Great stuff – how moblogging came to Bruce Sterling’s annual SXSW party.
Then there is the third part, which is my people here, which would be South by Southwest Interactive which is the geek set in my town, right? It used to be South by Southwest Multimedia and it’s not like an industry gig. These people are cyberculturati. These are weblog guys, meetup guys, vaguely political online organization characters, Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow travellers, EPIC guys, computer game designers, SIGRAPH habituaes, washed-up former virtual reality visionaries, dazed sort of half-conscious linux programmer loonie free-software characters, and science fiction writers. So I’ve gone to this every year since they started it because I knew the organizers and these are just people out of my milieu. So every year I have a party here at South by Southwest. It’s my Open House Party. It’s a very “Information Wants to be Free” kind of party. I just go there. I’m always booked to do something: I’m on a panel. I give a speech or something and traditionally I end my speech by just inviting the whole audience over to my house for free beer. “Aw boys, we’re all going over to my house for free beer!”
They show up. It’s not difficult to give away free beer. I don’t know why people think that this is expensive. If you just price it out, a keg of beer, you can get someone really drunk for seventy-five cents. Plus people bring their own beer. They bring lots of liquor.
My organizational principle for this party, which has been going on for just donkey’s years now, is that you can bring anything you can carry and anyone that you trust. Right? Strangers show up and that’s kind of the point. It’s not like I hand out little laminated cards and say “Yes, you can go by the novelist’s house.” It’s just that we literally throw the doors open and people just show up. There’s never been an incident. People have a really good time. You can’t predict who’s going to be there. I really enjoy talking to people that don’t know that I’m the host. They are like “God, this guy’s taste in art, what’s with this?” I like to attend my own party and that’s kind of a thrill for me. It’s just a little social thing that I do. It’s fun and it’s sort of our big social outreach for my wife and I. It’s what we do to kind of pitch in and give back a little bit. It’s pleasant and it costs us just a few hundred bucks. It’s nothing like a budget breaker. It’s not the cost that’s any kind of trouble. You can make two or three hundred people really happy for the cost of…I don’t know…a laser printer or something. Why not? Right? It’s not a big problem. Well, this year, I did have a big problem.
This year I had a problem because there were 200 people in my audience and I say “Ok, everybody is going over to my house for beer!” and they say “Yay!” and 600 people show up at my party. They weren’t the people in the audience. Half the people in the audience normally attend because it’s on the last day and a lot of people leave anyway. They showed up and some kind of flash mob thing occurred. There was some kind of electronically assisted gathering happening at my house. Because people were showing up and they were showing up in buddy lists. It wasn’t just the usual foot traffic of one and two people. There would be at half-past one…there were sudden clusters or armadas of taxis coming in from two or three directions and people would get out of the taxis and are name-checking each other and sort of clustering together and coming into the party in a mass. Guys are phone-camming the party. It’s like “He’s not kidding, look there’s a keg here!” <snicka> <z.z.z.z.z> and off they come. Actresses are showing up, which is sort of interesting because there is never much cross-over into the film thing. Guys are coming up and saying “Bruce! Your party’s full of hot chicks!” There are girls in lingerie tops with stiletto heels. They aren’t actually partying. They’re not eating. They’re there to display themselves so they kind of swan anorexically through this crowd of unix sysadmins and they’re, like… <Bruce makes really goofy surprised face> They’re awe-struck. Somebody had told them that it was sort of necessary to go make the scene at the novelist’s house and they sort of arrived in a bloc, united by phones, I assume, and then departed.
So it was lively and they were a very well behaved group. There was no…they were very sweet, kindly people except more and more of them started showing up. So around 1:45, the cops show up and I’m in there pontificating as is my wont. Someone says “Gee Bruce, the police are out on the porch and I think you’d better come see this.” So I go out there and it’s one cop. He’s an Austin cop. He’s a very nice guy but he wants to see some I.D. so I’m handing this over. He says, “So Mr. Sterling, is this home?” <in falsetto> “Yes, officer.” “Well, Mr. Sterling, we are receiving noise complaints from your neighbors and let me just tell you the drill here. I’m giving you a verbal warning and if I have to return, I’m going to have to write you up a citation. If I have to return a third time, I’m going to have to take you downtown.” I’m talking to this guy and I say, “Well, that’s very interesting officer but what if you take me downtown and people continue to arrive at the party? Because they aren’t being issues invitations. They are just sort of arriving spontaneously. What are you going to tell these 600 people when there is no host and you’ve arrested him?” He didn’t like that question. I didn’t like the question either because it was kind of loud. “Gee, Officer,” I told him, “We’re not playing loud music. It’s a very well behaved crowd. This is South by Southwest.”
Well, it was half past one and he said, “You’re not playing music but you’re talking and people can hear you talking two blocks away.” They could here us talking two blocks away. There was uproar. These people had a lot on their minds. They were talking about politics and current affairs. They weren’t talking about business because there isn’t any in their line of work but they had a lot to confess to one another. They were crying on each other’s shoulders, whatever. So I hustled them all inside the house, got them off of the porch, it was beautiful weather. Packed them into the house, shut the doors.
That was when the spontaneous self-organization happened. This was a little weird. I’ve never witnessed…I’ve had big parties. This party was 50% bigger than last year’s party. Last year was maybe 350 people. This year was 600 easy. So it’s half past one and I’m down to, maybe, 175 people but they’re all inside the house and our house is on an open plan. There is a kitchen, a big room, a bathroom and so forth. Well, normally, people just wander from room to room with their drinks and beer or whatever. This time, they are moving en masse. There is this outbreak of herd behavior. It’s packed. It’s packed like it is in here and people just start moving along the room. There is this spontaneous emergent order. They’re actually… <Bruce walks along following a wall>…swirling around the house and you don’t get to get out of the way. They are coming in all these groups and the people in front of them see them coming and they’re moving and the whole thing begins jostling in this spontaneous crowd flow, which is hairy because if someone yells “Fire” in a situation like that, there is going to be real injuries.
I’d never seen that happen in my house before.