The Evolution of SXSW Interactive

Andy Budd, on last week’s SXSW Interactive:

In reality in think SXSW jumped the shark in 2008/09 and is now an entirely different conference. It’s just taken me a couple of years to reconcile the difference and develop a new set of coping strategies.

This year I finally gave up on the conference itself, going to a handful of sessions. I met many more who hadn’t seen a single session and several who didn’t even bother buying a ticket. Instead people spent time seeing friends and maintaining the weak ties in their social graph. I say that somewhat wryly, but SXSW really has become about networking in the most real and genuine sense of the word.

I had a great time, once again, but only in the sense that Austin is a fine city and you can’t help but have fun hanging out with good friends from across the country (and globe) whom you see in person only rarely. The conference itself, though, is a mess.

As Budd says, you can’t go from a conference of 2,500 attendees to one of 25,000 attendees without turning the event into something entirely different. I first attended SXSW Interactive in 2005 and haven’t missed one since. Each year has been bigger than the previous, and so the conference has always been changing. Once it outgrew the Austin Convention Center, though, it grew into something I no longer enjoyed. I don’t see how anyone could claim that the conference now is anything but broken.

A prime example: Despite the fact that there were almost 25,000 attendees, almost no one saw Matt Haughey’s excellent talk in person, because the conference schedulers put Haughey in an obscure location across the river, a mile away from the Austin Convention Center. There were about 30 or 40 people in the room for his talk. Good sessions are scheduled at bad times in obscure locations and banal, unprepared panels are held in cavernous but empty rooms in the ACC. It could well be that SXSW Interactive 2011 was as well-produced as it could have been given 25,000 attendees and the space available in downtown Austin. I just don’t think it’s possible to program a cohesive, interesting, accessible session schedule given those constraints.

Used to be that SXSW was an interesting conference and a great weekend experience. Now it’s a terrible conference and a good-but-crowded weekend experience. Maybe 25,000 attendees can’t be wrong, and I’m just a curmudgeon yearning for the days of old. There’s no denying that the ACC was packed with people every day. But everyone I know either (a) attended only a handful of sessions; (b) went to sessions but complained bitterly about the quality and regretted the waste of their time; or (c) didn’t even bother getting a conference pass this year. There’s something sad about a conference where it’s now considered the smart move not to even attend. There’s got to be a better way.