Lesson Learned

I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. When I first started attending, five years ago, the conference was more than just a critical gathering for everything webby; it also drew considerable power from its intimate scale, from the way it provided an environment in which people normally separated by the far reaches of the Internet could meet and interact on a very human level.

Last year, owing to a hectic travel schedule and personal obligations, I was forced to skip the festival. But secretly, I was somewhat glad to have stayed home. SXSW Interactive had grown so large in the prior year that I worried it might have outgrown its usefulness. My last time attending, the crowds had been bigger than I’d ever seen before, causing the session rooms to be spaced at awkwardly and frustratingly opposing ends of the Austin Convention Center. I couldn’t imagine that the intimacy I found so valuable would survive the ever-growing crowds, and I remember returning from Austin exhausted and feeling as if the book had closed on something special but already receding into the past.

Once More into the Fray

This year, I had a chance to give a talk at SXSW Interactive alongside my boss and friend, Tom Bodkin, the veteran design director of The New York Times. (That was two days ago, and it seemed to go pretty well, judging from the feedback. Thanks to everyone who attended.) So this past Friday night I returned to Austin once again for my fourth visit to the festival — this time with some trepidation.

As I expected, the festival was bigger still than ever; not even a recession can deter its devotees, apparently, as I can only guess that it set another attendance record. And this time too, the session rooms were spread even further apart than they had been before, spilling over into a second building for the first time (keynotes and some special break-out events had always taken place across the street in the Hilton hotel, but this year its ballrooms hosted many sessions — including mine — that in the past would have been confined to the convention center). And, in keeping with some of the frustrations I experienced in 2007, I found myself attending some ill-conceived, poorly-moderated and altogether disappointing panels.

But here’s the lesson that I learned: the South by Southwest Interactive Festival may get more imperfect as it scales up, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. Or any less intimate, even. In two days’ worth of attendance, amid the disjointed physical layout and alongside the aimless panels, I also happened to see some completely worthwhile sessions (Leah Buley’s “Being a UX Team of One” and Jared Spool’s “Journey to the Center of Design,” in particular) that were so good they justified the entire trip on their own. What’s more, I connected and reconnected with lots of fascinating and interesting people, and discovered that there’s something special about the SXSW Interactive crowd — or something in that Austin water — that makes the festival’s intimacy indomitable. Not even this year’s outsized scale could dampen the upside of being able to look really interesting people in the eye and chat with them. See you next year, everyone.



  1. This was my first time attending, so I can’t judge from the past, but I did feel it was totally worth while. I was very excited for the chance to be able to finally meet you in person, and really enjoyed your panel.

    I did however go to a few LAME panels due to being poorly titled and the seemingly impossible to use directories that they handed out. The actual online site my.sxsw.com proved to be a valuable tool, however while actually attending the event without a laptop (which I don’t own) and being probably the ONLY person who doesn’t own an iPhone I was left to using these TERRIBLE directories they handed out.

    Still I was able to meet a handful of people I’ve followed from a distance for a number of years, and also came away mostly inspired and edified in a way that was worth the price to attend (although I wasn’t the one footing the bill).

    By the way, are you going to post your slides with the audio of your panel? I felt your slides had some interesting grids coupled that I’d love to take a closer look at.

  2. Everything I’ve heard about this year’s SXSW, through Twitter alone, makes me really eager to go. When I’m 21 in 19 months and 14 days (not that I’m counting), I’ll definitely be there.

    Hopefully all the cool kids will still be going to SXSW in 2011.

  3. This is the first year in 11 that I’m not performing in one band or another at the SxSW Music Festival. I’m pretty vocal in my group of friends about how content I am with that fact. I don’t miss any one of the plethora of disastrous events that took place at any one of our showcases. The always poor sound, or having to play on a 5’x7′ stage in a four piece band while the microphones shock the shit out of your mouth, or power outages during our set after traveling across the country (two years in a row at the same venue) giving us time for 1.5 songs, or large 15′ tall stacks of speakers collapsing next to me, or playing quiet music at an outdoor venue next to another outdoor venue with industrial bands, etc.

    What I do miss is the anticipation. The excitement leading up to the festival. Never really expecting to get “discovered” but always excited about playing for people that don’t normally get to see your band. Feeling like a small part of something HUGE.

    The SxSW festival has fallen prey to throwing bodies (or bands) at the fire. Every year the artist list grows exponentially larger, giving more bands the wonderful opportunity to play for a crowd of 6 at a sushi restaurant on Burnet Rd., or in the back yard of a dive bar on East 8th St. that not even the locals have heard of.

    I definitely do not miss that.

  4. I was also at Leah Buley’s panel and I thought it was outstanding. More than an incredibly valuable set of techniques, her presentation really made me believe in the relevance of my work. Any panel that inspires me to be better is a good one in my book. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too.

  5. Yep, definitely agree. Criminally awful panels (with several exceptions, of course) but an after-conference social scene that makes the flight to Austin well worth it. It’s just so great to eat and drink with the people you enjoy and respect all year long but rarely get to see.

    My personal hit-rate on good panels has gone from maybe 40% in 2005 to probably 10-20% this year. It’s become *impossible* to estimate the usefulness of a panel by its title or description. There are just so many people who have no business having a microphone in front of them that the safest way to choose panels is to go by name alone. Jared Spool? Fantastic. I’d rather watch him talk about peeling carrots for an hour than listen to five social media consultants introduce themselves for a half hour and then open up Q & A.

    I’m as guilty as anyone at last-minute speech preparation — heck, even under-preparation — but I at least take seriously the task of keeping a crowd entertained. If you aren’t going to try and do that, then don’t do speaking engagements at all.

  6. This year was my first time attending SXSW so I can’t attest to the higher quality of previous years. I’m actually in the same boat as Joey in that I’m underaged, but I still managed to go to a few parties and enjoy myself while I was there, I plan on attending again next year repping ROFLCon once again.

    I do agree that the panels were incredibly disorganized overall, there were many panels that I got incredibly excited about because the titles were interesting — but they ended up being either completely off topic or not answering the initial question presented.

    Another thing that was frustrating was the fact that a lot of similar panels were grouped together — as a type nerd I really wanted to go to “Get your Glyph on” as well as “The Future of the NYT” panel — but it seemed that all of the web design related ones were shoved into the same time slot in the same evening. I ended up not getting to attend either because I opted to view the World Premier of Objectified (as I am a huge fan of Helvetica). I’m sure that SxSW does this in order to boost the sale of one-day passes, but I wish that they’d at least spread them a little more evenly throughout the day.

    I think that the way that panels are set up as an “open discussion” between the panelists and less of a presentation / discussion with the audience makes it harder to learn anything while there. I completely agree that a few stellar panels make it all worthwhile, but I was initially quite dissatisfied and disheartened by the fact that I felt duped by two or three of the presentations.

    One final point of contention is the design of the badges (which was discussed recently on SwissMiss) and how it’s impossible to read who someone is, what they do, and where they’re from. Though it’s nice at parties, it’s no fun trying to squint discreetly in a dark and smoky bar.

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