Keep SXSWi Weird

Paraphrasing Bono: There’s been a lot of talk, maybe too much talk about this year’s SXSWi. This next song is Douchey South by Douchey.

This year’s SXSW Interactive had 12,000 people attend. It was bigger than SXSW Music for the first time. It had 4,000 people more than the year before. Largely I heard two things from people:

  • “This is a great event, I’m getting a lot out of it!”
  • “Man oh man, I can’t seem to throw an iPhone without hitting a douchebag!”

Personally, SXSWi for me just isn’t compelling anymore, at least not as a conference. While the content may be perfectly suited for some, I found the sessions weak and beginner level. But that might be OK, since there was clearly an audience for that content. And yes, there were an insane amount of douchebaggery going on. This came in two forms:

  • Social Media Expert Douchebaggery – There’s only one thing worst than a room full of “social media experts”… a room full of social media experts who’ve been making a living off that “expert” status for a couple of years. They’ve fashioned a career out of telling clients what to do and now they seem to think that they’ve been knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
  • Starf**king Douchebaggery – I’m amazed at the sheer number of Foursquare shouts and twitter messages I saw from talented, experienced, mature social media people that sounded something like “OMG! I might get to meet Pete Cashmore at the Mashable party!”

Maybe my disillusionment comes from the fact that my SXSWi experience this year started off with one of the most insulting conversational exchanges I’ve had in my entire life, with a “social media expert”, who later (and totally separately) blogged on the topic of the problems with interpersonal exchanges at the conference. (No I’m not going to say who or what, other than to say that year ago we drank together as friends. Apparently I’m no longer worthy of respectful conversation…)

But that was my experience. I’ve been going to SXSWi since 1997, taking a few years off around the dot com bust. I remember when the conference was less than a thousand people. We were learning and struggling together through the Web 1.0 days. Then we were learning and struggling together through the Web 2.0 days. But as Gina Vakili said: “Aging Techies are the new Aging Hippies.”

As one of those aging techies, I remember a time when SXSWi was better than it was this year, and it wasn’t a smaller amount of douchebaggery. Here are the main three reasons I think SXSWi has gone off the rails:

Size
The organizers of the event have largely kept the formula of the event the same as it was 13 years ago when I attended my first event. Directly scaling a 500 person event to 12,000 simply doesn’t work. To put the 12k number in context, CES this year had 6,000 attendees, while GDC had 18,000. This is the big leagues as far as industry events go. At this point, SXSWi will never again be a 500 person event, and that’s OK. But it’s time to rethink what SXSWi is and what people are hoping to get out of it. The SXSWi team has to decide what they want the event to be and then redesign it according to those desires. If it’s going to be a size restricted event, so be it. If it’s going to be as large as they can sell tickets to event, that’s fine too. But those are both very different events, and that decision needs to be made.

Mass Audience Crowdsourced Panel Picker
The first year the Panel Picker was out, I thought it was a great idea. The content that came out of it was pretty solid. But as awareness of the tool grew, people figured out that the best way to get a panel selected was to come up with a sexy and often pointless session title. It’s time for the organizers to enlist a group of people to help find genius speakers we don’t know, to find topics we don’t know we need to know. The best session I’ve seen in years at any conference was Henry Jenkins at last year’s SXSWi. Henry is an absolute genius and an amazing speaker. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of him, and if you have, you probably haven’t read his blog or his books. Which is exactly why he was so much fun to hear from. Just because a metric ton of potential conference attendees vote up all the panels with “sex” in the titles, doesn’t mean you’re going to have a compelling content experience.

Do you know why TED has absolutely astounding content? Because they make it the very core of the program and they find people you’ve never heard of. Then they work with them to ensure insanely good presentation.

Grand Expectations
Good things do, in fact, come to an end. SXSWi isn’t the same because the world isn’t the same. For every SXSWi vet that I talked to who said the event sucked, I talked to two first timers who loved the event. Yes, SXSWi is “just another event”, but that’s actually a good sign. It means we’re onto the second (third? fourth?) generation of Web geeks. Those of us who were doing this stuff 10+ years ago dreamed of the day when the Web would be given the serious attention and credibility it deserves. We’re there. And that’s a great, great thing.

Despite the problems, I have to call out some awesomeness.

  • Foursquare (the app): A truly useful service for the event. While I used Foursquare before SXSWi, I was never really that excited about it. Having a purpose and a network for people using it for the same purpose helped me get quickly excited. Now I want all my friends and local businesses on it. I’ve already talked to two neighborhood small businesses about how they should get on it. (Oh, and the updated app was a great improvement just in time for the conference)
  • Foursquare (the company): From the fact that the service was rock solid stable, to the custom SXSWi content, these guys did great in running a Web app business.
  • Chevy: The power bricks the Chevy team put out for people to plug their laptops into was an insanely good promotion for their Volt electric vehicle. I literally thanked the Volt girl standing next to the car for those power bricks. They could have just printed a bunch of pointless paper collateral to shove in the registration bag. Instead they solved a real need.
  • AT&T (the network): It worked. Well. As TechCrunch asked, why can’t they do that every day?
  • AT&T (the lockers): Like Chevy, AT&T solved an honest to god need with an unique and talkable solution. They created lockers where you could plug in your phone to get a recharge, then lock it up so you could hit a session while you rejuice. Genius.
  • Inspiration: I didn’t realize quite how inspired I was from all the great work my incredible friends are doing until the first day back in the office. I literally filed a 4’x8′ whiteboard with ideas, tasks, and sketches.

So what did you think about the SXSWi 2010?

UPDATE: Here’s a few additional bits of content from around the Web re: SXSWi 2010