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Michael Barnes

SXSW: People Are There Because People Are There

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Revelers at SXSW Interactive. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzales.

Revelers at SXSW Interactive. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzales.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Come to think of it, retelling doesn’t hurt this story.

It starts in New York, but loops back around to Austin and South by Southwest.

It is 1978. I am living in the Chelsea district of Manhattan at Eighth Avenue and West 20th Street. I work in the Jefferson Market area of Greenwich Village, two miles away.

At least twice a day — and often twice a night — I make variations on this pleasant walk. Along the way, I cross 14th Street, a major crosstown thoroughfare and the southern terminus of Manhattan’s strict grid system. It’s like 42nd Street without the 1970s sex industry, or 23th Street without the contemporaneous punk scene.

What freaks me out each weekend night are the crowds on 14th Street’s wide sidewalks. I wonder: Why are they here?

Formerly upscale and the site of a previous theater district — before Broadway and Times Square — what did the street have to offer in 1978? Mostly drab shops and, on its western end, some nightclubs.

I ask a housemate — at one point, five Texans were crammed into a fourth-floor two-bedroom apartment — about the mystery of the masses on 14th.

He is my age, but worldy wise beyond his years.

“People are drawn to social energy,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”

In other words, people are there because people are there.

This truth is still true. Although many Austinites escape the city during SXSW, an estimated 200,000 people, hosts and guests head out into the streets designed for a town that counted 553 citizens in 1840, the year after its founding.

Surely, all of them can’t squeeze into the convention center, hotel meeting rooms, movie theaters, nightclubs and pop-up spaces that constitute the heart of the 10-day conference and festival.

Music fans on Sixth Street during SXSW. Photo by Tina Phan.

Music fans on Sixth Street during SXSW. Photo by Tina Phan.

For the first few days of SXSW 2015, I wandered from South Congress Avenue to East Sixth Street, down into the Rainey Street District and back over to the Second Street District. I spent some time in the Austin Convention Center, including a twirl through the always overwhelming trade show.

My strategy was to “InstaView” people. I would take a picture and then conduct a short interview via Instagram (@outandaboutatx).

I have learned over the years that people don’t like to be stopped when in motion. It interrupts their walking rhythm. And you, the stopper, might be the sort to ask for something they are unwilling to give, like a signature to save someone or something in jeopardy.

So I look for folks already at rest. Then I ask myself: Are they interesting? Does their body language suggest they might be open to a few questions from the local media?

This technique worked OK for a while. Since I was often waylaid by outdoor music or other legitimate distractions, I didn’t land that many interviews.

But I was left with that old question: Why are these people here?

It wasn’t just the spring break crowd this time. It was families with strollers and dogs. It was folks, like myself, who look way too old to be interested in the latest app or musical act. (Luckily, I never sense ageism among hosts or guests at SXSW.)

In the end, you can’t get around it: People are at SXSW because people are there.

Why wasn’t I more engaged this time out? Why, when it came time to spend a few days editing the fine reporting of my colleagues, did I feel relief?

It finally dawned on me: My interactions during SXSW were brief and without much substance. Every person earned my interest, but by now I have become accustomed, on this beat, to spending at least an hour over coffee or lunch or dinner with a conversation partner. That gives me plenty of time to discover who they are and what they might know that I don’t.

Years ago, I realized that red carpets are for cameras, not interviewers. You can sometimes catch celebrities off guard as they glide past the scrum of journalists, but that is exceedingly rare. And the results are usually not very print-friendly.

That was how I felt the first few days of SXSW. As if I were spinning my social wheels, hoping for a lighting bolt of insight but settling for a damp mist.

But I don’t stay discouraged for long. To the consternation of my editors, I am always thinking ahead to next year’s coverage of any annual event. I settled on this notion for SXSW 2016: Act like a tourist in my own town.

Go to the movies. Catch the bands. Hear the speakers. Attend the parties. Novel, right?

That will mean a lot of standing in line, but hey, maybe there I can engage folks in more than surface dialogue. After all, I am still curious: What brought them here? Why Austin? Why this event?

Might as well get to know them, too. Like it or not, some of those 200,000 will be moving here some day.