My first SXSWi: the “low-brow” conference?

This past few days, as people have asked me “how’s the conference going for you?”, my recurring response has been: I’m ambivalent.

This is my first SXSWi; I go to 3-5 tech and media conferences a year, speak at 1-3 of them. The “party” atmosphere was fun on the first day of events, and unusual, but the evening parties were horrible – massive droves of uninterested and uncaring people crowding-out the much smaller number of people who had a genuine interest in being here and talking about the things they love.

I saw this post from a veteran lamenting how the conference is much larger but much worse this year.

I thought it might be a product of size, but I’ve been to big conferences which still have a really positive atmosphere.

Having been to other Austin conferences, I think it’s an issue of image – how people coming to Austin for the conference already perceive Austin. SXSWi feels like “6th street carried into the convention center”.

Other, smaller, Austin conferences manage to co-exist with the presence of 6th street without inter-mingling with it. If you want to go down 6th while you’re there, you can – but the conference itself exists apart from it. It feels like SXSWi has embraced 6th and forced us all to be part of that, no choice allowed.

If that’s so … I’m not sure what the organizers can do to “fix” it, short of aggressively controlling the marketing for next year, changing the image and the market/audience that they target. With an (alleged) 40% growth in audience attendance … would they want to change it? A lot of people who used to like the “small” SXSWi, and dislike the “large” SXSWi maybe just don’t like large conferences anyway … maybe there *is* no problem.

(although I don’t think so … my impression is that a lot of people came this year because of the same reputation that SXSWi is rapidly throwing away: high quality people, cutting-edge breaking technology / startups)

Personally, in an ideal world? I’d like to see SXSWi 2011 take place in San Francisco. (bearing in mind that I have to fly from Europe, so this isn’t an issue of convenience). SF is big enough to accomodate the influx of people (hotel prices in SF don’t go up by a factor of 3! Unlike Austin right now :( ), and allows for a lot of partying, without the lowest-common-denominator mentality.

Just IMHO…

EDIT: When I said “ambivalent”, I meant it…

…but, being exhausted by that point, I only covered half what I was thinking. The other half was this: there was some great content, I sat in some very interesting talks with good speakers. The conference itself seemed very well organized, coping admirably with the vast number of registrants (they dealt with badge pickup, for instance, extremely well considering the numbers involved).

I know that some people experienced terrible content – for instance, the complaints about the Twitter interview – but I got lucky and skipped all of that. These days, I can usually make a good guess at the quality of a session by the title and the abstract. Sessions that had little real purpose can usually be filtered out this way, whereas sessions with a strong, genuine, theme can be cherry-picked.

So. A lot of the conference I found very enjoyable. But Jolie’s comments struck a chord with me – I was really surprised by the poor social elements of the conf. As noted above, my guess is that this is more to do with the people who attend than it is with the conference itself.

3 thoughts on “My first SXSWi: the “low-brow” conference?

  1. Mark "Rizzn" Hopkins

    Several things:

    Hotel prices? Really? You don’t need to stay in posh luxury. Try Motel 6. It’s adequate, clean, and always the same price.

    Don’t like parties? Don’t go to them.

    Don’t like people and interacting with them? Reconsider going to a conference that’s actually dubbed a “festival.”

    Simply put: if you didn’t find smart people or cool startups, you weren’t looking.

  2. adam Post author

    @Rizzn

    Generally speaking, the point of an event like this is so that you don’t need to “go looking” for stuff. That’s why you pay + travel to a single shared location for a brief period of time.

    If SXSWi is meant to be a festival, it’s a very strange one. I’ve never been to a festival before that revolves around a convention centre filled with panels and hour-long presentations, where (apart from the couple of “official” parties), everything happens indoors, either at the convention centre or at the neighbouring Hilton and Mariott.

    I looked up the nearest Motel 6 – it’s more than 6 miles away. I think you misunderstand the usual role of hotels at a conference: they are there so that you can freely go back and forth, in-between sessions and meetings, in minimal time. Few people care about the luxury aspect – it’s the location that matters. Major cities tend to have vast numbers of hotels, so that it’s easy to find a room within a few blocks of your convention.

  3. Mark "Rizzn" Hopkins

    Last year I stayed at the Motel 6. It’s a five or ten minute drive, depending on traffic. I stayed about 15 miles out this year. It was a nice drive through rolling country landscapes, and allowed me to get my first few fone calls out of the way on the way in, and was about as long as a walk from any hotel would be in town (and since it was my sister’s house, free).

    Any hotel downtown will be expensive. It’s prime real estate.

    Look at the history of the festival. It was an outdoor music festival that added tech. Sure, it’s different from most conferences – look at the variety of tracks. A team of 10 people couldn’t cover everything just on the sessions completely. Add to that the Accelerator, the parties, the hall meetings, the press briefings… if you expect everything to be laid out in a single track for you with no decisions necessary, you would probably be happier at a bar or wordcamp.

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