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How to make friends and thinkfluence people at SXSW

How to make friends and thinkfluence people at SXSW


Lying and crying in Austin, TX

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Amelia Krales

At my first SXSW, I tried so hard to make friends.

Let me be clear: I didn’t want to network. My reasoning behind that was simple: I don’t know how to network, and I already suspected that I would be bad at it. I tried to go to a two-hour workshop called "The Business of Friendship," intending to write very imperious content about it, but it was full. So instead I decided to pick a task much less ambitious: find all the other desperate weirdos on the fringes of this festival and befriend them.

It felt like necessary counter-programming to all the bogus "connecting at SXSW" emails, free food, handshakes, and business cards. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase "a great group of fascinating women," on even my first day in Austin I could have wallpapered my apartment with dollars.

the whole city smelled like complimentary chardonnay

I wanted my SXSW friends to love me for who I truly am, and not to care what I receive my paycheck for. But it’s hard to get people to let you have that at SXSW. The festival feels very much like the first week of college, only instead of "What’s your major?" the questions on everyone’s lips are "Why are you here? Where do you work? Who are you? Do you matter?" If people knew what The Verge was, they asked me about Sam Sheffer. If they didn’t, well, the conversation was pretty much over.

So I started lying. It is easier, I found, to make friends when you’re just making shit up. Some lies I told: "I’m ghostwriting a blog for my dentist," "I’m obsessed with horror movies," "I’m thinking about becoming a life coach." A couple of times at SXSW I jokingly told someone "I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win." (I honestly do not remember the context, but I’m sure it made no sense to anyone and I embarrassed myself.) Actually, I was at SXSW to make fake friends for this piece of content, which is arguably shittier than networking.

Here are the places I went to make friends at SXSW:

  • A networking event for women in tech
  • A networking event for people in NYC media
  • A workshop on positive thinking
  • A networking event for ghostwriters
  • A networking event for people who work in advertising but don’t want to
  • A networking event for genre filmmakers
  • A donut place
  • A karaoke bar
  • A Cartoon Network party
  • Several movie theaters
  • Many Ubers
  • The middle of the street

And here are some stories of SXSW friendship:

Friend #1:

Faith Helma, a performance artist and life coach from Portland, Oregon.

Our story:

Faith hosted a two-hour workshop that promised to help participants "stand up for [their] flaws." The only thing in the room besides a giant SXSW banner was a small portrait of Stevie Wonder.

The theme of the workshop was celebrating failure, and when people were unable to follow instructions or form a coherent thought, we were encouraged to clap for them. We created alter egos for the day — mine was named Lala, after the hostess from Vanderpump Rules. We also made fart noises and held hands while Faith spoke the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s "Visions."

My friend Faith brought me close to friendship with several other people:

  • Woman who said, in regards to my laptop charger: "Look how smart you are, all your cords, all your power," and seemed to mean it.
  • Very handsome man whose alter ego was Flint Ironstag. He let me take a picture of him dancing but we could never be friends, for he is much too handsome.
  • Man who turned out to be psychotic: His alter ego’s name was Passion, and he said his super power was fucking.
  • A beautiful teen whose alter ego was Killer Mike.
  • Some lady who filmed us all dancing, so fuck her.

We were told to envision the perfect world for our alter ego to exist in, and to imagine being very happy there. Then we were told to "breathe that vision out into the world; drop it; don’t make it happen." We came up with projects we would never do, character flaws we would never try to correct, and people we didn’t feel like apologizing to. Some people found it hard to wallow in negativity, but I did not. One woman said, "But I’m not proud of being rude to my friends when I’m hungry," and Faith was like, "Well, fine!" I felt like I understood Faith the best of anyone.

"Positive thinking is fascism," said Faith. "It’s a way of policing your thoughts."

kaitlyn/life coach

Faith wore a shiny blue jumpsuit with a knee-length Aztec-patterned sweater and knock-off Converse sneakers. She had great hair. The only moment in which I really hated her was when she asked us to explain who we were using only our eyes. My impression was that she was very aware of how awful everything she asked of us was, and that she didn’t want to do it either. We took a photo together while our bottom halves were dancing to a recording of "Dueling Banjos."

My favorite thing about Faith was that she yelled "DOES ANYONE WANT TO DO THE DIRTY DANCING LIFT WITH ME?"

Friend #2:

My friend who is a ghostwriter.

Our story:

I met my friend who is a ghostwriter at a networking event for ghostwriters, which I went to even though I am not a ghostwriter. Part of me thought that whoever writes Audrina Patridge’s blog would be there, and that he or she would confide in me over a Lone Star and swear me to secrecy. This was not the case, though I did meet a woman who wrote a book for Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner.

My friend who is a ghostwriter said he couldn’t talk about some of his clients, but that he was allowed to say that he writes press releases and speeches for Burger King. Coincidentally, I have read a couple of Burger King press releases, as part of my job as The Verge’s designated One Direction blogger. Last August, a tweet from Liam Payne indirectly caused the reinstatement of Chicken Fries to the Burger King menu. My new friend sighed heavily when I told him this. "My whole life was fucking Chicken Fries for a month," he said. I nodded and said, "Yeah okay, but did you talk to One Direction at all?" He told me that he hadn’t, but that he had storyboarded a video for them to appear in for Burger King.

I said "WOW," and meant it, because as far as I knew, One Direction has never made advertisements for anything aside from their large stable of perfumes and the Honda Civic.

