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South By Southwest (SXSW) 2009 Interactive Review - It's a Party Masquerading as a Conference Answered

It's no secret that SXSW is more about the parties than the conference, but when you have so many smart people who run interesting businesses together, it's a pretty significant lost opportunity that the conference isn't better.

Christy and I attended the 2008 SXSW Interactive conference, and decided it wasn't worth coming back. However, Instructables was a finalist in the Web Awards "Classic" category at the 2009 SXSW Interactive conference, which netted us two free passes. So, we attended again this year. This is my review of the interactive portion of the conference.

High level - I'm glad we didn't pay. If you go, admit that you're going for entertainment, not to learn something about the interactive industry. The keynotes were excellent -- even if I didn't come away from them with anything actionable to do --, while the rest of the panels and talks were terrible. Having the resources to get to Austin doesn't mean that most conference attendees will have done their homework -- otherwise interesting panels with smart people were nearly always hijacked by stupid questions, and unfortunately it was rare that a moderator would shut down the stupid questions and get back to anything engaging. For example, at How Safe is Your Domain Name? someone actually asked "What does ICANN stand for?"

If you're the type of person who reads reviews, and tries to determine if a conference has value for your business, SXSW does not. It's a party masquerading as a conference. If you go, think of it as a vacation, enjoy the evening events and keynotes, and when you learn one or two interesting things by accident, you won't be disappointed.

Longer Review:

Plan B: Can an Ad Guy Bring Bike Sharing to America?
The story of how an advertising agency exec. was able to start up a bicycle sharing venture. Worth checking out just to understand how Crispin Porter+Bogusky works, and to see how they keep their thinking fresh about advertising.

Spying 2.0: Can America Compete With Web-Savvy Enemies?
Quickly devolved into an I-use-Twitter-so-should-you panel. Yawn.

Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused?
Academics talking about websites they use, and privacy issues they think might apply. A discussion of "experiences"; nobody on the panel is actually doing anything real, nor do they have any insight into major players' privacy policies or how those policies affect users. How did they get a panel?

Change v2
Lawrence Lessig's non-keynote-scheduled keynote on how money reduces our faith in politics. Excellent. Find a video of this and watch it.

Opening Remarks: Tony Hsieh
Tony Hsieh has given this identical talk at other conferences, but the message is so good, it's worth seeing twice. Slides available here.

Feed Me: Bite Size Info for a Hungry Internet
This had an interesting set of people on the panel, but it nonetheless turned into a why-Facebook's-new-homepage-sucks-because-it-copied-friendfeed fest. Then, the panelists started openly wondering why they hadn't invited anyone from Twitter to be on the panel.

Collaborative Filters: The Evolution of Recommendation Engines
This was one of the biggest disappointments. Anton Kast of Digg is clearly top notch, and has spent deep hours thinking about recommendations and the math behind them; and, the people making up the rest of the panel were no slouches either. Unfortunately, they spent more than half of the time describing in layman's terms how each of their websites work, and we never got to anything juicy. "On Digg, users rate up a story they find interesting by clicking the Digg button..."!

Edupunk: Open Source Education
The description of this panel really got me pumping: DIY teachers around the world are using open source course management systems, open access textbooks, and other open source tools to buck the chains and limitations of corporate education software. What the panel really turned out to be was a bunch of ineffectual academics having a cat fight over who was more ineffectual. They all tried to outdo one another with stories of how management at their university prevented them from having any impact, and the winner seemed to be the panelist who accomplished the least. Seriously.

This was only topped by the first question from the audience, which opened with: "I've learned a new word at this conference, and I'm going to use it here: monetize..." Seriously?

I now have a new rule for conferences: Stay away from all education topics. The ratio of people with opinions to people who can/are having impact is way too high.

How to Create a Great Company Culture
This is a tough topic, and one in which there's no right answer or overarching theory. The only way to get data is to listen to anecdotes, and this session gave me a few more. Although to be fair, I probably could have spent the same hour reading blogs written by company founders and gotten more out of it.

Sunday Keynote: Stephen Baker / Nate Silver Interview
Interviews with really passionate people are always a treat. Nate Silver fits the bill.

From Flickr and Beyond: Lessons in Community Management
I was baffled why Metafilter was invited to be on this panel. In a discussion of privacy policies, the director of operations from Metafilter said "We don't have one. We're not there yet." Despite obviously having the most to contribute, the representative from Youtube didn't share anything; his lawyer must have told him to keep his mouth shut. Overall this was let down.

New Think for Old Publishers
This panel was deceptively described, and the audience was annoyed to find a group of publishers simply looking to scribble down suggestions rather than having a conversation about the industry. Fortunately, Clay Shirky was animated enough to heat things back up.

Presenting Straight to the Brain
Running a panel on better ways to use slides and graphics where each panelist presents slides might seem a bit hubristic, not they pulled it off. Take home: Use your slides to tell a story.

