I've been attending SXSW Interactive since 2005 and I've been lucky enough to watch it grow from a toddler to an awkward teenager and now an interesting young adult. When I started going, there were probably a couple of thousand people there. It was pretty young and I barely knew anyone, but since it was still fairly small (in relative terms), I met most everyone by the time I left. I was really taken by the friendliness of the event. Over the years, the event grew quickly, pretty much doubling year after year. The parties grew. The lines grew. The panels grew. Pretty soon SXSW Interactive was no longer a conference, it was a marathon. I missed most of the panels I wanted to attend because I'd run into people constantly in the hallways or, more likely, I was moving too slowly to get to them from party-hopping the night before. Lineups became a standard and I started avoiding the parties with the long waits.
Then the 'stuff' came. Big corporate sponsors realized that SXSW was a gold mine of early adopters, influencers and other movers and shakers. I started packing lightly because I'd come home with a suitcase full of schwag, free stuff and new tee shirts and hoodies from all over the corporate landscape. There were also more free dinners and open bars, which meant I was missing more panels than ever.
But in 2009 and 2010, the event I love was getting over run. It started to look different and almost awkward. I'd walk down over-crowded conference hallways and not recognize a soul. The lineups at the parties were so out of control, I started skipping them altogether. Even if I had a VIP pass, once I got in, I couldn't move because of over crowding, let alone reach the bar for that free highball. The number of panels offered made it impossible to keep a schedule straight and I kept getting lost instead of lost in conversation at the conference center. Everyone seemed grumpy about it. I heard lots of murmurs around people I knew skipping it in the future.
But something happened this year. It seemed to grow up. All of the awkwardness of the previous two years that were bound to happen as the event grew bigger and bigger (beyond what probably anyone could imagine) melted away and all of a sudden, the world's biggest geek fest became a magical place once again.
It could be that I, myself, have matured and decided to pace myself a bit more this year. I had some serious daily responsibilities (emceeing the Accelerator, my panel, breakfast meetings and a couple of planned runs in the early morning) so most nights were relatively early and I went to bed after one or two drinks rather than trying to pack a year's worth of gin into my system. It could also be that a few companies decided to forego throwing the crazy HUGE parties and created nicer, more intimate affairs that allowed for much better mingling. I really enjoyed these gatherings and hope it becomes more of a trend in the future. Sure, they make for some exclusivity, but it helps curate great conversations whereas the big open bar parties attract people looking for, well, open bars and a big party.
Another thing that really added to my experience was staying with a group of friends at SF Embassy, a really awesome dorm-type apartment block organized by people from the SF Bay Area. I've been living alone for a while and I realized that I really miss 'coming home' to a bunch of activity. I'm a pretty sound sleeper, so it didn't matter if the group was partying later than I was, but on those nights when I wanted to come home and talk about the day, I had plenty of opportunity. Since I've been back, I'm really missing the buzz of the SFE.
Once again, I missed most of the panels I wanted to go see, but this was due to actually planning a schedule of meetings, breakfasts, lunches and other events. At first, I was concerned that by over-planning, I would miss out on the serendipity I previously experienced, but in retrospect, the planning allowed me to get together with the people I really needed to see and still allowed me to run into others serendipitously between meetings and at the parties. In fact, recalling previous years, part of the problem I had with the growth of the event was that there were SO MANY people I wouldn't run into OR meet anyone because it was overcrowded. I'll definitely be planning all of my future SXSW's.
Rumor has it that there was something like 24,000 people there for Interactive this year, once again doubling from the previous year (I think I was told 12,000 people attended the previous year). SXSW Interactive has grown into a festival, not a conference. I wonder if they could actually pare back the panels and focus more on the festival stuff. The panels seem to be more of a pre-text for actually attending. I don't need an excuse. I would go no matter what.
Some observations, too, about the type of people who are attending these days. In 2009/2010, there seemed to be loads of corporate types and self-defined social media 'gurus'. I think they were still there this year (which is great), but there were also more women and more startups and more angels and venture capitalists. And the corporate sponsors did a GREAT job of being part of the community (as well as serving it well). I thought Samsung did an amazing job of their lounge (bigger and more entertaining than previous years), Chevy did a bang-up job of offering drivers to SXSW Interactive participants and Pepsi had a pretty cool stage area. Nobody stood out as hustler pitch-y or slimy. It was as if they were one of us...but with more money (and the ability to make our experience that much better).
As for standout apps? I really enjoyed my switch to Gowalla this year. I prefer the pins and uncovering fun stuff when I check in rather than competing for an unattainable mayorship. Once I figured out how to use the Android app properly (my bad, but I did corner their Android dev at their party to give usability feedback), it was a great experience and I got the hottest tank top that I can't wait to sport in Montreal this summer. I was also glad to leave my business cards at home and use Hashable instead. After past SXSW Interactives, I came home with oodles of business cards and the inability to make sense of them. By sending someone a digital business card with notes, I now have a wonderful list of follow ups with context to go through and no stack of wasted paper. I may never order another business card!
I'm actually sort of suffering post-SXSWi depression right now. I think I'll stick around for music next year so I don't have to leave right away. It was amazing to see everyone I did and if I didn't get to see you this year, hit me up for a breakfast/coffee/lunch/drink/taco next year! Now I just need to find a way to keep that magical feeling in my life every single day.
Thank you Hugh Forrest and all of the people who work so hard to make this event so amazing!