My friend who is a ghostwriter agreed to take a selfie with me, and then asked me not to publish it, saying that he would "get in trouble." I was not pleased, because I subscribe to the Casey Newton theory of friendship, which has but one tenet: "A friendship that doesn’t produce content is no friendship at all."

i'm glad at least one of my friends lied back to me

My favorite thing about my friend who is a ghostwriter is that it seems like he kind of lied about working in conjunction with One Direction. (I can’t find the video he referenced anywhere.) That’s fine, because as I mentioned, I lied to him, too. Our friendship bloomed under several false pretenses, so I felt like it could stand up to almost anything. I followed him on Twitter, and I hope he sees this article but doesn’t leave me for good.

Friend #3:

Charlie, a really nice person who works for Sundance and lives in Los Angeles.

Our story:

When I met Charlie, I had just spent an hour standing in direct sunlight with a belly full of milk. I was sunburned and on the verge of vomiting the whole time we were speaking, but Charlie had a calming quality that was nearly as useful to me as a ginger ale.

We met at a networking event for genre filmmakers, which I suspect we were both at for really no reason. Charlie and I bonded over our shared opinion that letting your kids take pictures with the characters in Times Square (or in his case, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), was sort of like letting your kids sit on the lap of some guy sitting in the park dressed as Santa. I asked Charlie if The Hills was an accurate portrait of Los Angeles and to my surprise he said yes, "people sit outside and drink iced tea a lot."

My favorite thing about Charlie was that he looked kind of like Martin Starr and agreed with everything I said.

Friend #4:

Matt, a man from Austin.

Our story:

Matt and I sat next to each other at the Paramount Theatre at the premiere of Demolition, a Jake Gyllenhaal movie.

Matt was drinking a peach-colored cocktail and told me that when he first got to the theater he went up to the balcony and someone had told him that a small hole in the ceiling (he pointed) was where Harry Houdini used to hang his ropes and things for magic tricks. He said, "Do you think that’s true?" And I said, "'Ropes and things’ is kind of a boring lie. Most people aren’t very good at coming up with boring lies! So I believe it."

Matt and I confided in each other that we were both extremely excited to see if Jake Gyllenhaal was around. He asked me why I had a notebook out and I said, "Well, I’m here as a reporter, I guess." Matt didn’t really understand how I could guess that I was here as a reporter so I explained, "Well, really I’m a social media manager, but they sent me here and I have a notebook and I guess I’m just trying to make it work. We’ll see what happens! Trying to be a real reporter someday you know!" And then I was like gurllll get it together.

Matt said that he was there because his father was Jake Gyllenhaal’s driver in Los Angeles, and his dad had told Jake that he had a son in Austin who would really be interested in attending his film premiere. Matt said he’d never met Jake Gyllenhaal, and it was only his assistant who emailed him with the ticket information. It didn’t seem like this hurt his feelings but I said, "Yeah, but Jake Gyllenhaal still thought of you! What a sweetheart, Jake Gyllenhaal!" really loudly anyway.

"What a sweetheart, Jake Gyllenhaal!"

When Jake Gyllenhaal finally came out on stage after the movie, I think we both tried very hard not to act weird. When a young woman went up to the microphone and asked Jake Gyllenhaal, "How exactly does one suck a fuck?" Matt said, "WHAT?" I don’t think Matt said "WHAT?" because he didn’t understand the reference — Matt was the kind of guy who would go to the movies by himself on a Saturday night, so it seemed like he had definitely seen Donnie Darko. I am pretty sure Matt said "WHAT?" because he for one thinks it’s very rude and invasive to try to make a "deep-cut reference" to an event in a stranger’s life. Same.

My favorite thing about Matt was how much he loved Jake Gyllenhaal. I love Jake Gyllenhaal too.

I didn’t ask my friend Matt to take a selfie with me because to be honest, I already felt like I had overshared with him. "I need a picture of us to put in an article about how I struggle to make friends" was not how I wanted to end the evening. Also I had been crying.

Friend #5:

Felicia, a stranger who invited me to get donuts with her.

Our story:

Felicia emailed me on my last day at SXSW and said she wanted to hang out and talk about writing, and that she too found a lot of the SXSW scene to be total nonsense. The subject line of her email was "Connecting at SXSW" but something told me she didn’t suck.

We met at a donut shop and talked for an hour about B.F. Skinner, Instagram, tacos, The Powerpuff Girls, napping during the day, living in Bed-Stuy, working in food service, and dating long distance. Felicia told me at several points that what she was about to say was "off the record," which made me feel like human garbage and suspect that she knew she might become part of a weird essay.

My favorite thing about Felicia was that she told me she was on Twitter under a pseudonym, and that our friendship would have to proceed through email. Also she bought me a donut, and we hugged.

the best friend I made at SXSW was suspicious that i was writing something about her

As I was writing this essay I read it aloud to myself very quietly, trying to imagine how my new SXSW friends would feel if they saw it. If you’ve seen the 1999 film Never Been Kissed, which is about a copy editor (Drew Barrymore) whose first assignment as a journalist is to go undercover at her old high school, you may recall a scene in which Barrymore’s character apologizes to the man she was supposed to write about ... by writing about him in a sprawling personal essay. I have seen that movie 45 times at least, but I never realized that I had internalized it to this degree. It has a very good message, which I believe to be: "Do whatever you want to advance your career, and lie to people for as long as you have to."

The other thing I learned during my first visit to SXSW is that near-constant interfacing with real human beings does as much or more than the Texas sun to physically drain me. I cried four times at SXSW (Uber driver couldn’t find me at 1:30AM, Kehlani’s body guard yelled at me in the street, I listened to Joni Mitchell while I was on a walk, aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal incident) but didn’t realize until I was blubbering on the subway back in New York City that it was because I was 1. Very badly sunburned and therefore a little feverish and 2. Exhausted from seven straight days of intense emotional labor.

It is so hard to talk out loud. I don’t recommend going anywhere or trying to befriend anyone, but if you’re going to go ahead and do it then I suggest refusing to discuss your job. Additionally, I suggest lying. Your true friends will forgive you.