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The worst SXSW ever was my best SXSW ever

A sign reading Austin.

It’s been three years since I last visited the United States. For a small but considerable part of my life this place was home; an experience that’s left me as equally fascinated by its people and culture as I remain frustrated.

In what may be a revisionist history, I tend to think I arrived in America a Conservative and departed with more liberal views, having encountered a culture that both embraces and suffers the effects of such conservative ideology. I disagree with any notion that bigger is better, or that quantity is more important than quality, and this year’s SXSW only served to strengthen this opinion.

Now in its 16th year, this 5-day event saw 1,041 sessions presented by 1,648 speakers, has grown to such extent that its size now rivals that of the more popular music festival. According to the taxi driver who drove me away from this behemoth, next years edition is expected to be 40% bigger. I have no doubt the conference can scale to this size; no longer constrained by the capacity of the Austin Convention Centre with sessions now situated across several themed campuses throughout the city.

Of the brands

Alongside the enlarged programme, the event took on an overtly commercial tone, with permanent venue signage being replaced with that of large corporate sponsors. Within sight of my hotel lay the Pepsi Max Lot and the CNN Grille, whilst every available free carpet tile in the conference centre was obscured by some sort of promotional activity. Be under no illusion, this is no grassroots event. You are here to be sold to.

Yet amongst the salesforce, there were still a number of good sessions to be found — even if locating them was like trying to find a needle in a haystack (inside a barn sponsored by PepsiCo). I suspect separating topics across different campuses meant fewer attendees experienced a diverse range of sessions, and this is likely to get more difficult as further campuses are added and themes increasingly segregated.

Much of this years programme catered towards topics the marketing and sales guys (commonly referred to as Douchebags) would enjoy, and many presentations were victims of exaggerated titles created to encourage votes during the panel selection stage. Topics seemed to focus on the Latest Internet Trends, even if by the time they arrived in Austin they felt tired and passing (gamification, I’m looking at you). Those sessions that were of value, certainly to a designer/developer like myself, were pitted against each other, making it impossible to see the few that guaranteed valuable content.

For the people

Lots of people in a pub.
The Great British Booze-up at Shakespeare’s Pub.

Regardless of its size, diminishing quality and rampant commercialisation, the one thing SXSW still ensures is the convergence of peers at a single place and point in time. This year saw many of my fellow Clearlefties in attendance — indeed, being able to experience the event alongside my colleagues was the main reason for going. We were joined by a small British contingent who were able to make the Ginger Man our ‘local’ for the week.

It was here that I finally met the thoroughly amiable Luke Dorny and the equally likeable Matt Bidolph who was surprisingly open and honest about the continuing uncertainty surrounding Dopplr. At the hotel I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with Twitter’s Matt Harris regarding the recent guidance around use of their API (although I still believe he was defending the indefensible).

I have yet to attend a SXSW without spending some time with Kyle Ford, and this time was no different. This year I also had the pleasure of VIP access to the official opening night after party (sponsored by Ning) which gave me the opportunity to catch up with his wife Sarah and finally meet Shali Nguyen, one of Ning’s fantastic new designers. I spent the first afternoon of sessions alongside Steve Vassallo, who seemed thoroughly overwhelmed by the variety of talks (probably because he knew more of the speakers than I did).

At the Great British Booze Up, Anna Debenham was kind enough to introduce me to Paul Boag (as eccentric in real life as he sounds in audio form) and his long-suffering sidekick Marcus Lillington. It was here I was able to socialise with Nigel Elliott, one of the developers at Channel 4 I had worked with on the news project.

I arrived in Austin via Atlanta in the company of Mike Stenhouse and Jon Linklater-Johnson, and headed on to the next stage of my American trip alongside Natalie Downe and Simon Willison, whose Lanyrd product was the real star of SXSW.

Victim of its own success

Whilst the key reason for visiting SXSW remains being able to meet up with so many people at the same time, the diminishing quality of topics and sessions means its harder to justify the price of a ticket — indeed people like Andy McMillian enjoyed the event just as much without a badge. As the brands increase their penetration, putting on more shows and events that don’t require a SXSW badge, ticketless attendance could become a growing trend.

Given current economic and ecological climate concerns, so it becomes more difficult to justify flying half way round the world to attend what is little more than a glorified piss-up under a glowing neon logo.

I arrived thinking this would be my last SXSW, hoping to find the event of little enjoyment (memories of previous attendance very much in mind), yet I couldn’t have been proven more wrong — I had a great time. Yet I’m still left wondering if I will come again, especially when I can enjoy similar experiences closer to home that don’t come with the expense, environmental impact or commercialisation, yet prove just as inspiring and educational.