How I tried and failed to be social at Coachella

Is this what digital hell is like?

About an hour and a half in, I realized my initial goal of ceaseless digital documentation would have to be scaled back.

I arrived in Palm Springs, California, with the best of intentions. I was to document -- painstakingly document -- the entire Coachella experience with all of the available mobile social tools at my disposal. I would Meerkat and Periscope and Instagram and Snapchat and tweet from Engadget's official accounts and the folks peering through from the other side of the digital window would watch, fave, like, retweet and comment live. I would use the festival's official app to plan my day and navigate the crowds. I would use an app dedicated to setting up reservations at (and paying for) pop-up dining experiences at the festival. I would Uber to and from the festival with abandon. With technology as my crutch, I would hack my Coachella experience. I would live through this festival as the ultimate millennial.

Except I failed miserably at it.

Coachella, for the unaware, is a 16-year old music festival that takes place over two spring weekends on conspicuously green, green grass in the desert of Indio, California, each year. It is exceedingly hot and perfectly timed for the spring breaking/college set to bare their bodies and flaunt finely sculpted abs, and for celebs to bare their fame-hungry egos for wandering photogs and flaunt hip privilege and fashion. Coachella, like any music festival flooded with tens of thousands of not-quite-sober people, can be insufferable, but at least the music's good.

I should've known what I was getting into. From the moment I stepped into the Uber from the Palm Springs airport and began the ride to my hotel, my driver could not stop boasting about all the money he'd make ferrying Coachella attendees back and forth. He was practically foaming at the mouth at the sheer prospect of it, telling me he'd made over $4,000 in two days last year. In fact, he, like every other Uber driver I had that weekend, had driven up from the LA area to take advantage of the influx of disposable income (and trust funds!) taking temporary residence in the area. And who could blame them? Coachella is a cash cow. Last year, Billboard reported that the 2014 festival grossed over $78 million. Clearly, there's plenty of money to go around.

Day one

I was still in a good mood before Day One had officially kicked off at 11 AM that Friday. On the advice of the Uber driver who took me to pick up my press badge at an offsite location, I carpooled to the festival grounds with two friends of mine from New York who were also in town to work Coachella, albeit for fashion. That driver had warned me that while Ubering to Coachella would likely work out okay, getting back home using the service at night would not be advisable. So, in my cutoffs and layered head-to-toe with a thick mist of ultra-dry SPF 45 sunscreen, I began the long, dusty walk to the grounds. On my right wrist were two bracelets: one designating me as media, the other designating me as a VIP and embedded with an RFID tag I had to register online with the organizers that granted me access to the festival's inner sanctum. It was this RFID bracelet that we waved in front of a walkthrough scanner that tracked our comings and goings.

The modern way to checkin to a festival. #coachella

A photo posted by Engadget (@engadget) on Apr 10, 2015 at 12:14pm PDT

In keeping with the times, the organizers of Coachella, Goldenvoice, created an app to guide festival-goers through the experience. I downloaded it in the parking lot and told my friends to do the same, but they rebuffed my prompts, saying it would eat up too much data (that should've been my first clue) and wasn't worth the hassle. I shrugged it off and instead delighted in the slickness of the app: I could track my location on the festival grounds; create my own daily itinerary of performances; navigate my way to the various tents and stages; and, with Bluetooth enabled, receive proximity-based push notifications about points of interest.

About an hour and a half in, while wandering the grounds, I realized my initial goal of ceaseless digital documentation would have to be scaled back. It was just too sunny to see my iPhone's screen properly, my brain too muddled by the wearying barrage of low-90-degree heat and my fellow Coachella revelers actions too frantic and fleeting to catch in time. At least I had the monumental and blessedly static art structures sprinkled throughout the grounds to capture for Instagram and Twitter.

It was around the time I began Periscoping the scene at Trippy Turtle's set in the Sahara tent at mid-afternoon that I noticed how odd I looked. My phone had been glued to my hand, a trait so common in our everyday lives as to be unremarkable. Yet, from a quick survey of the crowd around me, I was clearly one of the only people conspicuously holding up a smartphone to record (in this case, livestream) the happenings. I felt a tinge of embarrassment at this, but refused to let it deter me. And it didn't. But the network congestion caused by the increasing Coachella hordes eventually did.

I'd try to post to Instagram and fail to get a signal. I'd try to begin broadcasting a livestream on Meerkat and fail to get a signal. I'd try to check the app for upcoming shows or find a tent and fail to get a signal. I'd try to pay for my watered-down (and over-iced) vodka soda after waiting and dehydrating in a long line in the full force of the unforgiving sun and the Square card readers would fail to get a signal to process my payment, forcing me to pay with cash I didn't have. It was such a frustrating technological fail that it prompted one guy in line behind me to shout: "Who even carries cash anymore?!" He was right to be so incredulous. We are, after all, living in the age of Apple Pay.

