Cameron Daigle

Digital & Physical Design

SXSW Interactive 2011 Recap: One Person's Input

March 21, 2011

Most of the recaps that I have read of this year's conference are similar to last year's, in that they focus not on the content of the conference, but whether the conference should exist at all. (SXSWi is always followed by a flurry of recaps, because nobody is sure of what SXSWi is, so they are not sure if SXSWi is failing or succeeding.)

Some posts are sentimental or acquiescent. Others are just disappointed. Here's mine.

“Even I know all of this stuff.”

SXSW Interactive after dark is fantastic. Parties are everywhere, the food selection is beautiful, bands are playing, drinks flow freely. I hung out with great people, toasted to success, lost horribly at flip-cup, and ate pork on a donut. Everyone is happy, everyone is relaxed, everything is happening.

When the sun is up, things are different. Attending talks at SXSW Interactive is an uneven experience. A few are very good topics with very good speakers.

Some speakers present interesting information, but aren't very good speakers. Some are located a mile away across the river. Some talks are overcrowded because the topic is popular (regardless of the presenter), others are overcrowded because the presenter is popular (regardless of the topic).

Some of these problems are logistical, others can't be avoided. I'm not here to complain about talks that were too dry, or too broad, or too shallow; I'm not expecting everyone to be a great speaker with a topic that speaks to me personally. However: some talks by very smart, capable people were very, very poor.

Hundreds of people filled the largest ballroom to hear Jeffrey Zeldman's “Awesome Internet Design Panel” tell them that Paywalls Are Bad and The Print Industry Doesn't Understand E-Books. The panelists rehashed each other's obvious points; Zeldman generally remained silent (with the exception of this single moment described in detail on his blog, a 10-second bit of clarity that sounds much more poignant in narrative than it did live).

It appeared (to me) that the panel had not planned a structure or prepared thoughts. During the final Q&A, I turned to my boss (who is a wonderful boss but not at all technically inclined) and said, “this panel is a very bad panel”. She said, “I know. Even I know all of this stuff.”

Accusation

There's absolutely an argument to be made that SXSWi is not about the conference portion – after all, it's certainly bigger than the conference portion.

However: I've talked to a number of attendees over the past two years who have told me that they've only visited one panel – or none at all – almost as a matter of pride.

Perhaps my personal sampling is not representative of the whole, but it's a consistent attitude I've encountered, so it's what I've chosen to address.

I'm (obviously) not arguing that the panels are anything spectacular, or even mostly worth visiting. But the anti-conference viewpoint is a symptom of a cyclical disease:

  • the panels are not very good, so
  • advanced/talented professionals do not attend or contribute to them, so
  • the panels are not very good.

If the cream of the SXSWi community preaches that the panels are poor, the panels will continue to be poor, and the conference will continue to decline in professional quality, regardless of its budget and size.

After reading a particularly despondent tweet of mine, my friend and coworker @shaneriley suggested:

The solution is to stop going. Enough people do that, they'll provide better content.

This is untrue. If attendance falters, the SXSW organizers will find broader topics and more popular speakers. At the gigantic cultural scale that this conference is operating, relevance of topics & speakers to a particular profession is neither a direct cause nor a direct result of ticket sales.

Plea

Designers, developers, social media experts: you know that you expect more of SXSWi. You know that you can do a better job than that panel you're walking out of (or not attending).

I know it's hard to tell how badly the panels need expertise (and effort from those who have it) when you're 4 blocks away rubbing elbows in the Driskill, but many folks, naively or not, come to SXSWi hoping to learn – and some of us find ourselves in the middle, not sure how to bring the two sides together.

The only people who can improve SXSW Interactive are the people who need it the least. The conference is in need of some serious altruism.

20,000 SXSWi Fans Can't Be Wrong

However: my experience is that of one person out of approximately 18,000. I would never profess to knowing what's best for 18,000 people.

SXSWi might just now be finding its identity: the South By Southwest Web Culture Festival, a 5-day party with panels so your company will foot the bill. Perhaps its reputation will eventually solidify as a “conference” rather than a Conference, and people will stop feeling the need to write defenses or criticisms.

But maybe – just maybe – there will be a resurgence of experts, a reverse exodus of talented professionals, returning from the bars to the conference center, helping SXSWi restore the balance between cultural and professional relevance.