SXSW 2009

Over the past couple of weeks I was in San Jose for ETech and Austin for SXSW Interactive. I took a notes about most ETech talks I went to over at Overmorgen but that burned me out and I didn’t take any at SXSW. As a way of catch-up here are a few thoughts on SXSW:

Hanging out with Brits

I haven’t been to a conference abroad for several years. When I last went I spent a lot of my time with friends from London which resulted in lots of “We’ve come all the way to [foreign city] and we spend all our time with people from back home!” talk. I hardly heard any of that this year. Maybe we’ve just accepted that it’s not a problem. It’s like going on holiday with a large bunch of friends.

Different sizes

ETech and SXSW aren’t really competing so I don’t intend to compare the content of the two (suffice it to say that many of SXSW’s talks seemed oddly mundane and practical after ETech). But compared to the small and friendly ETech, SXSW was a bit of a shock, size-wise. I last went in 2000 and, blimey, it’s grown. It can take ten minutes to get from one room to another, even if you don’t bump into someone on the way. Annoying if you get to the other end of the building only to find a panel has been cancelled.


After ETech finishes for the day, social life involved going to a nearby bar and/or restaurant. All quite civilised and informal. On the other hand SXSW has many scheduled parties every evening, sponsored by various organisations, plus there are all the SXSW Film events going on. Austin is busy, the parties are all over the place, so are your friends, and there’s an awful lot to do.

I get stressed

Although SXSW’s large-scale sociability is good (I’ve often heard that one goes to SXSW for the parties, not the conference sessions) it sometimes stressed me out. The pressure of trying to find friends and have a good time and not be left alone in a party town really got to me sometimes. Which is probably why I concentrated on going to lots of panels rather than going the common route of skipping some to hang out with people. Sorry if I was grumpy to you at any point.

Finding people

Given the prevalence of things like Twitter and Friends on Fire and Latitude and Foursquare etc it was still remarkably difficult to find out where my friends were, particularly at the vast SXSW. Of course, maybe they didn’t want to tell everyone where they were. Or didn’t want to tell me (see previous section).

Technology in use

Apple MacBooks were, as ever, the most popular laptops in evidence at both conferences. I’ve never seen as many iPhones as I did at SXSW — everywhere I looked there were people poking at the little things (as Alice also said). It’s huge. G1s were probably a distant second place (it was my first sight of them, and they looked good). It seemed like most people with open laptops had Twitter running and TweetDeck was very popular for keeping track of different panels (most sessions had their own #hashtag).

Travelling light

Once I decided to not take notes at SXSW I also decided to leave my laptop behind. Which meant I didn’t need my bag. I realised I could manage all day with little more than my wallet and iPhone. It’s great that phones really can be laptop replacements these days. Finally.

Boring panels

Most of SXSW’s sessions are panels, with 4-5 people sitting behind a table discussing something. Unfortunately it seems like the organiser of each panel picks people they know and this makes even the good panels quite dull. Everyone has the same point of view and agrees with each other. For example, this panel on privacy wasn’t bad but all the participants were academics (there was no one who had tried to tackle these problems while making a product) who all seemed to reiterate “We’re losing our privacy online, what can we do to fix it.”

Bad planners

I heard plenty of people complaining about how infuriating the SXSW schedule planner was, both online and off. I didn’t use the paper version but the online one requires you to click through for a description of every session, a pain when there’s a dozen to compare at the same time. The big SXSW paper catalogue seemed inconsistent in its naming of sessions. The guide at Sched was more useful and seemed to be the most popular choice. Either way, being able to keep my custom calendar on my phone made life easy, eventually.

Questions, questions

At the end of SXSW sessions there’s usually time for questions from the audience. I heard several people say they wished the panels left more time for questions. And yet as soon as it was time for questions many people in the audience began leaving. Maybe this was because so many questions are plugs for the questioner’s product (this almost became a running joke), overly-long, or simply aren’t questions. We almost need someone filtering questions for quality.

Twitter backchannel

A few SXSW panels had someone monitoring Twitter for comments and questions from the audience. This seems popular and Twitterers seem keen for this to happen more often. I guess they like having a say and feeling involved in a session’s progress. I hate it. I love using Twitter but this always feels like a distraction and prevents at least one participant from engaging fully with the other panellists while they monitor Twitter. If I’ve come to see some experts talk about a topic I don’t want the mob insisting on getting their oar in too. It’s only an hour. Discussion happens later. Get over yourselves.

Misleading advertising

A couple of SXSW panels I went to were annoying because they didn’t match their descriptions, which is a waste of people’s time. The New Think for Old Publishers I wrote about yesterday is one example. Another was From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small which spent most of the time talking about how to be freelance, rather than how to move on from that.

Good stuff

I spent a lot of time in the biggest room, Ballroom A, which makes me think I missed a lot of more obscure and interesting sessions. But here’s a few things I particularly enjoyed:

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21 Mar 2009 in Links