17 March 2011
Speaking & Events

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love SXSW

I've been coming to SXSW for 7 years and I've seen it change from a small and intimate event to the tech sector's equivalent of Glastonbury. Back then bloggers were king and CSS2.1 was the hot technology of the day. Today the conference has gone from 2,500 people to an astonishing 25,000. Blogging is considered old hat, and the new tech superstars are the start-up founders, the professional publishers and the best selling authors. Think Gowalla, Mashable and Shirky rather than Zeldman, Bowman and Veen.

The marketing world has finally realised the importance of the web and SXSW was awash with "social media experts" wanting to learn what the designers and developers have known for some time. 2011 was also the year that corporate America arrived at SXSW in the form of the Pepsi lot, the CNN cafe and the Playstation Lounge. As such, it would be easy to say that SXSW has jumped the shark.

In reality in think SXSW jumped the shark in 2008/09 and is now an entirely different conference. It's just taken me a couple of years to reconcile the difference and develop a new set of coping strategies.

This year I finally gave up on the conference itself, going to a handful of sessions. I met many more who hadn't seen a single session and several who didn't even bother buying a ticket. Instead people spent time seeing friends and maintaining the weak ties in their social graph. I say that somewhat wryly, but SXSW really has become about networking in the most real and genuine sense of the word.

Gone are the days when people would congregate in the hallways after sessions and head out in search of food on mass. Instead I ended up organising lunches and dinners in advance to make sure that I got to spend quality time with the people I most cared about. I also sacked off most of the big parties, preferring to head to a local pub that my generation of SXSW attendees had adopted as a temporary home.

It would seem that SXSW is no longer a single conference, but a collection of overlapping events. You have the start-up kids and the VCs sniffing round them in search of the next big thing, the marketers and social media experts pimping out their wares to all who will listen, and the big agencies trying (and generally failing) to position themselves alongside the cool kids.

Amazingly, the organisers have somehow succeeded in keeping all these distinct groups separate. So I was able to bump into friends in the hallways while avoiding the slew of booth babes in comically tight fitting tops trying to pimp products they new little about. This latest addition to SXSW was actually pretty unpleasant and it's the one thing I'd call the organisers out on.

The sessions were of typically average quality. However this is to be expected when you mix popularity driven selection with the belief that speaking at SXSW will benefit your career. As such it would seem that the bulk of the talks we designed to get selected rather than deliver value to the audience. That being said, there was a lot less variance in quality this year. More solo presentations and fewer panels meant that I didn't see anything at truly sucked (except perhaps the battle decks session). The good things is that I didn't really mind. SXSW is no longer about the panels for me. They are literally the framework around which interesting conversations happen.

On the whole I had an absolutely lovely time at SXSW this year. I had a wonderful lunch with a group of agency founders I've long respected, the Great British Booze-up was back in full force and turned out to be one of the most convivial events of the season, and Media Temple pulled out all the stops at their closing party by booking the Foo Fighters to perform to an intimate crowd. I got to spend quality time with a bunch of nice people like Dave Gray, Kevin Hoffman, Ms Jen, Ben Ward, Mike Stenhouse, Josh Porter and Stephen P Anderson, along with more fleeting exchanges with a few dozen more.

It wasn't the best SXSW since 2005' as my friend Derek Fatherstone suggested. However it ranks pretty highly and I definitely had the nicest time for a good few years. So thanks Hugh, Shawn and the gang. Hope to see you next year.