Sarah Lefton 04/22/12
I've known about SXSW since the early '00s. I know, it's like saying I was into the Arcade Fire since before they had a record deal. I don't mention it to suggest how up on things I am but rather how conflicted I've been about going for so long.
I have been making interactive work since I started college in 1991 and commenced messing with Hypercard, and later, Macromind Director. I created my own major around interactive educational technology and produced a CD-ROM introduction to Japanese religions - and an analysis of its effectiveness as a teaching tool in freshman anthropology - as my thesis project. I always thought I'd go into interactive media and education, and it's great that things have turned out that way through G-dcast.
After college I went to New York and joined the digital mafia associated with the Interactive Telecommunications Program. I was an early producer on websites like Villagevoice.com, nytimes.com and a half dozen dot com startups.
When the web business crashed and burned in 2001, I was left without a job, and I started thinking about changing my life. Although technology was fast paced, fun and full of young idealists, it was true that my time at work was increasingly spent making crap that definitely was not improving the world. I felt a void of meaning and decided to use the economic downturn as a chance to reboot my worklife. I took a job at Camp Tawonga, an independent Jewish summer camp in Northern California, and left the tech field behind for a wonderful new career in marketing and outreach for a community I truly cared about.
But year after year, I heard reports from places like SXSW and wondered if I was missing out on something. It seemed like the economy was picking back up again. Should I quit the Jewish world and get back into tech? When Twitter launched in 2006 the noise from Austin became deafening - I couldn't log on without hearing about how hot the parties were, how interesting the startups were, how much opportunity was pulsing through the networks of my friends and their friends who were all down in Texas.
I managed to resist the siren call of SX for another 6 years, and even enjoyed mocking it from afar, somewhat bitterly. Once I started G-dcast in 2008 on a shoestring, these sorts of things were beyond my reach, anyway.
That is, until ROI popped up this year and offered to send me down using my microgrant! Without going on and on, I'll just say briefly that it was quite a trip back in time for me to be in Austin in the middle of things at last. All around me were the young hopefuls, the VCs, the geeks and the bloggers covering the whole thing. I did not feel a sense of the limitless possibility of the future, but rather lot of hoopla about some technologies that were of questionable value. What I got out of the experience mainly was a chance to talk about my ideas with some very smart people working in the industry.
In Austin, I heard an echo of my past that sounded familiar and yet strange. Did I really want to work in this world again? No. Definitely not. But I can bring some of its promise and energy into my new field.
Cycling back into one's abandoned old costumes and mindsets can really help us grow into our futures. Visiting SXSW in 2012 meant seeing the promise of interactive technologies and processes through more adult eyes, and thinking about those promises through the lenses of a non profit startup director is so much more exciting than I'd ever though back in the early '00s. I'm so glad it took so long.