This year marked my second visit to Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Interactive conference. While I enjoyed myself and had only been once before, I can tell you that things have changed, perhaps not for the better.
When I attended in ’09, I went to presentations almost every hour; nearly all sessions were in the Convention Center, and all were high quality. The close-knit experience made it easy to navigate which panel I wanted to go to and easy to get there.
This year there was simply too much. You could scroll through long listings picking out sessions and then realize all of that was just the 2 PM hour, and a large number of sessions were scattered in offsite hotel conference rooms. It’s bad enough that walking from one end of the conference center to the other takes about 10-15 minutes; some of the sessions I wanted to go to were as far as a mile away.
To make matters worse, many of the sessions were redundant panels with poorly prepared presenters, too many of which were still fixating on the importance of “social media” and other buzz words. The kind of stuff you would already have to be aware of if you’re attending SXSW in the first place. By the end of day one, I had decided that most panels were pretty much a waste of time.
The idea of having a conference devoted to the abstract concept of “interactive” is starting to feel short-sighted. It’s grown so large that it’s simply untenable. Bringing marketers, designers, programmers, and “content creators” together under the banner of “interactive” with the common thread of “the Internet”—something quickly becoming ubiquitous to American life—seems absurd.
Imagine if we held a conference for all the industries that use paper in any way, shape, or form. There would be panels on restaurant menu design, proper cardboard box construction, and buzz-worded up bullshit like “Aerodynamic Efficiency in Paper airplane Design.” This is what it felt like to browse the schedule of sessions at SXSWi 2011.
Simultaneously, the split between the Film and Interactive portions of the conference seems more and more arbitrary as the line between amateur and professional creators continues to blur.
More me, this year’s focus was less on the panels and more about the partying, networking, and actual human interaction. This is perhaps evidenced best by the plethora of panels discussing how to best party at SXSW. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is a bad thing. It seems the label of “Interactive” has taken on a new meaning, and it seems to be less about the technology and more about social interaction. Which, from a humane perspective, is better. But if that’s the case, why even buy a badge when I can party for free?