At SXSW, It's All Topo Chico

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An attendee shows of light-emitting diode gloves made at the South By Southwest Conference at the Austin Convention Center on Monday.
An attendee shows of light-emitting diode gloves made at the South By Southwest Conference at the Austin Convention Center on Monday. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As the latest South by Southwest Conference winds down, attendees will encounter colleagues and friends asking how the interactive events and exhibitions were. Attendees may say it was great or mediocre, invigorating or exhausting. But if it was worth the time spent there, one way to respond is saying, "It was Topo Chico."

Literally, "Topo Chico" refers to the brand of Mexican sparkling mineral water which seemed particularly prominent this year in Austin. It was named for the spring by the volcano shaped like a "little mole" ("topo chico") that cured an Aztec princess in the 15th century. The beverage is a fixture in artisanal cocktails and a mainstay of hangover cures.

Metaphorically, it represents the spirit of SXSW. It's the potentially lethal volcano, but it's also the rejuvenating stream. It's what kills you, and then it's what makes you stronger.

It's "Topo Chico" when everyone can stop talking about which app was the hottest at SXSW. Sites like Product Hunt offer suggestions for contending apps, but it's a pointless story. Similar to how hardware such as the latest iPhone, PlayStation, or Tesla isn't announced at the Consumer Electronics Show, SXSW is no longer where one will encounter the next Snapchat, "Pokémon Go" or Spotify.

It's "Topo Chico" when instead of playing a parlor game of what the hot app is, people can hear from seemingly anyone and everyone who has created such apps.

It's "Topo Chico" when you meet people from all around the world who are coming together to learn from each other. Global references were embraced by speakers as well. For instance, when the moderator of the panel, "The Automated Assistant Revolution," asked speakers to identify the best ways that brands use messaging apps, Facebook Product Marketing Communications Lead Asher Rapkin cited Globe Telecom of the Philippines. Rapkin mentioned that their strategy was "empathy through service" to win over consumers by immediately solving their problems.

It's "Topo Chico" when someone at Facebook is describing brands that have a strategy to improve customer service or increase brand favorability through empathy, rather than describing brands as having a Facebook strategy or messaging strategy. It was a refreshing distinction between strategy and tactics.

It's "Topo Chico" when someone older than 22 can wear Snap's Spectacles in public, if only for the week.

It's "Topo Chico" when peers and panels acknowledge how politics and technology are interrelated. We need more forums where the two can be discussed together. Edward Snowden, a keynote (via satellite) at SXSW 2014, foreshadowed how much the two intertwine. This year, politics pervaded countless panels and conversations. Granted, SXSW is a safe space for many attendees. At an Austin festival that attracts attendees drawn from places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and various left-leaning global capitals, one can make generalizations about the audience (would you like your tequila with a wedge of wound-licking or a splash of outrage?). Going forward, SXSW will need to be a place where it can accommodate a diversity of opinions for constructive conversations. (As for the gentleman who struck up a conversation with me at the Muckrack dinner and told me, "The Jews have too much power," that is not the diversity of opinions I mean.)

It's "Topo Chico" when diversity is constantly celebrated and encouraged. I met several founders of groups supporting female entrepreneurs, while racial diversity was also a prominent theme. David Armano, Edelman's global strategy director, wondered in a private Facebook post how much the festival should focus on age diversity too. He asked, "Can age diversity benefit business? Are we ignoring age as part of the professional spectrum?" While I agree that ageism needs to be discussed more, it was a pleasant surprise running into so many experienced (not "old") friends. Many of the first-time attendees that I met were people with 10 or 20 years of experience. They were there to learn and apply those learnings. It's as if SXSW transformed from spring break to graduate school.

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It's "Topo Chico" when attendees boasted about the number of meetings they scheduled or sessions they attended. SXSW is always fun -- too much fun -- but even late into the night, people are talking shop and milking more value from the festival.

It's "Topo Chico" to ask for a round of water. At SXSW, one can always get another beer or whiskey later.

It's "Top Chico" when along with the mineral water, one makes it through SXSW thanks to brands such as Airborne, Neosporin, Band-Aid and Excedrin. Soon enough, I can see many of us showing off our Life Alert bracelets ("I've fallen at the Driskill bar, and I can't get up!") and trading 4 a.m. nightcaps for 4 p.m. dinners.

It's "Topo Chico" when liberals who promulgate the "#DeleteUber" movement complain about the local ride-hailing replacements (Uber and Lyft don't operate in Austin).

It's "Topo Chico" when attendees keep coming back despite the hassle, the expense, the perennial storms even when locals swear it practically never rains in Austin, the lines, the waits, the overstimulation, the lack of sleep, the calories, the exhaustion from walking everywhere, the frustration when one is staying too far away to walk anywhere, the fear of missing out, the peer pressure, the loud hotel rooms, the shared rooms, the lack of hotel rooms, the unreliable ride-sharing apps, the lack of buzzworthy apps, the crowds, the concerns when a spot isn't crowded enough, and the people who look too goofy wearing Spectacles, AirPods, and cowboy hats.

It's "Topo Chico" to make it to SXSW for one's first year, to swear it's one's last year, and then to renege on that vow every year after.

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