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.