How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love SXSW | March 17, 2011

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.

Posted at March 17, 2011 12:43 AM


Jonathan Stegall said on March 17, 2011 4:02 AM

Andy, great post. Full disclosure: I’ve never been to SXSW, as I usually get to pick one conference (An Event Apart, or UX Week, or Web 2.0 Expo, maybe) a year. So this comment isn’t really about that. You say:
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.
I wonder if you could say more about this? I have been concerned about how to express this in more detail since 2008, when I found myself sitting at UX Week thinking about how far behind all of the “social media experts” back home were, and how little communication there was between us as designers (visual, UX, whatever) and the marketing types who wanted to try everything that had the word social in it.

So it’s really easy (and, don’t get me wrong, it is brilliant) for Jared Spool to say “there are two meanings to the phrase social media tools,” but I’m curious if there are ways for us as designers to articulate what it is that they have needed to, and (I think) still failed to learn in the past several years. I can say that stuff makes me nervous (at best), but without articulating a better way that makes sense, it doesn’t help much.

Hoping that makes some sense; it’s been a thing I’ve thought about for a long time.

Hugh Forrest said on March 17, 2011 1:34 PM

Hey Andy,

Great post about SXSW Interactive — and sorry that we missed each other during the event.

My only two points of (slight) disagreement are as follows:

1) You write that the panel procurement process is one of “popularity driven selection.” Sure, we rely a lot on the PanelPicker to pull in ideas from the global new media community. But you fail to mention that 40% of the selection process on any given speaking proposal comes from the Advisory Board (on which you served this year). And, 30% of the selection process on any given speaking proposal comes from SXSW staff input. So, the suggestion that SXSW content is a popularity contest is definitely not accurate — PanelPicker voting accounts for 30% of the selection process on any given speaking proposal.

2) Yes, booth babes in the Trade Show are an unfortunate by-product of our recent growth. But, definitely not something that we encouraged.

At any rate, thanks again for being part of the energy of SXSW in 2011. Hope to see you back in Austin in spring 2012!

Best regards,

Hugh Forrest
SXSW Interactive Festival
March 9-13, 2012

James Hicks said on March 17, 2011 5:21 PM


Clearly and concisely you’ve said all there is - and I, being at my first SXSW agree with your insights.

An event of this scale can be challenging from an organizers perspective, and also from an attendees perspective (what to and what not to worry about going to).

Again, great insight - I’m going to be reading more in the future.

Dan Berger said on March 17, 2011 8:17 PM

Great post! It was my first time going (went to learn/network for my startup, Social Tables) and it was overwhelming for me, despite the fact that I have been in the internet world since the late 90s.

For a startups like ours, networking was a success but unmanageable… it was like shooting blindly and hoping you hit something. We wrote this piece to help other startups in our shoes who need help managing the sxsw circus:

Andy Budd said on March 17, 2011 9:06 PM

Hey Hugh,

Sorry to miss you at the event, but thanks for commenting on my post. I think you guys did an exceptional job this year so are to be praised. However I stand by my comments that the bulk of sessions enter into a popularity contest. As one of a large number of advisors I was asked to pick a small number of panels from a wide range of submissions. As an “expert” my selections may be better informed. However that’s stil just a popular vote. For the event to feel more curated I think you’d need to ask your advisors to curate specific tracks or actively reccomend speakers who haven’t submitted. Currently we’re just sifting through talk titles and descriptions which have been optimised for the popular vote.

Rusty Hodge said on March 18, 2011 7:33 PM

I felt kind of bad for the booth babes, they probably expected it to be more like CES with nerdy guys drooling over them. But for the most part, they were totally ignored, and they often looked bewildered by that fact.

Jeff McMorris said on March 18, 2011 8:15 PM

You complain about the quality of sessions being average, yet you only went to a handful and your friends only went to a handful? I don’t really think you should comment on the quality then… I went to sessions all day, everyday and I saw some of the best talks I have ever seen at SXSW and I have been going for several years as well. The key is knowing how to pick the right ones to go to. It was crowded and sometimes room sizes and locations were chosen incorrectly. There is no way to fix crowding without breaking up the conference into more parts or moving it out of Austin altogether which would completely change the conference more than just the larger crowds do.

