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!

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24 Responses:

  1. As I sit at home, doing PHP programming until 2a EST, I am glad to have read this during a small break. I never liked hyped conferences. When I was in ministry, that was Catalyst. When I was in the video world, that was NAB. Now that I am in programming, it seems to be SXSW.

    What you say about “our industry” is what I say about technology in general. Case in point is a discussion I get into about more often than expected when questioned why I haven’t bought an iPad. Technology is suppose to make our lives EASIER, and if all it does is add one more thing to keep track of or manage, but offers no advantage to easement of life, I don’t see how it has a purpose. Same goes for information. Same goes for conferences.

    Great post Mike!

  2. Jon says:

    You should should check out dolectures.com it’s probably the antithesis of what you describe. They cap it at 100 attendees/speakers and there is no wifi or cell signal.

  3. Vince says:

    I think you’re being generous with the ” 20% having absolutely no business speaking publicly at an event people pay good money for”

    I’ve learned that speaker trumps content at SXSWi. Even if I’m not particularly stoked about the content at least it won’t suck.

  4. SXSW. says:

    [...] on profit by the organizers — to the shameful exclusion of a good user experience1 — see Mike Davidson’s withering invective. Hey, how terrible is that web site, am I right? [↩] Tagged as [...]

  5. Dean says:

    Well articulated. Thanks for writing this. As a (downtown) Austin resident and longtime SXSW attendee, I also feel that SXSW has lost its way a bit. It reminds me of how Mobile World Congress eventually outgrew the venue in Cannes and moved to a much larger and spread out location in Barcelona. It definitely lost much of its charm and allure for me when that happened. Hope we can keep SX in Austin longterm, but its clear reform or even a fresh restart is needed.

  6. I don’t disagree with any of the points from your post but as someone who has been there for the last 4 years, I still wish I were able to attend this year. While the conference itself may not be as focused, the SXSW experience is still extremely valuable. Regardless of the content, being around so many people that do what you do and understand why you do it is a big encouragement. The sense of community that exists among the masses at that event each year is why I started Refresh Columbia and why I made attending conferences more of a priority. Do I wish the panels were better? Of course. Will I be there next year? You can count on on it.

    Somewhat related: My 10 tips for SXSWi Noobs

    Bonus Points: Bathroom Door at Iron Works?

  7. This will be my first SXSWi, despite being an Austin resident for over 30 years. What can I say?

    Anyway, I hope I’m not horribly disappointed. On the other hand, I tend to be pretty sanguine about conferences/festivals/etc., more interested in stumbling on serendipity than organizing the killer schedule and solving the SXSWi version of the traveling salesman problem.

    Which reminds me, I wonder if I should get a NV article going to see if there will be any other people form the site there. Maybe we need to do a meet-up. :)

  8. Thanks for confirming that I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed (and less-than-appreciative) about this year’s crazy number of sessions! I spent a couple of hours going through the schedule to make my picks, and it was a chore to simply read all of their titles, let alone the short description and presenter lists. I estimate that I’ll be going to roughly 40 of the sessions and events, which works out to seeing 4% of the conference. Thinking about that percentage, and then whittling it down further by the number of those that will be GOOD talks, and I’m struck by the paradox of choice anxiety.

    But for the ticket price and for the opportunities to meet up with a lot of folks that I don’t otherwise get to see, I still find the conference valuable. Granted, I live in Austin so it’s sort of a no-brainer…

  9. I’ll be in Austin. This will be my third year, but this year I’m just present and mingling with good friends, good food and hopefully good times.
    We usually have good friends speaking at SX and it’s supportive to attend their panels, but at the scale this conference is at now…
    Each year is a mass of us trying to find where the next panel is, only to find ourselves usually sitting in the front row and try to absorb some helpful or inspiring bit of information before our stomachs grumble more.
    So this year, no pass for me. Each year I keep saying it, but this year is the test.
    I suppose I’m not so much poo-poo-ing the conference but rather reducing the things that distract me from spending a short few days with friends.

  10. Mike D. says:

    Jon: Awesome. Love the concept of DoLectures. Thanks for the link.

    Vince: Yep, I used 20% so as not to sound like a complete asshole :). I’m sure it’s higher than that as well. I also agree about prioritizing speakers over topics, but the scary thing about that is there are going to be some great speakers there you’ve never heard of.

    Jason: Nice! You get the bonus points.

    Luke: That’s a good way to think about it: reducing the things that distract you from a few days with your friends. Well put.

