I first attended SxSWi amidst the rubble of the dot-com crash, a time when the interactive festival filled only one hallway of the third floor of the Austin Convention Center. It's changed a lot since then, mostly in scale.
The lack of technical content is something I've bemoaned in years past but have finally come to accept. I was grateful to be on an excellent panel this year that touched on some topics that I both think and care a lot about. Our panel was also blessed with amazing audience engagement from people I respect. I chalk most of that up to Michael Lucaccini and Chris Bernard's excellent prep and panelist selection. Any panel with Chris Wilson and Aza Raskin on it is going to be good.
The explosion of SxSWi has not been a good thing and I went in the hopes that contraction had started as the economic disaster crimps budgets. Guess not. SxSWi was bigger than either the music or movie portions of the conference for the first time this year. Others have commented insightfully on the problems of scale, so I'll spare you the rundown of what makes an enormous conference uninviting, but suffice to say it seems like SxSWi has gone over some crucial limit and will continue its inexorable expansion until something gives in a dramatic way. Gravity cannot be reasoned with.
Unlike some of those who found themselves post-hoc disappointed, I really didn't think there was much chance of having a good time. Luckily I was wrong -- not so much because it suddenly got better than in '08, the last time I went -- but because I had learned how to cope better with the scale. My brother lives near Austin and getting to hang out with him made the entire experience better. I also employed a series of strategies that helped me have an experience that I'd gladly repeat:
- Aggressive expectation adjustment. The most technical content I saw was at the Google Hackathon fearlessly organized by Chris Schalk and generously attended by some amazing fellow Goolers. My expectations for every other session were set to "entertainment", and a few delivered.
- Bail early. One key for me to avoiding a bad experience was to be totally unafraid to walk out of talks and panels that weren't going anywhere.
- Find the people you want to hang out with and stick with them. SxSWi has gotten so large that the process of meeting new people except by introduction is fraught with apprehension. To combat this, I used old skool technology to find and keep up with the people I really wanted to have conversations with. Calling and texting directly in lieu of Twitter really worked. When a conference resembles the real world in scope, simply employ the same aggressive filtering you would in person. Problem solved.
- If there's a line, it's not worth it. Once you decide to aggressively filter your experience through the lens of people you already like, it becomes much easier to skip all of the official parties and enormous impersonal events. Ignoring the nagging sense of loss about "missing something" and focusing on having quality conversations with people you enjoy makes all the difference. It doesn't get better than that.
- Get thyself to the Salt Lick. Nothing makes me happy quite like Texas-style BBQ, so a key to SxSW for me is a pilgrimage to the Salt Lick. This time I got to go with family. Double win.
I think all of this implies that folks who haven't been to SxSWi before aren't going to be able to have the same sort of open, trusting experience that I had when I first started attending, and that's a real loss; but at least I now feel like I can go and have a good and productive time. I'm grateful to have gone this year and I'm looking forward to next year already.