SXSW: Too Much Signal and a Plethora of Parties

Julie and I finally made it down to South by Southwest–the enormous interactive (that is, Internet), film and music conference held in Austin every March. The event takes over the Austin Convention Center and is host to thousands and thousands of attendees over its ten days.

SXSWi, the interactive component, was five days of sessions during the day and parties during the night. Because of the conference’s size–I heard SXSWi had 6500 attendees, there are typically ten concurrent conference threads for any given session. In the evening, there are, suffice it to say, many parties. The only comparable event that I’ve attended is Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, which also felt like a zoo (or a cruise ship, given the viral outbreak attendees suffered last year). As an example, I went the entire conference (and several parties) without ever running into several Vancouverites who I knew were in attendance. It’s that big.

While there were big names at the sessions (hey, there’s Heather Armstrong! There’s Hugh McLeod! And so forth), I didn’t think they were any better, on average, than, say, Gnomedex or another, smaller geeky conference. They followed a similar bell curve from awful to excellent. This is no surprise, as there are hundreds of panels and being popular doesn’t necessarily make you insightful or a good public speaker.

I intentionally tried to go to sessions which had little to do with my day job. I quite enjoyed a session on video game marketing, and my favourite panel was a group of four archaeologists discussing how they use the web to talk about their work.

What distinguishes SXSW from other conferences? The scope, obviously, and the plethora of parties. I’m not particularly comfortable with the verb “to party”, so the nighttime activities didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me. It was nice to see friends and meet new people, but they didn’t make the event extraordinary for me.

Would I go again? Maybe. If I was speaking (and admission was therefore free), then yes. But otherwise? I’m not sure. If I did go again, I would be sure to do a few things differently:

  • Schedule meetings or meals with everybody I want to see ahead of time. As I mentioned, the conference is too big to trust in serendipity.
  • Review the conference schedule thoroughly ahead of time, paying special attention to the names of speakers who I want to see.
  • Go early to sessions. I was turned away from a couple of sessions I wanted to attend because the rooms were full.
  • Find some time to see Austin beyond the convention centre. I saw a couple of spots, but there’s obviously much more to the town.

I don’t come away singing the praises of SXSW like I hear others do. I had a good time, but it hasn’t become an essential annual trip.