It seemed as though these kids were here to live in the moment, while I was so miserably stuck in the internet of the present.

When the sun had finally tucked its searing rays away for the evening and with the merciful cool of the nighttime desert air soothing the overheated anxiety of Coachella's hordes, the festival came vividly to life. Suddenly, there was no more breathing space; all around were people going in every direction. The art structures were brilliantly lit and attracting the attention and shenanigans of the still half-dressed attendees. There was a giant, roving caterpillar making its way slowly from tent to tent. It was art for Instagram's sake and I had no way of proving it with social media. So I took a burst shot of the scene from a distance and made a mental note to make a GIF using Google's Auto Awesome as soon as I got a somewhat decent WiFi signal. I was ultimately successful: My friends needed to pee and that afforded me about 30 minutes of crucial upload time using my work-supplied Verizon Jetpack MiFi. With my GIF game now on fleek, I felt like the millennial MacGyver.

And so, I was ready to end the night with a performance by Flying Lotus. I'd been told by one of the organizers that his set included a cube-shaped screen that aped a 3D effect and made it seem like he was inside of the visuals. And she was right. The resulting visuals seemed to float around him as he performed. Yet, despite that allure, still I noticed a lack of phones held overhead in the sea of sweaty humans and cluttering the view to the stage. I felt crazy. This was not millennial behavior. It was not a proper concert unless someone's phone was blocking my view. I confirmed this suspicious activity with my friends. They, too, had noticed that hardly anyone was holding, let alone recording with, their phones.

I put my phone in my pocket and went home that night coated in dust and utterly confused.

Day two

It was early morning when I glanced at my phone and first saw the barrage of push notifications from the Coachella app. I'd missed them the day before because, having given up on the spotty service and dealing with impossible screen glare, I'd stashed my phone away in my bag. The push notifications were for the most part helpful, ranging from alerts directing attendees along the different colored paths to the various lots, to Instagram opportunities with the #CoachellaCaterpillar, to the life-saving (or so I thought) presence of Twitter-sponsored public WiFi in the beer gardens and VIP areas. I couldn't wait to tell my friends I'd found the key to connectivity.

On the way to my friends' hotel that early afternoon, Vass, my Bulgarian-accented Uber driver unloaded his frustrations with Goldenvoice on me. He complained that the organizers kept changing up the routes to the drop-off and pick-up and that his clients were getting unfairly upset with him for the confusion (and the still running meter). "I gave up and turned off my meter last night," he told me. I sympathized with Vass' loss of Coachella income, but I also felt greatly relieved that I'd heeded that other driver's advice and rode in with friends.

Back on the still-too-hot festival grounds, I felt weird and stigmatized as an outsider for using my phone so publicly, so often; for just having it in my hand. Even at the tents, you barely saw phones in the air blocking others' views and recording the performances. There was no obsessive, default need to archive the experience. I couldn't stop commenting on it to my friends. It seemed as though these kids were here to live in the moment, while I was so miserably stuck in the internet of the present. Periscoping felt weird and dumb. So did Meerkating and Tweeting and Instagramming.

If you were head-down preoccupied in your phone, you were other. You were marked with a Scarlet Letter of sorts that shouted: "I'm not having fun."

I'm sure plenty did their best and persisted in posting to all the various social channels, but the behavior that day was not obvious. If you were head-down preoccupied in your phone, you were other. You were marked with a Scarlet Letter of sorts that shouted: "I'm not having fun." And in that, you were alone. As it was, I was overdressed for the event -- I was wearing a shirt -- and stuck out like a sore thumb. So I resigned myself to taking in the scene with as much carefree, nouveau hippie swagger as I could muster.

It was by the happiest accident that I stumbled across H&M's pop-up tent of air-conditioned technological wonder. Having realized lace-up gladiators might not yield the most desirable tan lines, one of my friends fucked off in search of a place to buy herself flip-flops. She returned delighted and proceeded to rattle off the tale of discovering the H&M tent and the automated shopping process and other assorted whizz-bang doodads it harbored. As a jaded member of the tech press, I found it hard at first to believe her. H&M and technology? I couldn't imagine what that marriage might bring, but with her prodding, we went to check it out.

