SXSW Interactive 2011: So Full and Yet So Empty
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.
I have never been to this conference and I guess you just made me think I might never go. Unless I find a reason to be there – the conference itself has never appealed to me as reason enough. It just felt like a big star party — everyone wanting to rub elbows with a class of practitioner they feel is somehow better or more powerful. Instead of this healthy atmosphere of shared learning and mutual benefit – the kind of thing I’d expect from such a wildly creative event. That picture you posted gives me hives just imagining navigating the sea of people. Come home now.
I had dinner with a crew I call, “the Introvert Mafia” on Saturday night and we were all exchanging horror stories. It’s an overwhelming place. I don’t think you’d love it.
Plus, now there are groupies running around — girls in stilettos, flashing their boobs for the nerd royalty. Seriously girls? Isn’t there a movie star or something you could go be skanky around instead?
So yeah, if you came here, there would be a lot for you to laugh at. But once you were done with that, you’d mostly just want to take a nap 🙂
Fun fact about Austin: it’s not illegal to be topless. I walked out of a party Saturday night and was greeted by 2 topless girls. That’s when I knew it was time to call it a night.
This was my first year attending, and while overall it was a great experience, I didn’t leave with a whole lot of new information, which is unfortunate. Nothing rocked my young world. Which is mostly my fault for being inquisitive and educating myself on this industry to be better at my job. But, I did come home with a slew of t-shirts, buttons and jump drives.
And after spending 6 days with my boss, I’m still talking to him 🙂
Your boobie sighting was totally all the validation I needed to support my theory that the skank factor has gotten a little high down there.
Glad you got lots of free loot and had a chance to see it all firsthand. And, of course, the “still liking your boss” thing is a big #Win. Many, many co-workers have gone there and been unable to make the same claim afterwords 🙂
Any time the stilts show up, it’s time to call it a day.
Well he could juggle on the stilts, so that was kinda cool.
But he was also yelling, “free beer!” the whole time, so that got kind of annoying.
there you go again, telling it like it is.
I’m sure there will be plenty to disagree. Hating on SXSW is like saying you don’t like Christmas, puppies and rainbows.
Jen, I’m not sure I entirely agree (even though we were indeed exchanging horror stories on Saturday about girls in stilettos).
Is SXSW crowded, crazy and overstimulating? Absolutely. Are there a gazillion parties, panels with Pee Wee Herman and distractions on every street corner? Can’t argue with you there. Are there some sessions that are just “meh?” Yep. (There are at every conference).
But SXSW has also given me the opportunity to:
– Hear from industry folks I’ve admired for a long time
(Zeldman, Spool, others).
– Take home insights I can actually use and put to work immediately (new productivity tools for me personally and the work I do with clients).
– Learn about subjects that aren’t entirely relevant to my work but that are damn interesting and make me think about things I’ve never thought of before.
– Find new connections between topics that I once thought were entirely unrelated (e.g., music, interaction design and the grid system).
– Be in a different physical environment (outside of work) where I find myself more creative and open to new ideas.
Granted, I spend an inordinate amount of time studying the schedule and plotting out how I’m going to get the most out of the conference. (And that’s not to say that you don’t.) But as the head of SXSW said in his opening remarks, “This conference is what you make it.”
I hear where you are coming from. But I know a lot of things on your list I get at other conferences too (particularly Marketing Profs events) in bigger quantity and quality. I like learning about new unexpected stuff too. But, as a small business owner, I can’t afford to spend money just to have my brain stimulated. I need ROI or I’m just throwing money away. And I think this year, I pretty much just threw a lot of money away.
This conference IS what you make of it, and I obviously had some physically challenges that made it hard for me to fully “work it” this year. That’s why I said at the start of the post, most of the reasons for me leaving early are personal. My reasons for not coming back again? Those are more big picture.
I attended 2007-2009 and had similar feelings about it. There is far too much focus on quantity, not quality. If I could wave a wand, I’d significantly reduce the number of sessions, overall. For the remaining sessions, ensure that there are noteworthy speakers (who have made some form of substantive impact in our profession and possess effective speaking skills). I’d also make sure panelists are prepared – not just a group of people (brand name folks and/or unknowns) “winging it.” I’d also get rid of the excessive, circus-like accoutrement. A little zany-ness is fun, but too much is an annoying distraction and diminishes the SXSW brand.
I attend SXSW to hear about recent innovations in our profession and to hear “what’s next.” I think that’s why the mainstream media still (NY Times) attend. Unless they focus on these things and dial back the carnival atmosphere, the attendance will decline, as will the professional caliber of the attendees.