  11. Brade says:

    I’ve never had the first desire to attend SXSW for the reasons you mention: the overcrowding, the scattershot schedule, the infatuation with parties that borders on pathetic. Can’t people easily party in their own hometowns?

    I’ve been to one web conference, FOWA, in Miami two years ago. I enjoyed it, but in the end I didn’t glean any info I couldn’t have obtained online through my normal channels. Did I meet some new people who became online friends? Sure. But as you say, meeting people should be secondary to the quality of the conference.

    I think most of these conferences represent a sort of hero worship that I want no part of. Kenny Meyers wrote a great post about this: http://happymagicfuntime.com/post/3431723111/making-friends

    I personally would rather spend my vacation days doing something totally unrelated to my job, and the less crowded rooms that are involved, the better. But I also appreciate genuinely great public speaking, so I’m still on the lookout for conferences that have something truly special to offer.

  12. Mike D. says:

    Brade: Funny article. “Nice glutes, Z-Money.”

  13. Jason says:

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

    Word.

  14. Scott Phelps says:

    This is my second year at SXSW and I have to say I understood going in this year that the panels and other official activities would most likely be a waste of my time. I’m sure at one point SXSW was a concentration of talent. I found speaking to people directly (and networking) was much more effective than attending.

    For instance I had a wonderful conversation at the Hampton about geo-location only to find one of the folks in the conversation was on the W3C and the others worked on browsers themselves. When would I have that conversation any where else? Probably wouldn’t.

    I know there are number of people now attending the conference but not getting a pass. The reputation of SXSW being “Nerd Spring Break” certainly continues.

    Personally I believe it is time to spin of SXSWm for those on the marketing track. The frustration I have with SXSW and speaker selections is that the Social Media crowd seemed to have overwhelmed what I think of as the original target market of the conference. This is noticeable simply by looking at the major categories and how the large majority are around Social Media.

    I’m certainly not disparaging these folks. But I can’t help but think SXSWi is for makers. SM folks are mostly people who use the tools the makers build.

    Another potential downside is the dilution of relevance as SXSW becomes overwhelmed with people and product launches. I think music has already seen this happen with major label acts showing instead of indies. We’ll call it the “Sundance” effect.

  15. Jesus, Davidson.

    First, everyone knows the non-conference activities are the best part of SXSW. Also, if you don’t like it, you can vote with your feet and just not go. You know, a lot of the people putting on this conference and speaking at it are good people who do a great job. And damn, how many years are we going to have to listen to jaded hipsters like you complain about this stuff, anyway?

    Get over yourself.

  16. Brade says:

    Jeff, I’m sure you’re a blast to hang out with at such events as these. But you honestly don’t think Mike has a legitimate point about the thousands of simultaneous sessions? Honestly the “Nerd Spring Break” reputation seems well deserved for this thing. It takes a certain type of person to feel justified paying around $1000 primarily to enjoy the “non-conference activities” at a conference.

    Also: honest criticism is always better than passive acceptance.

  17. Jokes are a lot less funny when people don’t get them. :)

  18. Brade says:

    Dammit, Jeff. It’s 11:30 here, what do you expect? ;)

    Sorry, but I’ve seen you in heated battles with “Z-Money” in the past, so I assumed your comments at face value.

    As you were.

  19. [...] The Most Important Company of This Year’s SXSW Is: SXSW | Mike Industries, Mike Davidson [article] south by southwest, conference, commercial endeavour, panels, paradox of choice [...]

  20. Chris says:

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

    So basically what you are saying is that it’s Twitter.

  21. Mike D. says:

    Chris: Pretty much. Yes. Exactly.

  22. Susan says:

    I’m late to the discussion, but happened through and the first thought I had after reading your article (all of which comments are appropriate I’m sure) is that perhaps technology/interactive/marketing types should be pulled from SXSW all together and the conference should go back to its roots in indie music and film. I say this as a tech type (fly by night), social media junkie (ditto) and former industry (meaning Hollywood) type. The two do not belong together (at all). Multimedia as relates to music and film, ok. But Interactive as relates to Twitter, Facebook, SEO, and whatever else is being schlepped these days – no thanks.

    I’ve been to Austin (never for the conference) and while I’m sure the increased revenue is a bonus, it can’t be good for the city’s vibe (which is the reason Austin was so cool to begin with).

    Just a thought.

  23. Erik says:

    Bonus photo: Bathroom door at Buffalo Billiards?

  24. Mike D. says:

    Erik: Nope. Ironworks bathroom!

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