How to Protect Your Brand Without Being a Jerk!
This powerhouse panel was interrupted a mere 15 minutes in by a self-described-artist-from-Europe who raised (and shook) his hand for 5 minutes until the moderator eventually gave in. His question: "Do I need to copyright my songs? No really, do I need to copyright each one?" This softball opened a pandora's box of stupid questions from audience members clearly unable to format their questions into that tricky search engine text box.

Monday Keynote: Virginia Heffernan / James Powderly Interview
James Powderly is a friend and deeply fascinating individual. I wish this interview had been longer so they could have gotten deeper into his motivations and experiences.

Advertising is Entertaining - Who's Selling Out?
I came out of this session thinking it was pretty good. However, on further reflection, since it was more conversation than lecture, and lots of people had the opportunity to speak their mind, I was just happy no one said anything particularly stupid. This should give you a sense of my expectations at this stage at SXSW.

New Threats to New Media: Fair Use On Trial
This was an excellent panel, particularly because Jason Schultz ran a very tight ship, kept things moving, and prevented questions from derailing the session. In my opinion, all three videos shown were clear examples of fair use, and I would have appreciated one that was a little closer to the line, but the session overall was still both enjoyable and useful.

Building Strong Online Communities
While too general to have any actionable items, this was still pretty good. It's also fun to hear Drew Curtis's irreverent opinion on community.

Tuesday Keynote: Chris Anderson / Guy Kawasaki Conversation
This made me really look forward to Chris Anderson's coming book Free. Guy Kawasaki did a fantastic job moderating, especially with respect to mocking people who ask questions just to insert a pitch for themselves, and limiting meaningless follow-up "questions."

Nom Nom Nom: The Secrets of Successful Foodblogging
Get a DSLR, all other rules of successful blogging apply.

The parties and evening events were good. I enjoyed Dorkbot Austin and Plutopia, and still think often of the food at The Salt Lick.

The Web Awards were surprisingly fun. We were up against some much bigger names, and Flickr won (which in my opinion, was the expected value; I use Flickr at least weekly, if not more). Baratunde Thurston emceed, and he kept it spirited and fast-paced. His interludes were funny, and when no one from Flickr showed up to claim their award, he claimed it for them. "I remember really wanting to share some photos online..."

I've been to other conferences where the parties are fun, the talks are engaging, and you come away with a laundry list of actionable items that will make measurable improvements in your business (or life). The SXSW interactive conference has all the ingredients to make that happen, which is why it's so disappointing when it doesn't come together.



I think she's gotten meaner now that Spongebob has stolen her head.

Only intermittently; kind of like a thunderstorm :-)

:'-( Do not want. Note to self: Don't be like a thunderstorm.

Why not?

Two of my best memories of the true awesomeness (go look up the real meaning :-) of nature involved Arizona thunderstorms.

I was sitting in my hotel in Sierra Vista at 9:00 or so at night, watching a June thunderstorm. Every 10-20 seconds for a couple of minutes, there would be a lightning strike along a line of telephone poles across the highway from the hotel. I have never seen anything even remotely like that, before or since.

On another summer, I was driving between SV and Bisbee, maybe half an hour after a "monsoon" had gone through. There was a break in the clouds, and these intense shafts of sunlight came through and illuminated the riparian valley -- lush green trees and undergrowth along a fairly narrow line through the desert.

:-) I'm glad your experiences with them have been positive. They sound quite interesting and beautiful.

Excellent review, Eric, and refreshingly candid. Clearly you don't have a vested interest in SXSW :-) However, one of your comments was, er, ironic, considering the recent deployment of Answers:

a pandora's box of stupid questions from audience members clearly unable to format their questions into that tricky search engine text box.


I see your point, but you'd think a $400 (or more) price tag would make a significant different between questions asked at a conference and questions asked on a website. It didn't.

:-) You would think so, wouldn't you. Sigh....usually physics conferences are better, but there were some really, er, dumb comments at the last IEEE meeting I went to.

Anyway, I meant what I said about your review; thanks for sharing it with the rest of us!

Did you happen to see the episode of "The Big Bang Theory", where the physics presentation ended up in a physical altercation?.... Classic!

Don't watch the show, unfortunately. However, I've got to say that it's even funnier muted with the Italian subtitles, below (I have enough Italian collaborators that I could figure out the basics :-).

The guy in the brown suit looks a little like Eric to me...

>...last IEEE meeting I went to

Was it like a forum topic on ibles? /snicker Or a post by Lithium Rain?

. Do you get Spectrum magazine? My Dad passes on his 2-6 month old ones to me. Enjoyable read even if a lot of it is over my head.

Yes a biting and enjoyable review, someone tell the conference people that "nom nom nom" is OLD and it makes them seem like they're trying to hard to be relevant.


9 years ago

Last Year, the south by southwest website reviewed/featured some amazing websites. I found "Passive Agressive Notes" there, and "Paper Critters" http://www.papercritters.com/