Well, it will be interesting to see. The reason I said that I didn’t think it jumped the shark is that interactive (esp. social media) just keeps on growing and there are more new people looking for this info every year. I think, if they want, SXSW could keep right on getting bigger and people will still show up in droves (and, I agree, the media will follow them).
I also think that their eliminating swag bags this year super upped the ante on the circus vibe. Marketers couldn’t put stuff in the bag, so they needed to stick people on street corners and come up with other stunts to get people’s attention. Totally made it much more of a spectacle than years past.
I have never been to the conference but I can see why you may have felt this way. I wrote about SXSW shark jumping a couple of years ago (http://blog.theimagelab.com/2008/03/11/sxsw-has-it-jumped-the-shark/). It’s a little unfair since I’ve never been, but it was an instinct I had based on seeing everything coming out of it.
Thanks for sharing your experience. I’d love to see it get ‘less’ as you suggest and get back to some of the things that attracted me to it as a college radio DJ.
Yeah it sounds like it would have been fun to go to back in the day (as this comic from the oatmeal suggests: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/sxsw)
Agree or disagree, thank you for always making your horror both amusing and insightful.
And thank you, as always, for reading it. 🙂
I have never been, but I will probably go at least once if it plays out in the cards for me in my career pursuits. I did invest sometime this year strategically following some key folks and many locally to learn from a distance. I was surprised by how thoughtful most of these folks were about sharing good information from the panels. I was a little disappointed not to see many new things as far as tech and or interactive. I guess that will maybe be coming in some recaps, hope so.
I do agree the smaller conferences that have been attracting some major name practitioners is becoming more relevant and more fruitful for many that go and participate. The major thing I see happening in these smaller conferences is they are mixing the elites with the up in comers and I think this really helps expand the learning deeper and across many channels.
I do believe the audiences need to change also. The audiences need to start getting more involved in the discussion. This transition is slowly happening where there are more empowered discussions from the sessions, then 45 min preso, couple softball questions, we clap, get our books signed and then leave. I am hoping this dynamic changes on the audience side too!
I will have hopefully have solid proof of this after participating as an audience member and speaker at ungeeked in Chicago in May. I do believe this conference has all the right ingredients to be the format of the future. Then we all can take ourselves and our companies to the next level!
As always Jen I love the way you take the Paul Harvey approach of “This is the rest of the story!”
I should be clear (since if I don’t, I’ll get lots of flames thrown at me) that I’m not going to say a word about the sxsw programming. I didn’t see enough of it this year to have a good sense of the overall quality. However, i will say, that it’s historically been hit or miss for me and that the bigger they get the more hits (and misses) they’ll probably have.
Actually one of the coolest things I saw this year was in a session on social influencers and the panel was talking about Fast Company’s “Influencer Project” in not too complimentary terms. Well, a guy from Fast Company who worked on the project was standing next to me and started to debate it with the panel and I though, “well now THIS is getting interesting.”
I hope audiences (and presenters) continue to evolve. I know I’ve had to up my game significantly when I’m on stage in front of a bunch of people looking down at their smart phones.
[…] Jennifer Kane got me thinking. Her wonderfully well-written take on this year’s SXSW Interactive was definitely on point. However, I’d like to take you on a trip from my POV in what this place does to you. credit: Caroline McCarthy/CNET […]
Really interesting post. You’ve summarized some my experience as well. This was my first year attending SXSW Interactive, and I was a little disappointed with the panel sessions, I felt they didn’t provide enough content, it felt like it was more about themselves than about schooling us, and providing useful tips. There were a few sessions where I left 15 minutes into the session, only because I felt I was wasting my time. There were other sessions that were worth my time. And of course, the parties and events, I wasn’t disappointed in that aspect, I spent, about $100 bucks on food, souvenirs, transportation and other fun stuff that I did, throughout the entire 5 nights that I was out there for. Meaning, SXSW takes care of you left and right, there’s food, drinks and entertainment everywhere you go. Overall I had a really great time. There’s a few things that could use fixing, but I would definitively go again next year.
Your inclination to leave sessions if they weren’t floating your boat, is a great one. There’s so much going on there, it’s not worth it to waste precious time sitting in a session that isn’t doing anything for you (and I’ve often found that my impromptu quests for an “Option B” session are what has led me to some of my coolest SXSW discoveries.) Glad you had a great first time there (my first time was pretty awesome too — wow, I’m sounding really old right now, aren’t I? 🙂 Hope our paths cross IRL someday.