I’ve never been to a business conference of any kind that’s as usefully friendly as the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Every time I go, I make more meaningful, long-lasting business contacts and new friends in the space of a long weekend than I might in months and months in New York City. Everybody goes to South by Southwest, and they all want to meet everyone else.
This has been the festival’s reputation for years, and the word’s gotten around with progressively greater and greater results. Though I couldn’t get a specific growth figure from the festival’s principal organizer, Hugh Forrest, when I chatted with him this weekend, it was obvious to any returning attendee that 2007’s show was nontrivially larger than past years: even the smallest of this year’s session rooms were as big as some of the largest rooms from last year or the year before — and even then, it was often standing room only.
All of which is fantastic. If there’s a show that deserves this kind of success, it’s South by Southwest. But this growth comes at a cost: in small ways, this year’s show was more awkward than others, being physically spread out across a wider swath of the Austin Convention Center, with some sessions taking place in remote areas, and others taking place in rooms sorely lacking in intimacy. Wireless Internet connectivity, too, which is such an important factor to the Interactive festival’s audience, was frustratingly overtaxed this year; too many of us getting online at once kept almost all of us from getting reliable, speedy access.
These things were just annoyances though. My biggest disappointment this year was the predominance of panels over lectures. South by Southwest has a strong democratic streak, and part of that streak has always been the idea that most of its sessions have been comprised of panels of speakers brought together to discuss a specific idea, rather than one or two lecturers talking about an idea. This inclusive approach to the show’s content has successfully brought dozens and dozens of diverse voices in front of festival audiences — but they haven’t always had much of quality to offer, especially this year.
The panel format’s drawback is that it’s composed of so many moving parts. The inexact science of group chemistry is so important to making panels succeed that, more often than not, they don’t. In theory, a dialogue among a group of thoroughly articulate individuals makes for compelling viewing. But too often this time, I felt that what I was watching was a chorus of interesting voices blending into a gray, indistinct noise.
In thinking about why this has been the case, what I’ve decided is that the most successful sessions I’ve seen, whether panels or lectures, have all evidenced the results of good preparation. Some healthy measure of advanced planning and practice, of sweating over talking points and slides, of smoothing out oratorical stumbling blocks and cutting out logorrheic fat, is so extremely important in public speaking. This is especially true when the speaker list is drawn from a population of professionals — designers and programmers — not always known for being effortless performers.
This preparatory approach is not easily applied to the panel format, where so much rests on the moderator’s guidance, where even if you did prepare extensively, there’s no way to predict the flow of the conversation without the effect of undermining spontaneity. And, I would guess, knowing these factors, most speakers prepare much less for a panel than they would for a lecture. It simply seems counter-intuitive to sweat over the unpredictable course of a three- or four-part dialogue when the conversation can turn any which way at any given moment.
This is a tricky proposition for South by Southwest’s organizers. As their festival gets increasingly larger year after year, an argument can be made that more inclusiveness is called for. But at the same time, I really do think that the festival runs a risk of becoming unmanageable, and a poorer signal-to-noise ratio in its content can’t be good for its long-term health. If I were to offer one piece of advice to the organizers of next year’s festival, it would be to increase the number of talks, and decrease the number of panels — or do a more thorough vetting of its many moderators, lots of whom are new to the tricky art of providing guidance to panels of varied conversationalists.
Still, this year’s conference was hardly a loss, and I’m still extremely glad that I went. For all my frustration with the panels, the show’s organizers still do one thing better than anyone else in the interactive space: they bring together a huge group of smart, influential people — and somehow manage to convince almost every single one of them to be unremittingly friendly. That alone is priceless. I managed to spend quality time with lots and lots of people that I respect immensely, and to meet plenty more that I’ve always admired from a distance. I’d easily spend the money to go again next year. And, as you’ll read in my next installment, I’ll try not to repeat the mistakes that I made on the panels I appeared on myself next time, too.