SxSW Interactive: A federated future?

It’s a week now since I got off the plane home from my second SxSW Interactive. I’ve primarily spent the intervening time catching up with work, but it’s also provided a little space to read a few other peoples’ take on the event, to listen to the Tech Weekly podcast that the Guardian produced at the event, and to look out for patterns.

It seems I was far from alone in starting this year’s South By complaining about the size, but then finding that that subsided as the week wore on. It definitely had a very different feel from just two years ago (and even then people were commenting on how big it was). With events spread around town, distance between talks was a very real consideration in choosing what to go to. Or whether to go to anything at all. Most of the central food establishments had intimidating queues.

There was clearly a scaling problem. But as time wore on the usual “must go to panels” panic subsided into a focus on talking to people and enjoying Austin, and the hidden gems revealed themselves. We discovered that our friends had discovered the quality of the coffee served by Matt and his team at Frank, and that hanging around the front of that establishment was a good way to find people. And of course we fired up Foursquare, which suddenly opened up a lot more of what was going on.

(not firing up Foursquare until a couple of days in may count as my biggest blunder of SxSW 2011 – I installed it at SxSW 2009, used it for a while after it launched in London, and then abandoned it a year ago. In its home territory of a huge tech conference it is a useful tool, and the new ‘social atlas’ features are well put together)

Kellan’s point that this was the first anti-social SxSW, where public declaration was replaced by small group sharing, seems to have been borne out, at least in the way Foursquare almost entirely replaced use of twitter for letting people know where you were.

A pivotal moment for me came in the session on Edinburgh, Austin & The Future of Festivals where a comment was made that perhaps SxSW hasn’t grown too big, it’s just not yet big enough. Pointing to the example of the Edinburgh fringe, the commenter appeared to be suggesting a new feel for the event as it began to spill out of the convention centre and a new equilibrium that might follow. I found that a pretty compelling idea, and one that I mentioned to a number of people (including Adam Greenfield, who has subsequently touched on the point on the Urbanscale blog).

For me that chimed with the fact that one of the most interesting events (and one that I missed) was the fringe session run by Etsy on ‘code as craft‘. It sat alongside SxSW, a few blocks from the convention centre, but it wasn’t an official event and didn’t require a badge. Combine that with another pertinent post from Kellan suggesting that AirBnB was the breakout app of SxSW as it provided accommodation when the hotels were overflowing (it worked very well for us) and you do have strong hints at a more distributed SxSW Interactive. It’s going to require a lot of work from a lot of people, some letting go on the part of the core organisers. But as I discovered on my last day in Austin, it’s not at all dissimilar to the way SxSW Music went years ago.

One thing I would love to see–but almost certainly won’t have time for myself–would be some mapping of how people navigated SxSW. It seems like Lanyrd, Sched, and a few others have a whole pile of data that could be combined with twitter networks to give a sense of what patterns there are in how people choose their sessions. I didn’t like the “streams” in the programme at all, but it certainly felt like there were common themes running through the schedules of a lot of people I knew. Anyone want to take a stab at that? It could be useful for next year’s conference programming team.

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1 comment

  1. Yes, I thought the point you raised was very interesting, and has been fuel for musing about metastable systems, equilibria and local maxima in the context of conference ecosystems ever since. Cheers!