SXSWi 2010 Overview

A few weeks ago, a bunch of us at Roundarch went down to Austin Texas for the yearly new media conference, South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive. Although SXSW started out as purely a music festival to fill in the void in business during the spring break, it is now the highest revenue producing special event for Austin. It’s music festival has over 1,400 performers at over 80 venues over four days. The event now has an interactive conference and film festival all bunched up in the span of a bit over a week.

SXSWi seemed really big this year. It seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year and quickly becoming the “it” event for anyone in new media whether it’s digital marketers, social media folks, tech entrepreneurs, web technologists, bloggers, venture capitalists, publishers, agencies, etc. SXSWi is the one place where one can run into successful tech entrepreneurs and CEOs like Tony Hsieh of Zappos, famous authors like Guy Kawasaki and Tim Ferriss, and twitter whales like Pete Cashmore of Mashable and Evan Williams of Twitter. It’s a really great conference for those interested in hearing what the thought leaders of the online interactive industry and the herd are doing. I recall last year I didn’t meet that many people from Chicago but this year it seemed like everywhere I turned I met someone from Chicago. Many of them were SXSW first timers. My overall impression was that companies are starting to have a social media budget and sending these people down here.

Panels at the SXSWi conference typically fall under business, web design and development, nonprofit, or emerging technology. I stuck mostly to the web design and development track. Some of the notable panels I went to include scaling web applications, iPad, designing seductive interactions, and game mechanics. One of the things I really enjoy about SXSW is seeing and learning how others are doing things and their willingness to share.

Two big themes of this conference were mobile and social media. Just the sheer number of people whether they be social media enthusiasts or professionals doing some sort of social media work for companies was astounding. The demographic is definitely skewed towards the people with iPhones and it almost always guaranteed to bring the AT&T network down. Last year AT&T had to have a mobile antenna nearby. Location based apps like Foursquare and Gowalla also made a big splash this year. Last year people were using solely twitter to find out where their friends were at SXSW. This year, one of the most useful tools was the trending feature of Foursquare that showed you which venues had the most checkins.

Some people come down to SXSW as much for the conference as for the parties. Companies ranging from big software corporations like Microsoft as well as startups like Gowalla make an effort to throw big parties in order to please the vocal and active online crowd. On any given night, there’s probably around 3 different parties going on and lines are usually ridiculously long. Personally I’m a bit too old for that and it’s not how I roll. I prefer a more intimate and quite setting so that I can really get to know and connect with the people I hang out with. One evening, a small group of us ended up in a Thai restaurant with one of the Backupify guys (another great midwest startup) Ben Thomas. One another night, a small group of Chicago folks met up with some Youtube engineers to have a great private barbecue. In this type of setting I am able to learn more about what they do, converse and connect. In short SXSW is a great way to develop connections you otherwise wouldn’t make. Your mileage may vary depending on your age and tolerance for alcohol. I personally like going to the sessions. I think the early morning sessions separate the men from the boys and you typically see some hardcore technical ones in the morning.

This year’s keynote with Evan Williams, cofounder of Twitter was a bit of a let down. The one big Twitter announcement of the new @platform was covered only very briefly. First of all, the person doing the interviewing is probably a better writer than a speaker and should have probably stuck to his day job. Many people in the audience complained and even Guy Kawasaki made a jab. Personally I think Guy should do all the keynote interviews. He is entertaining and gets right to the point.

The SXSW experience is what you make out of it. You can go to tons of sessions and learn a lot. You can make friends and lifelong connections at various parties. You can spend time with vendors and learn what their product roadmaps are. Five days is definitely on the long side and by the third day, I feel pretty exhausted but I recommend it if you are in the industry.