Well, just about everyone else has made their 2 cents known about how they feel about SXSW this year, so I thought I’d jump into the fray. This is my seventh SXSW Interactive. Since I started attending in 2005, it’s been this nice, fairly large tech conference, where big ideas were the main focus. I loved SXSW because it wasn’t about gadgets, academic research or business models. It was about smart, mostly young, people talking about exciting changes in media. And since then, I have been pretty vocal in evangelizing its merits to anyone who’d listen. I first learned about Twitter at SXSW (2007), got to see a young Mark Zuckerberg in a much maligned keynote discussion (2008), met lots of the good folks at Gowalla (2010) and have seen just about every one of the tech industry idols and rockstars over the years. It’s given me an edge in journalism and mass communication discussions, by knowing about things like the Long Tail, User Experience and Location-Based Services long before my colleagues were thinking about these things.
So, I love SXSW. And even with it’s massive growth, it’s still the best thing around. Conference head Hugh Forrest said it best in some of his opening comments. “SXSW is what you make it.” You really do have every major media outlet and tech company at your avail, so get out there and listen to these people, meet them if it’s what you want and then go back and synthesize this knowledge.
Were there things about this year that were annoying? Yes. I didn’t like the hikes between locations to get to certain panels. I didn’t find that I fit nicely into a particular track at one location or another. I like trying out new things at SXSW – a great keynote, followed by skills panel on a new technology, followed by some journos talking about engagement – that would be a typical day for me at SXSW. And, to be honest, the energy at some of the satellite locations was less than what was happening down around 4th St. At times, I didn’t even feel I was at SXSW anymore, even at close places like the Sheraton or Hilton Garden Inn. The energy of SXSW is probably the most important aspect this festival – a meeting of great minds in a great environment.
But I did get to see amazing people I hadn’t seen before, like publisher Tim O’Reilly and Marissa Mayer of Google. It was fun to hear from Dennis Crowley of Foursquare, and I have a new appreciation for what he’s doing with that company. And, to be honest, the conversation with Paul Reubens was definitely a highlight – to hear from the man who created such an enduring character about his fascinating life. I was inspired by his honesty, sincerity and intelligence.
I always try to define major themes or breaking ideas at each festival. This year, I don’t think there was anything new or earthshaking. I don’t feel there was an overriding buzzword, like in past years when it was UX (User Experience) or the ideas that niche social networks or aggregators might emerge (really haven’t much yet, we are still looking at mostly discrete, mainstream social networks) or last year, when the ideas around privacy and control were driven by Douglas Rushkoff’s edict to “Program or Be Programmed.” I think ideas around location-based services are getting more mature, as people figure out ways to integrate location into existing platforms. And, while people expected the group messaging services to be the big hit this year (things like Beluga or Group.me), and they were very helpful in organizing with my students during the event, I don’t see them as something that is as dramatic as Facebook or Twitter. As soon as the event was over, we basically disbanded our Beluga pod. But I can see where creative, tight-knit communities could think of ways to engage people with these platforms.
I was happy to see so many journalists from major media outlets recognizing SXSW as an important place to be. I held a smaller, more intimate “Taco Party” with people from the Texas Tribune so that my students and those from Indiana University could mingle with pros from NY Times, CNN, Washington Post, NPR and local media including Texas Tribune, Statesman and Austin Post. If it’s a smaller gathering you’re looking for, then make one yourself. The raw materials are here, now make SXSW into something that has value for you.
What recommendations would I make to improve SXSW for 2012? Well, while I applaud SXSW for experimenting with the larger size and trying to make it as accommodating as possible, I’d consider capping attendance, somewhere near 2010 levels (around 15,000 Interactive attendees). SXSW does a good job of providing guidance to panelists, but it seems that this year, more people complained about the quality of some panels. The number of panels may need to be adjusted and the scrutiny to which panels are accepted might need a tweak, maybe weight proposals more highly if the proposer has attended SXSW previously and therefore knows how a SXSW panel differs from other conferences. I’d also look into creative ways to keep the event as tightly focused on the Convention Center area, seeking unused warehouse space or local businesses who could provide facilities. The shuttle system was largely ineffective. There was no way you could get from one panel to the next via shuttle, in the 30 minute window, if you had to go to the Hyatt or AT& T Center. But they provided great tools in terms of the Web apps, and if you spent some time planning in advance, an individual attendee could have minimized much of the pain associated with the size and scale. I have a great deal of trust in the people who run SXSW that they will come up with better, more creative ideas than what I have proposed here, and that they will listen to their community and make whatever modifications they need to continue their success. I guess getting too big is a good problem to have. SXSW increases registration rates each year, yet even in a poor economy, has regularly exceeded attendance expectations. I think this shows the value of the conference and the importance of the ways in which it approaches these topics.
My student project, sxtxstate.com, was a huge success, and if you haven’t had a chance to look at the coverage, you should. These graduate students worked very hard to provide previews, interviews and panel coverage, before and during SXSW. It’s the fourth year we’ve done it, and the project has grown and added features each year, things like Twitter feed, live streams, interviews with panelists and attendees, use of Storify… each year we try to add something new. And, each year, we attract a larger audience and receive even more feedback. The result of the project over the past four years is that six TXST alumni, many of whom have gone through this project, presented on panels. Two additional TXST grads and SXTXState.com alum covered the event for media outlets. And two more TXST grads, including one who worked on the SXTXState.com project, now work for SXSW. I think that is a successful assimilation of our students into the community with a solid understanding of the role that these topics will play in their future.
I want to thank the SXSW team for their Herculean efforts in organizing this event year after year, with their ability to continue to surprise and delight. I also want to thank Evan Smith, Matt Stiles, Ryan Murphy and others on the Texas Tribune staff for providing the location and contributing refreshments to the student/pro get together. In addition, I also must thank Dr. Hans Ibold and his students from Indiana University who also contributed to this fun event. I am greatly appreciative of all the professionals that took time out of their busy SXSW schedules to meet and support students. I’m also pleased with the way that the Austin chapter of Hacks/Hackers has grown and appreciate all who attended our social event The Awesomest Journalism Party. Ever on Sunday, March 13.
And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the Accelerator-winning Storify for including us in their SXSW coverage. We had a great time using the tool, and it was exciting to be a part of this project. Congrats to them on their big win!
And, finally, if you attended the panel I co-hosted with Jonathan Carroll of Gowalla on Tuesday, March 15 titled Rockin’ the Checkin: Location Strategies for Musicians, or have since watched it online, thanks for that. There are many ways you can participate in and contribute to SXSW. Don’t take a lean-back approach. That’s never going to work. But if you lean in, listen, make an effort to meet people and create opportunities for yourself at the event, there’s really nothing better. I look forward to being surprised and delighted once again for SXSW 2012.
Hey, Music was fun, too. Check out the shows I saw at onthatnote.com.