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Talking Point: Is South By South West overrated?

Matthew Pennell

March 16, 2008 at 7:31 AM

If you work on the web, the SXSW Interactive festival last week was pretty hard to avoid (particularly if you’re a Twitter user), and this week there will be the inevitable avalanche of blog posts from attendees — who they met, where they partied, and whether it was better or worse than last year.

But is it, as they say, “all that”? If you didn’t attend, did the fuss and excitement have you turning green with envy — or is SXSW simply a week-long party for A-listers and wannabe blogerati, desperately flickring each other to somehow validate their pitiful obsession with what is essentially simply yet another tech conference?

Comments are open, so let us know — does South By South West actually matter?



March 16, 2008 at 10:51 AM

I certainly did. I was excited to hear about the talks and everything, but apparently the social part of it eclipsed the actual content. I guess if I go over there would be different. But as user getting the reflecting information of it dimmed by the flickr sets of people, it really disappointed me. To the point that I didn’t read anything about it, except for a couple posts/articles that are web-relevant.


March 16, 2008 at 12:09 PM

It’s not really just another tech conference. The parties alone ensure that it’s not just another tech conference.

If you’re a halfway decent coder, you probably knew at least as much as the panelists. But if, for example, you never thought about how culture shapes mobile usage, or using the Wiimote without a Wii (say, with a Linux or Windows box), then it was interesting.

To me at least, the more best bits are the conversations in the hallway and the chance to have a beer with people whose work you admire. It’s a place to connect, share and maybe have your perspective changed. That’s precisely why I go.


March 16, 2008 at 12:11 PM

Shows you how well I proofread, eh? “The more best bits” should read “The best bits.”

Frances Berriman

March 16, 2008 at 1:51 PM

I’m with Tiff – I enjoy the in between parts. I didn’t go expecting to learn anything, but instead as an opportunity to catch up with people I don’t see often, build some networks and “get stuff done”.

If you look at SXSW as a festival rather than a conference then you get a more satisfactory experience.


March 16, 2008 at 2:13 PM

I’ve yet to hear of a conference outside of AEA that isn’t more about networking (etc.) and less about learning.

Let’s hope the organizers learned a valuable lesson from this year’s keynote.

Maybe if attendees were encouraged to register for panels that cover topics they don’t know much about, by way of skills development…?


March 16, 2008 at 3:18 PM

I’ve only been attending SXSW for two years now, but some patterns are evident.

Social/building connections:
My first year’s focus (in retrospect) was meeting most of the people who shaped Digital Web and the standards-advocating web movement since its start. This year, my focus was to reinforce and expand that group to include those from expanded (read: rich media & multimedia) web disciplines. Overall, SXSW is important to me in the same way Twitter is—a way to keep up contact and friendships with people who are my actual peers, even though we’re scattered around the world. By combining SXSW and Twitter (amongst other networking sites), I can maintain those connections actively, even if it’s just ephemera and not strictly professional. And they’re primed to grow when I get to meet people in person. (This post, in particular, explained how Twitter works for me.)

The panels at SXSW are hit-or-miss. I’d like to see fewer of them (on bigger, more focused topics) and far more open Q&A formats with experts. But the topics tend to debut trends that are important. In 2007, the best panels (IMHO) discussed the mobile web (pre-iPhone), social class & pastiche/kitsch in design and rich experience design. Twitter was the major hallway discussion point. In 2008, the social web was the big theme (based on a year of us using Twitter), but new topics emerged in panels about the emotional impact of the web, online identity, and renewed interest about the role of ‘designers’. Hallway discussion was much more diverse this year, but dealt with online identity, small & quick web apps, SXSW’s bloat v. usefulness, panel quality, Twitter’s uptime and a lot more. I’m curious to see if SXSW’s peripheral discussions this year show up in panels next year.

Merits of both parts aside, this year I got the sense there was a huge audience of people attending that did not match my attendance type. I don’t think I saw them at the parties or anywhere outside the conference building. Where did they go? And what were they getting out of the conference if that was their central experience? Who are they? Is there a divide between them and who I hang out with? Why? I’d like to know more about that before next year’s event. Maybe just by asking if SXSW is tired, we’re already in a very small minority.

Martin Ringlein

March 16, 2008 at 3:29 PM

SXSWi is becoming more and more about “networking” (parties) than it is about professional development. This year made that painfully obvious. While there were some great panels and passionate speakers; there were many more non-prepared, non-serious and frankly laughable presentations. Did the speakers forget that even though they’ve been speaking for the last 3 or 4 years we still spend a lot of money to attend?

