This talk by John Gruber and Merlin Mann at SXSW 2009 came up again from John’s link to a fan video, and it was a great reminder to redownload the audio and listen again.
It has become much more famous than I imagine John or Merlin expected at the time, but I’m particularly fond of it because of my experience in the audience, which I should share before I become too uptight about my blog appearing unprofessional or embarrassing myself in front of my famous internet friends. I almost didn’t post this even now, and while that usually means that I really should post it, it sometimes correctly means that I shouldn’t. But oh well.
(If you don’t care about my feelings or the 5by5 crew, this will be boring. It might be as interesting as hearing about someone’s hazy recollection of a nonsensical dream. You’ve been warned.)
Tumblr sent my wife and me to Austin for SXSW 2009 to help throw a party. We flew in two hours before this talk, but it was the only thing that interested me on the entire SXSW schedule, so I rushed and made it there.
I still remember how nervous-sick my stomach felt at the restaurant with the Tumblr people beforehand. I was worried that I wouldn’t make it on time. I was going to meet these people in person whose work I admired on the internet, and I had never crossed those worlds before (and I’m not the smoothest person socially). I didn’t have my own badge and had to fraudulently use someone else’s, so I was worried about getting “caught”, whatever that would mean. I had never attended a conference before, so I had no idea how it worked, how tight security was, what it would be like inside the convention center, or where to go once I got there.
But I made it in by strategically ensuring that the badge was always flopped over or tucked under my arm slightly so nobody would notice that I wasn’t John Maloney, not realizing how lax security is at conferences (especially SXSW).
A few minutes before the talk started, I noticed that the guy sitting next to me looked a lot like Lonelysandwich. I was pretty confident that it was him — the guy’s iconic. It took my last remaining nerve to ask cautiously, “Excuse me… are you, uh, Adam?”
“Oh hey, are you Marco?”
What. How. What. (I still don’t know.)
So we got to talking, and then John and Merlin walked in to do the talk. They came by to greet Adam.
Merlin saw me and exploded with Instapaper praise. I was speechless. This guy’s a big deal on the internet, and I was worried about how awkwardly I’d introduce myself and how I’d probably put my foot in my mouth, and here he was recognizing me and introducing himself.
Meeting John was even more dumbfounding. He saw me, said nothing, and then told Adam, “Don’t let him leave.”
Tumblr was big by then and Instapaper was already more than a year old. I knew these guys knew about both, but I never expected to be personally recognized. It was an unforgettable experience already.
Then I saw the talk, during which they referenced my stuff twice. (Mind further blown.) And the talk, as we know now, was not only great but timeless and universal.
It was the first conference session I’d ever attended.
For the following year, I thought all conference sessions were that good, and I was so intimidated that I declined invitations to speak at conferences myself because I thought I had to achieve that level of quality.1
It wasn’t until I got my own badge for SXSW 2010 and attended multiple sessions there that I realized how bad most of them are, so I was finally comfortable agreeing to my first talk.2
In addition to inspiring me to be a better writer and inadvertently killing my conference-presentation confidence for a year, this famous little 2009 SXSW session leveled my juvenile notion of celebrity. After the talk, since I wasn’t allowed to leave, I was introduced to many more great people famous for their blog, software, humor, or music,3 and it went similarly well with all of them.
Among people who are well-known to subsets of internet geeks, nobody’s walking around with entourages or bodyguards. Nobody’s forced to wear hats and sunglasses outside or avoid shopping in public because they’ll get mobbed with fans and paparazzi. In the wise words of Ted Dziuba, “We all recognize that it’s just the internet. At the end of the day you still go outside and nobody knows who you are.”
The internet “celebrities” I was so nervous to meet are now my friends. I see them a few times each year at conferences. It turns out that we’re all just regular people who like similar things and are in the same little circle of interest.
So next time you’re at a geeky conference and have an opportunity to meet someone whose work you admire, just go up and introduce yourself, because they’re just a regular person, they never get “recognized” during the other 360 days each year, and they’ll probably really appreciate it.
And you should really listen to that talk.
A few months later, I attended my first WWDC, which didn’t help: WWDC sessions are also unusually excellent. ↩
Remind me to tell you sometime why Jonathan Coulton is partially, indirectly, unknowingly responsible for Tumblr. ↩