How do I pick which talks to go to? First I go to speakers that are known for good talks like Guy Kawasaki, Tim Ferris, and Gary Vaynerchuk. Then go to things that you may have interest in but don’t know much about. Craig Venter’s talk on Artificial Life was fantastic. I rarely go to talks related to what I already know about as it’s doubtful you will pick up anything new. If you do go to talks on things you know about make sure they are sufficiently technical so you will get something out of them. Finally if you go to a dud, skip out and hit something else. There are usually 3-4 things at any given time I can switch to if my first choice is bad.

Marcy Mayer said on March 18, 2011 10:42 PM

I experienced quite a few low-value sessions as well, though I’m very much aware that while I was enduring tepid panels, other friends were attending some truly fantastic presentations. As a first time attendee I couldn’t quite nail a strategy for finding the good ones. The physical distance between my first, second and third-choice sessions in a given time slot—plus the crowding that meant arriving at a location 20 minutes early to gain entry—often made it impossible to abandon a talk that wasn’t holding my interest. As a result I feel like I sat through a few too many duds for too long.

I wonder if there’s any way to use the panel picking process to also find clusters of events that a given audience would like to see such that they could be located in closer physical and temporal proximity?

Ms. Jen said on March 20, 2011 3:42 AM

Hi Andy,
Like you, I have found the last few years worth of SXSW Interactive to be a bit overwhelming. In 2008, I was too sick to care. In 2009, I enjoyed the explosion and the resultant quietness it brought to my nights when I couldn’t get into parties. In 2010, I decided to just think of Interactive as the new Music, but since I had not spent the few weeks beforehand RSVPing to parties, I was left out and felt a bit frustrated.

This year, I almost didn’t come as I did not want an expensive repeat of 2010, but I am glad I did. The way that I was able cope was threefold:
1) I made sure that I tracked down everyone I wanted to catch up with, even if that meant ditching parties for dinner, or missing a panel to get tea with a twitter aquaintance. In the end, I only missed two people of about 30 I wanted to see & talk to.
2) I picked two sessions at the convention center a day to make sure to attend, and then left the rest up for serendipity so that there was room to run into someone in an elevator and go with them to their next event.
3) I attended more core conversations than panels. The core conversations really grew up this year and worked. Rather than having a bunch in a big room, there was one cc per small room. The ones I attended really were conversations between the moderators and attendees. It was delightful.

Much like you, the whole booth babe thing was a definitely bit of mold on the sandwich. I hope that Hugh & co can nip that in the bud before the mold spreads too far next year.

Thanks for the post.

p.s. I like the re-design. Minimalism, ftw. ;o)

Andy Budd said on March 27, 2011 12:32 PM

Hey Jeff,

I’ve been going to SXSW for 7 years now and over that time I’ve seen a definite reduction in session quality. In previous years I resisted the evidence and went to as many sessions as I could, only to come away frustrated and disappointed. This year I took a sample of sessions and the evidence seemed to confirm the continuation of this trend. I may have been unlucky in my choices and this year may have been the best year yet. However the evidence I gathered directly and also the feedback from my other long term attendees seemed to suggest otherwise. As such I saw no point in going to every single session possible, in the hope that my data was wrong and somehow the quality of sessions had turned around overnight.

I’m obviously glad that you picked well and found some good sessions. However I’ve no idea if that was a factor of luck or a difference in our individual quality thresholds. I admit that as somebody who attends a dozen conferences a year (and organises 2), my threshold for quality is probably very different from other people. I still maintain that the quality of the sessions I saw was mediocre and gave me no reason to think that the overall quality had changed significantly. As such I decided not to fall for the “sunk costs” fallacy this year.

egoiste said on April 7, 2011 4:40 PM

SXSW conferences have not been fun since get rich quick douchebags turned it from the more esoteric event that it was to what it is now. It used to be about new and interesting music, film and technology and now it’s all about marketing. This goes for the sessions but mostly for its attendees and sponsors.