SXSW IRL: Bridging the digital and real-life social divide.

As we speak, thousands are converging on Austin, Texas for the annual South-by-Southwest Festival—affectionately abbreviated as SXSW. Fans and professional musicians, techies and filmmakers huff-it from venue to venue, launch party to launch party, and taco stand to taco stand—discovering new apps, new brands, new music, new film; and experiencing things in real life (IRL in generational parlance). 

The concept of interacting in real life has become so novel, that people travel across the country---even from around the globe, to see, converse, and share moments with people they previously only had digital relationships with.

“You wouldn't happen to be in Austin for SXSW, would you? Would love to meet IRL if possible,” was the email I received a few days ago from Chris Fohlin, a digital friend and follower who I’ve yet to meet in person.

As much as our digital lives keep us in touch—on Facebook; with texts; and through email and phone; as human beings, we still crave the added sensory emotions of interacting in person.

“I can’t wait to go to SXSW,” musician Roem Baur told me the other day, “there are so many bands and people I want to see.” Roem is performing at five venues during the festival, including an official SXSW event sponsored by T-Mobile and Chevrolet.

Yes, even brands want to have the opportunity to personally interact with their customers. Thousands of brand managers and their PR flacks organize parties, and IRL events to reach out and touch their customers.

The festival is often referred to as summer camp for techies—a chance for peers, fans, and influencers who would perhaps never meet each other in person, to share a beer and a taco; and gain some intellectual and social capital. When All Things Digital writer Kara Swisher posted digitally that she was heading to Austin, one of her fans immediately commented, “does this mean I actually get to meet you?”

New Yorker (and contributing writer for THE FIVE) Matt Van Hoven decided to travel to SXSW via Los Angeles on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, traveling with another Hog and Tech aficionado in order to enhance the overall in real life experience (all with the support of Harley Davidson of course).

The festival is so massive, that flights from urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York are packed with like-minded souls who nickname the planes “Nerd Birds.” Hotel rooms are booked a year in advance, and VIP passes to events are arranged like drug deals.

But of course, the tether of the digital world is still strongly affixed to the Austin-bound crowd. My Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Path, Foursquare and Pinterest feeds are stuffed full of digital residue of my friend’s in-person experiences.

Yep, for me, I’m sitting this year out, watching the activity virtually, and coveting my position on Foursquare as the mayor of “Not at SXSW.” See you guys next week—in person, when you’re back in the City.


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