Thursday, March 15, 2012

3 Reasons Why South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive is Still GREAT

Austin is home to the SXSW Festival.  What began as a music event over 25 years ago is now a series of concurrent festivals that include Music, Film and Interactive.  The "Interactive" portion (which includes technology, social media, gaming, marketing, developers, mobile applications, and much more) has grown into the largest part of this mammoth gathering.  In 2012 over 40,000 people will converge on Austin, with nearly 25,000 participating in SXSW Interactive.

I have been involved with SXSW Interactive for seven years  I have been an attendee, done book readings, lead break-out sessions and been on panels on a variety of topics.  I have also made many new business contacts and friendships over the years.  During this time the conference has seen amazing growth.  While the meetings industry has been facing declining numbers, SXSW has expanded and become a mega conference.  Since 2006 the attendance numbers have nearly tripled for Interactive, but with this growth has come changes to the culture.

The first time I attended there was clearly a since of community.  People were excited to discover who else was in attendance.  One never knew who might be sitting next to you as the internet superstars were just emerging, and blogging was still the freshest media.  There was no "social media" as we know it today, and the social aspects were all conducted in the human-to-human interaction that took place in the convention center hallways and the limited number of parties that were hosted at nearby venues.  There was no trace of that "high school clique" hierarchy at that time.

Today it is different.  There are so many events that there are less shared experiences.  People seem to be less approachable, and there is a whole class of the "cool kids" who now come together to see and be seen.

The keynotes no longer have the same draw to the whole crowd, which takes away from the feeling of community.  When everyone is present for a keynote there is a bond.  Now the keynotes almost seem optional.

Additionally everyone's attention is buried in their phones in the hallways, and there is clearly less serendipity in the conversations.  The online communities (Twitter got it's launch at the 2007 SXSW) are so overused and full of comments that within seconds of posting your post is pushed far down the screen. The number of companies that host parties has grown at a rocket's pace, but with so many choices and more VIP and invite only events there needs to be more planning of what to attend.  This takes away from the chance to stumble upon that unique event.

But life is all about changes.  While some complain about how SXSW is no longer the same, it is still an amazing experience.  Part of the reason is that downtown Austin itself comes alive during the festival.  While rain hurt the first two days of this year's event, once the clouds parted the community spilled onto the streets and you could feel the vibe.

Here are three reasons why South by Southwest Interactive is still great:

1.  The excitement is in the air.  First-timers and returning South-by regulars are happy to be in Austin in March.  Rain or shine, people are enthusiastic to participate.

2.  The parties.  Let's face it, SXSW is famous for the official and unofficial events that take place at venues all over town.  While some events try to limit the external events, this event was built it's success on the piggy-backing of all sorts of things to do beyond the agenda.

3.  The people.  One never knows who they might meet at SXSW Interactive.  While the event is more populated by the "big brands", it is still about the individual person.  When I was able to get past those who were hiding on their phones, I did have a chance to connect with some of the most interesting people I met all year.

If you have never been to SXSW, I will look forward to seeing you at the festival in 2013.

Have A Great Day.

thom singer

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