I’m still trying to right my equilibrium from five days of… well, I’m not exactly sure what this was. Networking? In spades. Drinking? Far too much. Panels? When I could adequately navigate the schedule, yes. Throw in nightmarish traffic and frantic use of location-based services and you’ve got the perfect SXSW Interactive cocktail. Pun intended.
Before I go any further, I want to make a key point. The SXSWi producers, Hugh Forrest and Shawn O’Keefe are wonderfully nice and generous people who work their asses off to make SXSWi the best it can possibly be. Considering how renowned the conference is – and how many real and imagined celebrities attend it – Hugh and Shawn could easily be self-important jerks. And they’re not. They want nothing more than for SXSWi to be a conference *of* the people, with as much input and involvement by its attendees as is humanly possible.
I mention this because I spent the last 8 years intimately involved in the production of another tech conference, DEMO, and it’s really hard work. Orchestrating and synchronizing the million tiny little pieces of a conference takes patience, experience, at least one iron hand, and an army of dedicated and capable staffers. And DEMO only corrals about 7-800 attendees; I can’t fathom tackling a beast like SXSW. So I offer the ensuing critiques, extremely mindful of how easy it is to judge from afar.
How to Fix SXSWi
-Be more selective. With panels. There is such a thing as too much choice. When attendees have to choose between twenty-four panels scheduled at one time, something needs fixing. (Note that those 24 are only Interactive panels and don’t include any Film sessions.) Make the selection process harder. Make being a panelist at SXSWi a true honor, not just another face in the crowd. Fewer panels will also ensure a good audience for each session. Flying in from Silicon Valley to speak to an audience of 20 people – especially in this economy – isn’t a smart business expense.
-Be more selective. With moderators. Oh fine, I’m referring to Umar Haque’s conversation with Evan Williams. But if we learned nothing else from the Sarah Lacey incident, it’s that the South By audience wants an interesting, charged conversation, not pablum they can read on any company FAQ. In the case of keynote interviews, the casting of the questioner is almost more important than the subject.
-Be more selective. With parties. This is a little trickier, as the conference tried to crack down on unofficial parties a few years back and got dinged for it. But they need to make things easier on attendees. Jules Pieri, CEO of one of the Accelerator companies, Daily Grommet, said something very amusing and spot-on to me: “It’s like the worst part of high school – you always feel like you’re in the wrong place.” Personally speaking, I was too tired at the end of each day to navigate another schedule. Where should I go and at what time? And with who? And for how long? Faced with too many choices, the average brain simply shuts down. Perhaps a good compromise would be to set a limit on how many parties can occur in one night; then let the various hosts fight it out among themselves. Another thought is to segment them more. I enjoyed the Porter Novelli/Nokia happy hour each night because it involved some of my known network. And the Data Cluster Meetup, as odd as that may sound, was a huge success – lots of like-minded people eating, drinking, and sticking around for a while.
-Be more selective. With sponsors. Totally agree with Michelle Greer (linked above). I felt assaulted by brands this year. Whether it was the Sobe girls or the Bing-wrapped cars or the bizarre pushing of free bacon at 4th and Trinity, it all felt dangerously close to a carnival midway. The corporations have discovered SXSW. And nothing good can come of it.
-Feed me. If attendees wanted to make all those damn panels, they had to eat in the convention center. Leaving its environs for a restaurant guarantees that you’ll miss two hours of programming, at least. And the choice of food in the ACC was barbecue or cold sandwiches. For five days. Here’s a thought – take all those brands that are dying to reach us and make them sell us food. I would’ve paid a high price for a variety of foods to choose from. Silly point? Only if you’ve never attended any sort of conference. Well-fed attendees are happy attendees. Period.
I love Austin so much I uprooted my whole family to live here. And Austin is at the core of SXSW; this conference really couldn’t happen anywhere else. But it felt a lot closer to Las Vegas this year. And I don’t want to live in Vegas.
The key, I think, to restoring SXSW to its original focus lies in its host city. In general, Austin is a big town that acts like a small community. It’s laid-back but not so much that it loses focus. It eschews the material for the cerebral, the fly-by-night for the sincere. All of those characteristics, along with killer content and a festive atmosphere, are what draw people to SXSW in the first place. I hope it can continue to do so in the years to come.