For me, “Design Eye” really summed up the experience. While they actually did focus more on the parties and events than the sessions … they also left out the one key component we all look for … THE PROCESS! They went straight from old to new with little to no explanation of how to get there. Again, I get that they’ve done this time and time again and it was time for something new for them … but I honestly believe that they let a lot of us down who were looking to be inspired and walk away with some insight on how to better approach our own work.

We fall in love with some of these speakers primarily through their books and blogs … but have they forgotten that is why? Have they forgotten it is the real world application and problem solving solutions that is what keeps their feeds in our reader? Most presentations were speaking 10,000 feet up … too high level to really get anything valuable out of it other than slight amounts of inspiration. “Design in the details” was a sad example … there was no delving into the details, it was all high-level. The speaker even at one point hinted that we should steer clients away from worrying about “5 pixels” ... aren’t those 5px the design in the details? I would rather he spent an hour talking about changing the line-height on a paragraph by a few pixels than speak so high-level and ultimately leave me with nothing.

I love SXSW ... but it is changing. That won’t keep me from going each year, because I do go to reconnect with old friends, party and meet new friends. I just think it is a shame that the more parties we have the less it seems I am able to take away from the sessions.

Again, there were some fabulous sessions and some great speakers … but there were just too many that lacked any substance. I even heard a couple presenters admitting to “just winging it” ... that is a shame for the rest of us!

Nick Finck

March 16, 2008 at 4:53 PM

I agree with both Tiff and Martin. As someone who has attended SXSW Interactive since about 2000 or so I can say the event has strayed away from being a valuable learning experience to being more of a large industry party. However, a few things need to be considered here. Put yourself in the shoes of the conference organizer, the speaker, and the attendee:

1) As a conference organizer, is it better to have more popular speakers that drive more attendees or more knowledgeable and eager ones that are barely known?

2) As a conference organizer, how much control do you really think you have over the evening events and the social aspects of the conference?

3) As a conference organizer, once your conference out grows the largest facility in town to host such an event to the point of attendees complaining about how far it is to walk between sessions, what can you reasonably do to fix that problem?

4) As a speaker, if you were asked to do a presentation for free and spend your own dime on airfare and lodging and you had a full-time day job, how much time after work would you really put into preparing your presentation?

5) As a speaker, even if you put in the time to properly prepare, how much of your work could you really show without getting a earful from your employer about disclosing too much information?

6) As a speaker, how much technical detail could you really provide on the subject within 45 minutes tops?

7) As an attendee, how many sessions did you not attend just because you didn’t recognize the speaker’s name? How many did you go to just because you did recognize a speaker’s name?

8) As an attendee, how many sessions did you not attend just because your friends you are hanging out with didn’t want to go to that session?

9) As an attendee, if you didn’t like a session did you leave or did you stay for the whole thing only to bitch about it on the comment card cause they didn’t talk about X, Y, or Z?

10) As an attendee who never found any good sessions, how do you think that will sway the way you vote on the panel picker next year?


March 17, 2008 at 8:36 AM

Didn’t go this year; however, I wasn’t green with envy either. If I go to SXSW next year it will be to see my work buddies and to exchange ideas with them, rather than expecting to learn much from the speakers.

Maxine Sherrin

March 17, 2008 at 6:19 PM

I agree/disagree with Tiff. SXSW is just another tech event, but, like any other tech event, you’ll always get out of it whatever you put into it.

First up: you’ve gotta go there with your own agenda. Maybe that’s as humble as getting a sense of what’s hot right now, or as grand as landing an amazing new job. Either way, if you’re smart and you’ve got something to say, an event like SXSW can make this happen for you.

Second, don’t get bogged down in moaning about the quality of the panels. People, that is sooooooooooooo 2005 :) Again, approach the panels intelligently and I can guarantee you will see 2 or 3 things that impact your thoughts for the next 12 months. Yes, there is a lot of egotistical hand waving from so-called a-listers. But for every session like that there is also something genuinely interesting: and if you can’t see the difference and vote with your feet, there’s not much anyone can do to help you.

But, to answer the original question…...yeah, I still think it matters, it will take a long time before an event of that size stops mattering.

D'Argo Smith

March 19, 2008 at 7:33 PM

i think that SXSW is over rated for a lot of different reasons. i think THE biggest reason for it being over rated, is when the commercial crowd comes in and completely overtakes the stage for the film making.

mostly, i hate the fact that it cost so much to get in and it cost so much to become an act or an artist or a designer, interactive or artistic.

i just don’t like the capitalistic approach, which in the last few years, has become the standing format for the event.

it’s just not the same.

Josh Walsh

March 23, 2008 at 7:03 PM

My twitter went crazy that week, and my overall impression was that it was a big party, and totally worth the ticket.

Networking is one of the most powerful aspects of these conferences. The talks are a great place to learn some stuff, but you can rub noses with some of the smartest people in the industry. There’s no price tag for that…

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