the basis for a panel discussion event at the FutureM conference in Boston with me, Marta Kagan and Jan Libby. I have updated the deck from that panel, and am sharing here for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!


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Bret Easton Ellis Talks About Transmedia

disappearhereImage: Jordan Chesney

I wrote a post recently about how Your Life Is A Transmedia Experience, which included the example of Bret Easton Ellis’s latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, the 25-years-later sequel to his debut, Less Than Zero, which creates a sort of closed-circuit loop by bringing both the original novel as well as the 1987 movie based on it into existence within the world of the book. By detailing his characters’ reactions to the original, darkly disturbing novel depicting their lives, and then to its sanitized film adaptation, Ellis effectively creates a narrative world that extends, and can be experienced across these multiple media formats, each one adding its own element to the complete story. There is, currently, an emergence of popular entertainment specifically designed to be transmedia experiences, to jump from platform to platform, and, in the process, intertwine the real world with the fictional, but Ellis, who became a published author when he was still in college, has long maintained that, for him, a novel is just a novel, approached and developed according to the dictates of its own medium. Nevertheless, Ellis has always had a penchant for referencing actual pop culture — movies, music, fashion, celebrities, night clubs, etc. — within his stories. It’s pretty much his trademark. His work has, all along, incorporated multiple other media into its fictional world, and, in turn, become an indelible part of the popular culture on which it comments.

In this fantastic interview on, Ellis muses about the possibilities for the future of fiction in the digital age and touches on what is, essentially, transmedia storytelling. It could, he says, “even possibly re-energize my faith in fiction.”

Have a listen. It’s great stuff:

Bonus: a fun clip of Ellis talking about schooling his publisher on how to function in the “post-empire“… errr … in the social media age:


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Social, Super-Sized

Aerial shot of the Coachella Arts & Music Festival (photo: Jazmin Million)


“God is alone — but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company;
he is legion.”
– Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden, 1854

Standing on the field at Coachella 2008, the endless noise and heat like physical things pushing and shoving in a mosh pit, the blast clouds of music spilling out from monolithic stacks of speakers across four hundred acres, the polo field crawling like an ant-farm with a hundred thousand bodies, it suddenly occurred to me that the only historical precedent for this sort of massive concentration of people and resources and infrastructure in one place at one time had to have been… war.

I’d only slept a few hours the previous night, been up since early enough to hear Prince’s sound-check as the score to the start of my workday, and looking through the 100+ degree Palm Sprigs haze that afternoon under the sweltering sky, I imagined ancient Greek or Roman or Macedonian battlegrounds and thought they might not have looked too different.


In college I’d started throwing raves; at the turn of the millennium I was part of the promotions team at New York’s iconic Lunatarium, a 20-thousand square foot warehouse space in DUMBO dubbed “the studio 54 of the crowd” by the New York Times; by the mid-aughties I’d been the Online marketing Coordinator for House of Blues Concerts in Southern California, led the social media strategy for Live Nation’s Street Scene Music Festival in San Diego, consulted on web strategy for the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, and at the moment of that heat-stroked revelation on the Empire Polo Field was the Marketing Director for an independent event creations company which, in addition to Coachella, that summer would also work with the Rothbury Music Festival in Michigan, Optimus Alive Festival in Portugal, All Points West Festival in New York, the Virgin Music Festival in Baltimore, Electric Picnic in Ireland, and finish off the season with a stint at Burning Man.

Needless to say, this wild proliferation and growth of massive music festivals over the past decade was something I’d noticed. Yet at the same time that I was in the front row seat at the concert industry, my career also overlapped with the ascension of social technology. At the time, already anachronistic phrases like “new media,” and “electronic marketing” were still being tossed about to describe my inevitable department. Just the year before, at SXSW Interactive 2007, when Myspace was still king of the web and Facebook was just a college dorm and the newly-launched Twitter was yet to be anything but the geeks’ private playground, there were still panels called things like, “Why Marketers Need To Work With ‘People Media’“. Hard to imagine now that just a few years ago the term “Social Media” had barely entered the mainstream marketing lexicon. Witnessing the rise in demand for massive music festival experiences and the mass adoption of digital and social technologies, it occurred to me that these two seemingly disparate forces were not only gaining traction in tandem, they were, in fact, both part of a far lager and more meaningful societal shift.

