You know it’s a bad sign when, on the same day the conference you’re attending is having its opening party, you’ve already contacted your airlines to book an earlier flight home.
But, that’s the position I’ve found myself in at this year’s SXSW Interactive.
I’m not going to bore you with the particulars of why I’m not having a great time at this year’s conference and why I am leaving early (most of them are personal – the most obvious of which is that I have a lot of work to do and I’m not getting it done here).
However, some of my reasons are legitimate concerns about this conference that will, without a doubt, affect my decision to ever attend it again. Maybe it will affect yours, too.
SXSW is not passé, it’s obese.
There was a lot of chatter online this past year wondering if this would be the year that SXSW would “jump the shark.”
Being here in the flesh, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Instead, what I see is a conference that has a bad case of the Augustus Gloop syndrome — everything in the interactive industry appears to taste so good to SXSW that it can’t help but gobble it up. But instead of being satiated when it’s done, it just stays ravenous and bloated.
Everywhere you look, all you see is more — more sessions, more parties, more attendees, (more marketers pursing those attendees), more food, more booze, more lines.
And, I give the SXSW staff major props for managing all this “more.” Each year, I’ve seen them add new support systems, signage, volunteers and digital tools to help them keep it all under control. From an event-planning perspective, it’s amazing to watch.
But, from an attendee perspective, I think it has just gotten overwhelming.
The circus has come to town…and it has beer.
My work exposes me to a constant stream of information that I have to process and organize all day long. So, I’ve come to rely on conferences as my professional filter where I can dial down the noise, talk to actual people, get deep dive analysis on topics and have immersive experiences within my industry.
But SXSW doesn’t feel like a filter for me anymore. It feels like a fire hose.
Where once I felt like I could hook myself into a tiny stream of that fire hose and feel connected to something, now I just feel like I’m drowning.
Instead of feeling like I’m at a conference, it feels like I’m surround by a shattered collection of presentations, gatherings, parties, informational chats, book signings and marketing pitches all happening at once.
- There’s a clown…ON STILTS!
- There’s a Pee-Wee Herman truck selling ice cream!
- There’s a giant wall of tweets!
- There’s a giant wall of tweets…with hot girls giving out free stuff in front of it!
- There’s a vodka milkshake!
- There’s a “secret lounge” with a big corporate logo on it!
- There’s a celebrity…talking to another celebrity while non-celebrities videotape it!
There’s so much to focus on, sometimes I find that I can’t focus on anything at all.
And, I know I’m not alone.
I’ve seen lots of people like me on the floor in the corners of the convention center, huddled around power sockets with a glazed expression on their faces, clutching overpriced grilled cheese sandwiches and trying to get FourSquare to work.
Which leads me to the question I have every year about this conference — how big is TOO big?
Why do I want to go to a conference that leaves me so over stimulated that I literally walk right past the person I’m looking for, even AFTER I’ve geolocated that person’s position on my phone?
Personally, in the future, I’d pay more to go to SXSW — even if I knew I’d be getting less — because at least then I’d be getting THE RIGHT less and would have less people to wade through to find it.
Instead, this year I saw everything…and nothing at the same time. I got what I wanted (with a free drink!), but am still searching for what it was that I needed.
With all that SXSW gave me to consume, I’m afraid I’m still leaving hungry.