Archive for March 2011

The Most Important Company of This Year's SXSW Is: SXSW

Every year, the technology and business press wait anxiously to see who the breakout star of SXSW is going to be. The conference is often credited with helping companies like Twitter and Foursquare cross the chasm, and everyone wants to know what the next trend to chase is going to be.

In powering my way through the ridiculous pile of panels for SXSW 2011, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the state of the industry is now best represented by the state of the conference itself: unfiltered, unabashed information overload.

Before I continue, a few disclaimers:

  1. Yes, I know the non-conference activities have always been the best part of SXSW… shouldn’t the conference organizers be a bit embarrassed by this though?
  2. Yes, I know I’m free to vote with my feet and not go. I exercise this freedom from time to time.
  3. Yes, I know a lot of the people putting on the conference and speaking at the conference are great people and do a great job.
  4. Yes, I know people have been complaining about this stuff for years already.

That said…

This isn’t even a conference anymore. It is clearly a commercial endeavor first, a networking event second, and a conference where you learn stuff third. In my view, the best conferences go in the exact opposite order. The making money part should be a natural consequence of fulfilling the first and subsequently the second.

When I started going to SXSW in 2005, there were maybe 8 or so presentations and panels going on during each time slot. I prefer single track conferences like Webstock and An Event Apart, but at least with 8, you usually only have 1 or 2 you really want to attend so the conflict rate is low. Fast forward to this year and there are 45 THINGS GOING ON during many slots. That is not an exaggeration. 45 panels. Here are the problems this causes:

  1. The whopping 1006 panels makes trying to plan your schedule an absolute, fucking nightmare. It’s painful. I’m not a very fast reader so I take longer than most, but each day is taking me over an hour to get through. I already want to just return my ticket, if that were possible.
  2. With 45 panels per time slot, you’re going to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 15 panels in each timeslot that you would have liked to attend but can’t. This creates an annoying feeling in you that you are missing more good stuff than you are actually seeing. It’s a terrible incarnation of The Paradox of Choice.
  3. Because there are now an astounding 1822 speakers at this conference, the chances of them sucking royally are even higher than they were before. I remember thinking to myself in 2005 that about 25% of the speakers were great, 25% were good, and most of the rest were just so-so. With each passing year, those numbers have shifted steadily downward. It’s now more like 10% great, 20% good, 50% so-so, and 20% having absolutely no business speaking publicly at an event people pay good money for.
  4. As if the daytime effects weren’t bad enough, the overpopulating of Austin is now reaching into the evening activities as well. I skipped most of the conference itself last year but even getting a beer at a bar grew tedious during the peak of the conference. This may not seem like a big deal, but meeting up with our friends and colleagues at night is the primary reason why a lot of us still make this trip.
  5. Hundreds of these presenters are getting stuck at places like the AT&T Conference Center or the Sheraton which are a mile away from the Convention Center. Audiences are fickle, and when given the chance to either walk a mile to your speech or walk a few steps to the 44 other speeches going on, chances are your session is going to be empty. I’m curious to see how this goes, and I feel terrible for any really good speakers who have been placed so inconsiderately.

So… what’s my point. My point is that during these past few years SXSW Interactive has taken on some of the worst elements of the industry it is suppose to serve.

It’s too many people saying too much about too little.

116 panels about social media? 19 panels about Facebook? Panels that are clearly only there because of the company that sponsored them? A panel about how to do a panel?

Who on earth would think this is a good thing? There’s only one group I can think of: the people profiting from the conference. It’s like selling out Woodstock and then hiring 500 more filler bands so you can sell 100,000 more tickets. Great for the conference organizers, probably great for the city, but not so great for the people who just want to see a good show.

What SXSW has become is in many ways what our industry has become: a giant facilitator of information overload. The next great company to arise from it will be the company that offers an antidote; a way to enrich our lives by letting us unplug. I don’t want to know what everyone is thinking. I don’t want to know where everyone is checking in. I just want to know the bare minimum of what it takes to remain happy, and then maybe a little extra if I have time. Whatever company creates a filter that enables this will become one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Alright, I’m done ranting now, so I’ll close with a few conference tips:

  1. Never speak at a conference in order to get a free ticket somewhere. I feel like this is common at SXSW. If you wouldn’t present without the free ticket, don’t present at all. You’re just adding to the noise.
  2. If you’re at a conference with interesting people, make the most of your opportunity to meet everyone you want to meet. Often you’ll get more out of a one hour Jager session with someone than you will out of the entire conference.
  3. If you’re presenting, strive to be one of the most entertaining presenters at the conference. The best combination in a speaker is smart and entertaining, but if you take the entertaining part away, you might as well be dumb too, because people aren’t going to enjoy listening to you. One of the best conferences I’ve ever spoken at or attended was Webstock 2010 in New Zealand, and there was one guy there, Rives, who just blew everyone away. Here’s his presentation. If that doesn’t make you want to try harder, I don’t know what will.

Thanks for listening. Bonus points if you can identify the photo at the top of this post!