By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
SXSW Interactive is a hard conference to peg. As in, What exactly is it about?
Zeldman, as usual, captures the hard-to-capture:
SWSX Interactive is about zeitgeist, and what’s on people’s business cards can tell you as much about the industry as what’s being discussed on the panels.
For example, I used to think the name itself was a bit odd. SXSW Music is about music. SXSW Film is about movies. But Interactive? I haven’t seen anyone use that term to describe what they’re working on since the pre-Web days of multimedia CD-ROMs.
But Interactive is, I now think, as good a name as any to apply to this conference. The difference is that Music and Film are always going to be about music and film. SXSW Interactive is about what is happening now, and what’s happening now is different than what was happening a year ago, and very different than what was happening just five years ago. An amorphous name for an amorphous concept.
The other difference between SXSWi and every other conference I’ve attended recently is in the relative value of the official programming. I generally prefer smaller events like An Event Apart and C4 — one or two days long, a few hundred attendees, and a single track of conference sessions. But even at WWDC, which is about the same size as SXSWi in terms of attendance and the number of concurrent sessions, the most interesting stuff is what’s going on in the official programming.
Many clichés are true, and at SXSWi that applies to the one about the most interesting stuff happening in the hallways, restaurants, and bars. I can’t think of any other conference where, if forced to choose, I’d prefer to participate socially and forgo attending any of the official presentations/lectures/panels.
It’s not black and white. At most conferences, the deal is that the content is great and the socializing is good. At SXSWi, the content is good, but the socializing is great. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s key to understanding the perennial appeal of SXSWi.
This year, in particular, there seemed to be a strong consensus that the official programming was weak. With several thousand attendees, there are bound to be dissenters who truly enjoyed the sessions — but the general vibe was a collective “Meh”. Last year I remember many times when it was tough to choose which session to attend at any given time; this year it was often tough to find any session of interest at any given time.1
What’s interesting about this is that consensus was just as strong that SXSWi 2007 was well worth attending. I can’t imagine that many attendees would say this about a conference like WWDC or RailsConf if the sessions were widely regarded as disappointing.
One problem, I think, is SXSWi’s emphasis on panels rather than lectures. (Khoi Vinh posted a brief essay today on this same point.) Panels are good for an introduction, and they can be entertaining in the way that a talk show is. But there’s no sustained narrative, no way to build a case or leave the audience with a strong impression. I’m guilty as charged; both times I’ve spoken at SXSWi have been on panels. But I feel like I conveyed 50 times more information in my hour-long lecture at C4 in October than I did as one of three panelists in an hour-long session at SXSWi this year — and I thought our panel went well. Panels are dessert, lectures are meals. The mix at SXSWi this year was far too sugary.
My goal for any conference session is to learn something new or to hear interesting ideas I never would have thought of myself — both of which are far more common in lectures than panel discussions.
Austin bills itself as the live music capital of the world. Unquestionably, it is an artist’s town. And so SXSW is an artist’s conference. What makes what we do — where by “we” I loosely mean all of us whose creative output are things like markup and source code — so hard to encapsulate is that it’s both art and science. It’s like one of those optical illusions that looks like a chalice one moment and two opposing faces the next.
It’s easier, I think, to conceive of a conference that focuses mostly on the science side — e.g., my aforementioned examples of WWDC and RailsConf. SXSWi focuses mostly on the art, which is what makes it different, and which is what draws so many people back every year. It’s a mix of people and topics you can’t find anywhere else.
But the nebulous nature of art puts more emphasis on the need for speakers to add structure, clarity, and preparation to their presentations. SXSWi, by nature of its audience, is chock full of interesting conversations in the hallways, at restaurant tables, and around the late-night pitchers of beer. We don’t need them on stage, too.
Which is not to say attendance was sparse. Quite the opposite — most sessions I attended were packed. ↩︎