Having just returned from my first SXSW Interactive experience, it’s time to finally take a breather and reflect on a few things.
It’ a hard event to fully describe, just because of the sheer size of the conference and many other facets of it. To make things a little easier, I’m going to split this into talking about the panels, people, and parties.
The sheer volume of panels/sessions/keynotes at SXSW is overwhelming. Just figuring out your schedule of what to go to and when is a chore, and you guaranteed to later realize you missed a different, cooler sounding session or event.
To me, this was the bread and butter of SXSW, so some specifics:
Eric Ries had a great keynote, and the panels on The Lean Startup track were excellent. In a place where everyone is talking about hand waving ideas and startups with way more money than they should have, people focused on metrics and execution was great.
My friend Couch created Osprey, a really clever and good looking web app to the audience to submit questions to a panel he was on using Twitter @mentions and favoriting to vote.
A Brief History Of The Google Redesign was great. Provided insight into the process of how Google did their 2011 redesign, and how/why a previous attempt to do so failed. A writeup from The Verge is here.
Scaling to Infinity was one of they few technical panels I found, and the most interesting. We are starting to bump into these kinds of issues at Vox Media, and got into some great examples. For example: ‘When building out a multi-node system like Redis/Cassandra, build it out with a minimum of five nodes.’
I’m going to lump open houses, music events and anything with free food/drink/whatever into this. The proliferation of free events is crazy, but as a rule, they are crowded, loud, and require waiting in line. ‘Waiting in line’ can be anywhere from 10 minutes to hours, depending on the quality of free thing you are trying to get.
As a rule, I don’t like waiting in lines when I could be doing something else, so I mostly avoided this. As a result, I didn’t catch any awesome shows, and only went to a couple of the loud, crowded corporate parties. Instead, my friends and I opted for non-sponsored bars, which generally had better beer, a better environment to talk, and were still pretty cheap (yay Austin!).
By far though, the best party experience I had was grassroots and free: the Decentralized Dance Party. People come together with old boomboxes, tune their radios to an FM transmitter one of the organizers is walking around and broadcasting with, and go nuts. We came across it by chance outside Austin City Hall and followed/danced all the way down Sixth Street. At it’s peak there were probably two thousand people in street, dancing and having a great time. Unforgettable.
More than anything, I think this is why people actually go to SXSW. It’s a place to meet new, interesting people in the web industry, as well as catch up with old colleagues and friends. I think it’s worth splitting these into two areas though, because they are very different.
Going in, I knew that engaging strangers in conversation wasn’t one of my strong points. Still, I tried to do it a couple times a day… and generally don’t have much to show for it. While I did talk to more people I didn’t know than normal, I didn’t find many of the interactions to be particularly interesitng or rewarding. That probably sounds awful, but I feel that I got more out of socializing with the friends I already knew (more on that next) compared to new people.
The major exception to this was a Finnish guy named Kobra Koskinen, the CEO of Scoopinion. They run a Chrome extension that watches what articles you read and uses machine learning algorithms to curate a magazine of content that suites your taste, and you haven’t read yet. As a result, they have some really interesting publisher analytics data (even down to particular authors). They just launched in the US, and I recommend you check them out.
Note that I think this is more a failure on my part than anything else. It’s probably more a factor of my personality than anything, so your experience will vary.
Before even arriving, many people have a long list of friends to meet up with, and that is their primary objective. My list was only three people long, so it wasn’t a difficult thing to do, and wasn’t a major focus. In my mind, seeing them was important, but I also wanted to go to lots of panels, workshops and whatnot. For SXSW veterans and connected industry people - the long listers - I think this difference in priorities greatly effects their experience as a whole, and probably for the better.
Probably not. If I do return, I think it will be a better experience, now that I have a better idea how to manage, navigate and prioritize the whole experience. But for now, while my priorities are more technical in nature, I’ll probably pass.