The long and fast-moving line outside the tent was encouraging. So, too, were the clouds of dry ice smoke that billowed out whenever the front doors would open. I couldn't wait to step through that cloudy gate and be surrounded by my element, by functioning technology. I also couldn't wait to stop sweating.

Once inside, it became clear that the main draw for the Coachella crowd was less about the digital installments and more about a place to stop sweating and stare into phones. Still, it was impressive and unexpected, especially for H&M. Samsung Galaxy Tablets were placed in several spots draped by articles of clothing hanging overhead. You could order anything from the H&M loves Coachella collection from here, add your name and then pick it up at the checkout. Neat, but not mind-blowing.

Next was a kind of interactive sound wall made out of fabric. Reps were on hand to demonstrate to passersby how it worked. Psychedelic visuals would play out on the elastic sheet and signal different tones when pressed. I was mesmerized, but it didn't seem to catch on with the stream of people being shuttled through. Then, there it was: Gear VR. Tucked into a semi-walled-off area near the magic wall was a small group of people experiencing Oculus' brand of Samsung-assisted virtual reality for, seemingly, the first time. It was neat to watch their reactions and surprising to see the lack of a queue for the demo. As a devotee of the next gen of VR, I prompted my friends to partake. But they, once again, rebuffed my tech proddings, saying they didn't want to don sweaty headsets countless others had worn. It was a reasonable concern, so I didn't push further.

And who could forget the aura photo booth? Yes, a photo booth that captures your likeness and, apparently, your aura in a handy corresponding color filter that listed out three traits. Gimmick notwithstanding, this section seemed to claim the most attention in part, it appeared, because of the ability to share your aura shot with yourself and others. In other words, the aura photo booth scratched that narcissistic social itch, making it a worthwhile pit stop.

The rest of the day carried on much like the first. My ambition beaten by the relentless heat, I shuffled from tent to tent to beer garden to tent to bathroom in a haze. My phone had become useless and I was regretting my choice of a black hat.

It was at some point during my time in the suffocating confines of the dance tent, where I found myself hidden behind a wall of gawking, awkward teens with phones held high who looked like they'd rather be at home playing DOTA than listening to Danny Tenaglia, that it dawned on me network congestion must be easing up. Outside in the cool night air, my suspicions were confirmed. Suddenly, there were more phones visible. People were stopping more often for selfies and group shots and, despite the organizer's ban, wielding selfie sticks. It was the scene I'd expected all along, and it lived and died by consistent connectivity.

That was when we struck up a conversation with what I'd call two very Coachella-style girls who provided me with this keen insight: "Coachella has this really cool app. It's been really handy," said the one festooned in a gauzy cape, glittery face paint and bedazzled headdress. "We were on the red path and were like: 'What are they stalking us?'" said the other festooned in a gauzy cape, glittery face paint and bedazzled headdress, referring to the app's proximity-based push notifications. They admitted that the shit connectivity had rendered the app more or less impotent for the start of the festival, but nonetheless remained impressed.

"What are we even going to do with our lives when Coachella ends?" he shouted at us.

While waiting for Ratatat to play in the Sahara tent close to midnight, one guy holding a giant, inflatable zebra called my friends and I out for drinking coffee. It was unthinkable to him that we could be there in that tent and not be overwhelming our systems with recreational drugs. "I can't believe it's already the end of Day Two. What are we even going to do with our lives when Coachella ends?" he shouted at us. Sleep, I thought. We will sleep.

But first, we'd have to plod through a 45-minute dust-cloudy trek back to the car.

Day three

By this point, I was done. I'd checked out mentally. I surrendered to the heat and vowed to never partake in a music festival ever again. I didn't want to wave my wrist at a beeping checkpoint ever again. I didn't want to drag my feet across the green, green grass and twist and turn my way through the nearly naked throngs ever again. Everywhere was a phone; everyone was taking selfies; some even had GoPros strapped to their heads. The last-day social media panic had set in. Connectivity had seemingly been made more robust and the urge to archive the experience live was in full swing.

I could now pay for my overpriced cocktail with Square card readers; there was a signal. I could now Instagram or tweet with abandon from anywhere on the grounds; there was a signal. I could now check the Coachella app and plot out my list of shows; there was a signal. I could now hold my phone up high and record concerts instead of watching them; there was a signal. Digital life had found a way.

Except, I wish it hadn't.

It was the musician St. Vincent who, at one of Day Three's closing performances, greeted the crowd by calling us her "analog people" and saying we all had one thing in common: We were born before the 21st century. Her sentiment -- what I like to think of as a subtle protest -- was lost on the frenzied, phone-clutching masses. "She's weird," I heard one girl nearby say. "Is she from the '80s?" said another.