Blog

SXSW Interactive As An Experience

By Russ Starke on March 24, 2011

Phil and I went down to SXSW Interactive last week with the best of intentions, despite being concerned about the quality of the on-line experience before flying down to Austin on 3/10 and wondering if it was a harbinger of things to come. It was and it wasn’t, but it mostly was.

As those of us who were there know, and perhaps much to the chagrin of those who weren’t, there’s a lot of chatter about SXSW on the social networks. A lot of it is along the lines of…

“I’m having the best time ever!” or “I’m having lunch with @pixelgeek24 and we’re going to conquer the world! We’re ninjas/rockstars/superheroes! W00t!”

That’s all fine and good, and generally aligns with the typical self-promotion and amicable playing-along that you’ll see clustered around conferences. We’re all guilty of it, and for a lot of folks that’s the whole point of engaging there in the first place.

But there’s a special kind of walking on eggshells that seems to happen around SXSW—because I found a totally different undercurrent of sentiment lurking in the physical realm that isn’t nearly as represented in the Twittersphere: being in Austin with a lot of like-minded folk has its positives and potential, but the conference itself is decidedly “iffy” (the health track held in the Hilton Garden Hotel was the one exception, in my experience). In fact, I talked with several folk who probably wouldn’t want to go on record saying it, but who said that they’re seriously considering next time just coming to Austin during SXSW Interactive and not even registering for the conference (actually, if you read between the lines on Twitter, it was easy to see just how many were usually out gallivanting during sessions this time around).

Why might that be? Well, here are my top 5 reasons:

  1. Picking a valuable session is like trying to make your way through a minefield with your shoes tied together. Aside from the sheer tyranny of choice triggered by having to select one of 20 or more sessions occurring during each time slot, they’re also spread out all over the city, putting even more weight on making the right choice, and making it all the more painful when you choose… poorly. That happens to be an extremely easy thing to do, ranging from something that is probably decent but just isn’t as relevant to you as you thought it might be from the description, to someone with the presentation skills of a handball and/or really weak content. Give me a single-track powerhouse like An Event Apart any day, with vetted speakers and solid content, where I know I’m going to walk away with value. The Russian Roulette of SXSW is brutal.
  2. This minefield has resulted in a culture completely accepting of getting up in the middle of talks and walking out, and then barging into other ones already in-progress. I guess I can’t blame people for this, and I must confess I walked out of a few sessions myself. But I was completely floored by the audacity of people walking into sessions 45 minutes late, sitting down for 5 minutes, and then getting up and leaving again. In almost all of my sessions I endured a never-ending distraction of doors opening and closing. It’s a result of #1, and while the symptom was treated at some sessions by volunteers trying to minimize the impact by holding the doors, it’s not getting at the disease.
  3. The whole thing is mind-numbingly commercial. You know when you’re walking down the strip in Vegas and there’s those people slapping postcards and pamphlets against their hands to get your attention, and when you make eye contact they accost you? Same deal, only with techy tchotchkes of questionable value. Absolutely everything is sponsored and plastered with a logo… and it just wears on you after a while.
  4. The “must see” sessions that you know are going to be cool/interesting are so over-attended due to the size of the conference that they’re not even remotely enjoyable (or valuable). I can’t think of too many reasons I’d submit to standing in a line that stretches for two blocks (and maybe for this reason I am getting old). But I’m definitely not doing it (again) to then be crammed into a tiny tent where people are packed shoulder to shoulder, or to have the doors be closed in front of me because the venue is at capacity. If they curated the sessions better (while still keeping the important democratic element so it’s not all “celebrity” speakers) they could increase the size of the rooms and improve the experience greatly. Hey, while we’re at it, subtract a day, cut the session count in half, and see how that separates the wheat from the chaff.
  5. Bigger does NOT equal better. 25K+ people feels like being on a college campus when classes are changing. There’s nothing intimate, communal, or special about the way you feel racing from one session to the next, trying to find a place for lunch without a monster wait, or battling for a free power outlet. At least not the way the conference is run now. No wonder people elect to just step out of the flow and do it on their own terms (jeez, Seth Godin even does that at TED)—the conversations I had with folks outside of sessions were certainly the most valuable part of the experience… but I still genuinely like to be enlightened by a killer talk.

I’m venting, I know. But I would have liked to see an honest review of SXSW Interactive before going because the experience wasn’t really in line with the chatter. Maybe this year was the turning point and it wasn’t always this way. But as I finished writing this I was informed that I’m not the only one saying some of these things… so I’m hoping the organizers are taking note and thinking long and hard about how to preserve the experience if they choose to keep growing. Because it’s breaking.

Pssst, you’ve got our contact info if you want to fix that.

I’ll be posting a follow-up soon on the fantastic health track and the few outstanding sessions I did attend.