Goodbye, South By

I started attending SXSW Interactive in the spring of 2003. The effect of the dot com bust were still being felt but rising up from the ashes was clearly something different. At its core, the idea was that if we shared things with each other, that act of sharing would make us all collectively better.

The event itself embodied that idea. People who were doing interesting things were sharing with people who were doing interesting things. Nobody was looking for answers. They just wanted to be exposed to point of views that opened their eyes to the wider set of possibilities as software ate the world. It would take nine more years before Marc Andressen could so aptly describe what we were all watching happen year after year in Austin.

It is hard to catalogue what has transpired in those ten years, what the festival and that gathering of people are responsible for. Delicious and flickr illuminated a new kind of sharing that would ultimately lead to Facebook and the like. This default-open, permalinked, (hash)tagged sharing would collide directly with mobile and create Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram.

I came each year to learn, to see what was happening, to try these new technologies alongside others who were just as interested as I was at exploring the possibilities.

A good thing is hard to keep good. 3000 people attended the first year I was there and yesterday the organizers announced over 30,000 people attended SXSWi in 2013. The growth of the festival over the last three years strained the infrastructure of the city to house, move, and feed (in a timely manner) the tens of thousands of people that now attend the event. To accommodate the amount of people and the wide variety of interests, the sessions have had to be spread out across many venues stretching from the convention center to the state capitol.

And as the size of SXSW has passed critical mass, the brands have descended to launch new products and woo the influencers and early adopters of social media. In some cases, I have been thankful, like Yolanda flagging me down and driving me back downtown in Chevy’s Catch a Ride program that help attendees get around. In other cases, it has been inconvenient (RackSpace’s takeover of Champions next to the convention center) or weird (Oreo’s Take and Go).

The greatest loss though has been the learning. My SXSW Prime Directive has long been “Never attend a panel about the industry you work in,” so I would purposefully find topics barely creating a Venn diagram with my world of book publishing. In the past, panels on game design and techniques to successfully sell audience driven swag fascinated me. Last year, Michelle Plotkin’s talk of her Design for Humanity work at a rural high school in North Carolina made me cry when a resident of that community who happened to be at SXSW came up to the microphone and thanked her for the work she was doing.

The ancillary topics were hard to come by this year. It could have been that tension of time and space. Maybe it was the mainstreaming of interests for the broader audience (SXSW organizers if you are listening – The Panelpicker is not working to surface the right stuff). Desperate, I violated my Prime Directive to see what might be said by industry collegues, and for those of you who know the episodes of Star Trek that hinged the Directive ignored, my experiences ended with similarly disasterous consequences.

It must be that SXSW is no longer for me.

Monday’s email from the organizers lead with:

“There are no cures for hangovers. Nothing you eat or drink is going to erase the fact that you surpassed your limits last night like a college freshman.”

I had always embraced this week in early March, clearing my calendar, bringing grandparents in to help my wife with the kids. It was my Geek Spring Break. The emphasis seemed to have shifted from Geek to Spring Break.

This is the last year I will be attending SXSW Interactive. It is hard to write that. I remember several years ago when the organizers found me a folding table to hold a small author signing for the release of book I was publishing. It was small gesture, but it deeply affect me. That small act embodied what SXSW meant to me – the community sharing with each other.

Thank you to everyone I have meet and heard and learned from over the last ten years. Every year, I created the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.

I need to find another place now, a place where people want to come together, share and learn from each other (and no, not TED).

If you have some ideas for a geek like me, I am all ears.

Goodbye, South By.

11 thoughts on “Goodbye, South By

  1. Have you looked at PopTech, GEL, or Do Lectures … similar in spirit to TED, but each with its own advantages.  Chicago Idea Week also has some potential, but it’s an ala carte ordeal.

  2. As the years of gone by, I, too, have started questioning the value of SxSW. Granted, many people now unconference it and crawl from social gathering to social gathering, but I’ve found it harder and harder to give up a week in March since it’s one of my most productive and active months.

    Thanks for the commentary, Todd.

  3. Hi Todd, I am moving toward private, invite-only events of fifty people or so. Not too difficult to organize, super-high value when well (but loosely) structured as sharing ideas, energy and passion. DIY events so to speak. That’s where I’m getting the most value. Happy to help you organize one if you like.


  4. I feel exactly the same way. I gave the opening keynote there many year’s ago when it was still so much smaller and most everyone could fit in the main ballroom. I’m sure so many still get value from it, but it is no longer for me personally, and that makes me a little sad. I LOVED it, and it was often the one time each year I got to see most of my geek friends.

    I hardly ever go to events these days, for many reasons, but the one I would put closest in spirit to how I once felt about SXSW is Webstock New Zealand. It is a different feel as most of the talks are keynotes or you choose between just two simultaneous presentations. Everyone is in the same (fabulous) room, nearly every speaker is in attendance for the entire event, and almost nobody — attendees or speakers — leaves Webstock unchanged.

    But another event has emerged that REALLY surprised me for having that same more intimate and intensely useful feel: Business of Software. I first went many years ago, and it was a professionally run, excellent line-up, really good event. But it has since developed into a conference with a combination of kick-ass and soul. I know, right?

    Webstock and Business of Software (which is useful to more than just software entrepreneurs) are by far my two favorite geek events now, and nothing even feels close (though there are some very niche events that are excellent). And I have either attended or presented at just about every major tech conference in the past ten years, so I’ve got a lot to compare these two.

    If I could pick just one event and an overall destination, I’d choose Webstock for inspiration and deep, serious consideration of where the web was, is, and will be … as discussed and debated and thoughtfully explored by some of the best thinkers and doers from both in and out of our web/geek world. But if it is practical, usable, *real*, valuable ideas you can learn and act on *now*, I would choose Business of Software. Actually, I could not choose between them — the combination is brilliant. Webstock means planning a holiday in New Zealand… Bring the family :).

    Can’t recommend them enough, regardless of what your specific *thing* is. And no, I am not presenting at either of them next time– I just want more people to experience a little of the magic we used to feel from those 2005(ish) SXSW days.

  5. I’m sorry I missed the early days, Todd. From your descriptions, I would have loved the size and exchange of ideas (on a relatively intimate scale). Conferences that start small and smart rarely (any examples at all?) scale and sustain. So – I guess the lesson is to keep your ear to the ground, and try to get to these sorts of events in the first few years. Or – maybe the best conference planners will start to gain fame/followings of their own, so those of us looking for ideas and innovation just need to keep track of them?

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