Mass Mingling” is what called it, one of their “10 Crucial Consumer Trends For 2010:”

More people than ever will be living large parts of their lives online in 2010. Yet, those same people will also mingle, meet up, and congregate more often with other ‘warm bodies’ in the offline world. In fact, social media and mobile communications are fueling a MASS MINGLING that defies virtually every cliché about diminished human interaction in our ‘online era’.

So, forget (for now) a future in which the majority of consumers lose themselves in virtual worlds. Ironically the same technology that was once seen to be—and condemned for—turning entire generations into homebound gaming zombies and avatars, is now deployed to get people out of their homes.

Basically, the more people can get their hands on the right info, at home and on the go; the more they date and network and twitter and socialize online, the more likely they are to eventually meet up with friends and followers in the real world. Why? Because people actually enjoy interacting with other warm bodies, and will do so forever.

At SXSW Interactive 2010, convincing marketers that they need social media would have been about as necessary as convincing them they live on a round planet. Attendance for Interactive grew by 40% in the past year alone, and for the first time surpassed that of both the film and music portions of the festival. This year, the hot new thing getting everyone’s panties in a twist was location-based social technologies like Foursquare and G0walla, which add a real-time, real-place dimension to social media. You’re not just keeping up with your friends’ status updates or photo uploads anymore, you’re now actually aware of where they are in relation to you geographically — and perhaps it’s at the bar next door, which you may never have known otherwise, but now that you do, you can all meet up. Much of the appeal of these new location-based social applications is the alleviation — or perhaps the compulsive exacerbation — of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) on ever more potential social opportunities.

But what’s interesting to me in all this isn’t that, social creatures such as we are, we’re using yet more new technology to enable evolutionary imperatives — so, we’re using new gadgets to scratch the itch of 200,000-year-old human desires, and this is a new trend for 2010 why? — but rather that, much like music festivals themselves, our new social experiences seem to be happening at a consistently unprecedented scale. We are no longer content to have social experiences, we want bigger, faster, louder, immediate, MASSIVE social experiences. The kind of resources that thousands of years ago would have been summoned for the purpose of defending an empire, and decades ago for a singular moment in the Summer of Love, are now routinely assembled every weekend of the annual music festival season that is summer.

In his essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The End of Solitude,” former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes:

Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

There is an analogy, it seems to me, with the previous generation’s experience of boredom. The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century. But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored — so you turn on the television.

So it is with the current generation’s experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation.

Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology — or to be fair, our use of technology — seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude. As long ago as 1952, Trilling wrote about “the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment.” Now we have equipped ourselves with the means to prevent that fear from ever being realized. Which does not mean that we have put it to rest. Quite the contrary. Remember my student, who couldn’t even write a paper by herself. The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less are we able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.

Which is why massive festivals have exploded like manic Murakami mushrooms after a radioactive rain. Having produced and marketed music festivals I am keenly aware that it’s not just the lineup that sells the ticket. “The Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness,” adds Deresiewicz, “as television is for the manufacture of boredom.” The same technology that allows us to be more connected than ever before, on its flip side, perhaps even simply through contrast, has increased our capacity for loneliness. We have built up a new tolerance level, and all we do is want more, more, more. Hence the compulsive need to feel a part of something, something massive, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other people, all experiencing the same trending topic together as it scrolls by. Of course, it helps that adding music to the cocktail lends a self-transcending aspect to the experience — as does rolling or tripping or being stoned or drunk, which, lets face it, you probably are if you’re at a festival. Taking part in these massive social experiences has become a default rite of passage, an almost religious annual ceremony, and, perhaps, an addiction like any other, demanding we keep upping the dose at every tinge of the creeping withdrawal that is loneliness.

So, as the legions prepare to head to the desert this weekend to score a fix at the kickoff to the annual music festival season (the first of the 2010’s) that is Coachella, and as the rest of us, too, keep tap tap taping our QWERTY keys and touchscreens like pushing the air-bubbles out of a syringe, Deresiewicz reminds us: “We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood. No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one’s way beyond it.”


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