Addiction at SXSW

By Frankie Norstad 03/14/12
It may be for tech and music lovers, but the famed Austin festival certainly has its addictive moments.
Loud and proud Francesca Brandelius

For the first half of South by Southwest—a 10-day interactive, film, and music festival held in Austin Texas every March—the traditionally jock and hipster filled streets are overloaded with phone-stoned tech geeks who are there to attend panels on topics ranging from technology to video games, politics to publishing. But on the fifth day, the interactive and film sections end and the music festival begins. And throughout the entire thing, corporate sponsored booze flows freely while pedicabs pick up and drop off scantily clad drunken girls and loud-mouthed rockers or jocks.

Though I’d heard about a South by Southwest 12-step meeting during my previous two visits to the festival, this was the first year I actually had the time to try to find it. Since I’d gotten the sense from a friend that it was only for über famous musicians, I decided to do some detective work. The morning after I arrived in Austin, I called up the SXSW headquarters and decided to put on a fake British accent as I said, “Hello, I represent a sober musician that is performing a few showcases next week and I just got word that South by Southwest hosts a 12-Step meeting. Is that true?” 

“Yes ma’am, let me look it up,” said the person on the other end of the line. Then she told me it was going to be the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the music festival.

“So there is nothing during interactive and film?” I asked, accidentally dropping my accent. 

“No ma’am.”

Halfway through the first meeting I went to, a lovely petite woman wearing a wide brim floppy hat joined us with a beer in hand. After about 10 minutes she scurried out, perhaps realizing where she was. We all chuckled and carried on. 

Disappointed, I took off to the normal noon meeting, following what I’d learned as travel instructions from an old-timer early on in recovery: go online and look up the meetings in the town you are going to, get your ass to the first one you can after that plane lands, raise your hand as a visitor, let people know why you are in town, get women’s phone numbers, and fellowship with everyone after the meeting. 

Friday morning, March 9th, the gates of the interactive festival opened and I found myself in a handful of panels about publishing and the new wave of transmedia—blending e-books with interactive graphics, audio clips, videos, and photographs. Around 4pm, I got lost on the third floor and stumbled upon a sign that said “SXSW and Musicares are proud to host 12 step meetings during SXSW Location: Meeting Room 5B (3rd floor) Daily Meetings @ 6:15pm.”

Two hours later, I sat in a room filled with two-dozen other temporary transplants talking about the meaning of life and what it’s like to be sober at South by Southwest. There was complimentary coffee and real cream. The crowd was not the über famous musician crowd I’d anticipated: instead they were just like me—everyday addicts who were insecure about being around so many brilliant minds and well aware that drinking was a major aspect of all the nighttime festivities. Just how prevalent is drinking there? Well, halfway through the first meeting I went to, a lovely petite woman wearing a wide brim floppy hat joined us with a beer in hand. After about 10 minutes she scurried out, perhaps realizing where she was. We all chuckled and carried on. 

That night, a friend and I went to the premiere of a movie called Frankie Go Boom at the Stateside Theatre—a 1930’s movie house that’s around the corner from the segment of 6th Street that the city closes off to cars every weekend night of the festival. The listing in the program guide just described the movie as a comedy about “two brothers, a girl with a broken heart, a sex tape, and angel and a pig.” I was completely sold on the description even before seeing the poster outside the theater of Ron Perlman dressed in heavy, Divine-esque drag. 

The film opened with a vintage homemade movie of a boy playing a prank on his younger brother and then focused, not 20 minutes later, on the now-adult brothers sitting with their parents in a 12-step meeting as the older brother graduates from his rehab. What were the odds that out of the 200-plus movies showing at the festival, this would be the one movie we’d pick? 

The next day, I attended more panels, ate tacos, and hit a local Austin meeting with my old grand-sponsor. The streets were filled with cute people iStoned on their iPhones. But the highlight of it all, for me, was a panel on Sunday called The Attention Drug Wars, a conversation between two web start-up CEO's—Joe Edelman from Citizen Logistics and Tristan Harris of Apture—and Fred Muench, a clinical psychologist who specializes in addictive disorders. The topic? How the goal of tech developers is to get users addicted—and the problems inherent in that.

“It’s like Pavlov’s Dog: you ring a bell and give the dog a steak, then ring a bell again and give the dog a steak, so if you ring the bell and don’t give the dog a steak, their mouth still waters,” said Muench. “The same thing is happening with technology: our phone pings and we get a small hit of dopamine. The dopamine releases not when the actual information is received, but when we hear the initial ping.”

Edelman added, “A lot of the panels here are discussing how to get more hits and be more visible. One of the ways developers get people hooked is through a sense of social obligation.” According to Edelman, developers and clients are so focused on the quantity of hits that they neglect the quality of the experience. “What we found with [the company he served as metrics architect for before founding Citizen Logistics] was that the time users spent on our site was actually a cost of doing business, not a benefit. We didn’t want them spend three hours flipping through our site—we wanted them make their connections, then get out there and live so that they would value our service and build a community. What if instead of seeing a red notification button on your phone, you saw a message that said ‘Would you like to spend the next 15 minutes on Facebook?’”

Harris addressed the same issue but from a different point of view. “How many of you have ever done something that you didn’t intend to do?” he asked. “For example, it’s 8 o’clock at night and you decide that tonight you are going to go to bed early—by 11pm. But by the time 11 rolls around, you’ve lost the resolve. Maybe you are on Facebook or on YouTube and you tell yourself just one more video but pretty soon it’s 1 am. Research studies have shown that one of the possible reasons for our lack of impulse control at night is that after 9 pm, our glucose levels drop. Glucose is vital in determining decision making.” 

Muench’s suggestion for curbing addictive technology tendencies was to turn off your phone’s push notifications. “You are going to check those apps anyhow,” he said. Harris advised potential tech addicts to simply “be conscious of how these things affect your life…The first step is awareness.”

I was thrilled to be at this panel. I introduced myself to the speakers beforehand and stood up during the Q&A time, outing myself as a recovering addict. I talked about how grateful I was that technology addiction is bridging the gap between behavioral addictions and substance abuse. No longer is an addict just an abscess-covered junkie on the street—it can now be your mom playing with Farmville. I’m not saying everyone needs to join a 12-step program, but any time I see society diminishing the stigma, shame and guilt around the word “addict,” the happier I am.

Let’s just see how I do at the meeting filled with the über famous rockers.

Francesca Brandelius has photographed for national music magazines and advertising agencies. Her YouTube videos have gone viral and she is currently finishing her memoir, Little Miss Addict. This is her first piece for The Fix.

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