To recruit jihadis, you don't go to the Mall of America. Anyone who thinks a marketing conference is the right place for a pro-privacy speech is equally delusional.
Edward Snowden could've spoken during any other time, on any other screen, before any other audience, but he picked Austin in March for a sympathetic ear. It was a bad choice. For Snowden to speak before an MTV Spring Break crowd would have, at least, been a lot more entertaining for everyone else to watch.
Though SXSW wasn't far off.
The afternoon after Snowden's Google Hangout address to SXSW, I was invited to a beer pong tournament thrown by joke-turned-company Bang With Friends, an app that lets you find out who among your social group might want to fuck. That SXSW is the sort of thing where "Bang With Friends beer pong tournament" doesn't sound at all strange should tell you how ill-suited it was as a hunting ground for converts to Snowdenism.
I stood around with a couple other reporters, BWF CEO Colin Hodge, and a small group of hangers-on, inside what looked like a fraternity house the week after a fire. "Did you catch any of the Snowden talk?" I asked a few partygoers, probably the worst possible conversation topic during a drinking game. I was hoping someone could fill me in, since I'd slept through almost the entire presentation, hungover. Most of my new bedraggled friends said no, they'd missed Snowden, too. A few people remained silent. A guy in a tank top did upside-down push-ups against a wall. Only one woman had watched Snowden—she asked for my email address and forwarded me some notes that a friend of hers had taken. We all sort of went through the motions of caring and being vaguely aware that such a Q&A had taken place, but there was no traction. We weren't sure why we were huddled together in a concrete room in Austin with ping pong balls bouncing, occasionally, but it wasn't to talk about the NSA.
There are really only two things to do during "SXSW Interactive," an outdoor shopping mall constructed in Austin every year since 1999. You can go to "panels," where people with the vaguest of job descriptions read their tweets aloud to a small audience. Or you can eat passed hors d'oeuvres and down open-bar cocktails at a jarringly overlit party. Most people elect to do both, with the latter serving as a palate cleanser for the former, clashing tastes notwithstanding. Between these two poles, an overfed, logo-adorned tide of festival-goers washes in and out among booths of free t-shirts and hashtagged giveaways.
This, a carnival that celebrates the lucrative eradication of American privacy, is where Edward Snowden chose to make a rare duck out of cover and speak to an American audience. To a crowd of junior marketing executives and engineers who want to make it easier to find track your friends on a map, the new great whistleblower of our time said the following:
"I will say SXSW and the technology community - people who are in the room in Austin they are the folks that really fix things who can enforce our rights for technical standards...[the NSA is] setting fire to the future of the internet. The people who are in this room now you guys are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this."
This is what everyone came to town for: to give and take freebies, to give and drink beers, to notice and be noticed. SXSW isn't just indifferent to privacy, it's antithetical to privacy, hostile to the very notion that privacy is a virtue to be protected. At every street corner and in every bar was a company whose existence hinges on the commodification of you, your face, your spending habits, and your words. Outside the BWF party, 6th street was closed off for day-drunk pedestrians with conference badges and lanyards, for promotional day-workers hawking free tees and logo-emblazoned USB chargers, yelling at everyone and staring into space.
Every locale was filled with people who wanted to buy and sell you, or by green startup hopefuls drawn to Austin by the fantasy of someday being bought out by one of these privacy-killing machines.
"The people who are in this room now you guys are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this," Snowden said. He was wrong. He was a firefighter addressing an arsonists' convention.