SXSW Interactive 2011 Recap: Confessions of a Panel Nerd

SXSW Interactive is not yet complete at the time I am writing this.  My day gig beckoned, so my trip was truncated but the conference/celebration/nerd orgy (you can interpret that however you wish) continues.

2011 is the first year where attendance for  the Interactive part of SXSW will be higher than the music festival; like it or not, SXSW Interactive is a “rock star” event, with enough parties and promotional events to deplete the most extroverted attendee’s business card stash. Being an introvert and a nerd (as much as I love parties) I think the panels are still the best part of SXSW.

scene from a tradeshow

Like a dude who claims he reads Playboy for the articles, no one believes me when I say this. I know people who don’t even get badges for SXSW interactive, they just go to network at the parties. Thank god that’s not a requirement for my career, because missing out on the panels seems like a total waste to me and partying all the time seems exhausting. For those people who say that SXSW is low on quality content? I don’t buy it; those people just make bad panel choices. Guess what, that panel about brand conversations on Twitter won’t say anything new from last year – or the year before; expand your horizons. (My approach this year was to avoid any panel having to do with social media and my SXSW experience was improved exponentially from last year.)

Here’s what else I came away with last weekend:

GOOD: Less “conversing”, more creating. This year was pretty light on break-out technology/apps (Business networking platform Hashable got a bit of buzz)

music hack day presentation

However, I heard lot of discussion about creating: content, apps, movements. I went to a great session about Music Hack Day, a hackathon focused on music APIs and even electronic instruments. I hit another panel on mobile apps used by health workers in Africa and I saw Sen. Al Franken ask for the international geek community’s help to defend Net Neutrality (expect a blog post about this). There were several panels on online storytelling that I didn’t get to attend, but heard through the grapevine were well received. Overall, I felt like there was a real push toward doing, which I appreciate. An unsung highlight of the event were the 90 minute workshop-style sessions at the Sheraton, focused on coding and practical tech work. The UX and analytics workshop I attended was by far the best session I have ever attended at SXSW.

BAD:  Brands gone wild. Being constantly, aggressively  sold to is annoying. Even more so when you’re standing in line for a taco. This year in particular the level of hucksterism was overwhelming, from startups forcing their apps in your grill to big companies and their loud, brightly lit branded lounges and charging stations. HEY BUY THIS SHIT was the dominant message in the halls.  Even worse, it seemed that some companies seemed a bit too eager to use the crisis in Japan as a cool branding opportunity, or an opportunity to get some social media exposure. (I’m not talking about the sxsw4japan effort, however, which I thought was genuine and timely.)

Almost as soon as my time at SXSW ended I started thinking about whether I’d be back next year; it’s gonna be hard to say no, as annoyed as I am about standing in line for hours, and even with my continued reservations about how organizers have underestimated SXSW Interactive’s explosive growth for two years in a row, I always get what I come for: I learn a lot, I meet cool people, I catch up with friends, and I come away inspired. Also I eat lots of tacos.

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Comments (2)

That’s really good to hear- I’ve heard people complain that it’s turned into a company fest. One of the weird things about being in Austin is that I tend to avoid SXSW like the plague when it’s in town. I used to make the effort to go to a couple of events, but I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged. I am sorry I missed Siva. ^^;

I think it depends on the circles one runs in at SXSW, there was definitely a big corporate/agency presence there but there were plenty of panels and events for those more into tech/coding and policy. I (keidra) made a choice to hit more developer panels and Raizel hit a lot of the law/policy panels so the social media douchebag ratio was pretty low.

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