So you made it through SXSW Interactive 2011 – but will you be back?
For some veterans of the Austin tech summit, if the answer’s still “yes,” it’s a qualified and hesitant “yes.” As the conference has exploded in popularity, there’s concern that clueless crowds compounded by diluted content have brought SXSWi to a turning point that will lead to attrition among its original community of innovators.
This is the second year that tech industry blogs have expressed fear that the conference fondly known as “nerd spring break” is being transfigured, and that “the geeks are being crowded out by the jocks.” And of course, resentment of encroaching masses isn’t exclusive to SXSWi (or even to tech, for that matter). @kaykas*, VP of Marketing at social marketing platform Involver, compared the “you kids get off my lawn!” sentiment among conference vets to the fallout that happened when popular social networks reach critical mass. “At the beginning it’s a fairly exclusive group of very aware tech enthusiasts. And in the world that they operate within, they play almost insider baseball, so…they have an explicit set of rules and associations they expect for the events and the things that they’re working in and doing. What we’re seeing now is that popular culture is playing a lot stronger role in the development of SXSW. And I would imagine that in similar nature to the way that Twitter evolved early on, a lot of the early entrants are feeling alienated as popular culture starts to play a role.”
Major brands are now ubiquitous at the tech portion of the conference, clamoring after SXSWi’s coveted young demographic. On nearly every corner outside the conference hub this year, women on rollerblades offered a chance to win an iPad2 in exchange for an attendee’s survey response or downloading of a new smart phone app. Their attire evoked the eye candy at a monster truck rally; fishnet stockings and bootie shorts and bright yellow off-the-shoulder bandage dresses. Many conference attendees refused their advances with sheepish smiles, looking alternately bemused, intrigued, and harried by their presence. This crowd is big on gadgets, and marketers are ostensibly drawn by those spending tendencies as well as by the numbers, with attendance up around 40 percent this year.
But the sheer numbers of the crowds didn’t seem to cause as much frustration as did their effect on conference logistics. @myersnews, Managing Editor at Poynter.org, was back for his second SXSWi and said the expansion to new venues seriously impeded his workflow and the opportunity to attend multiple panels in one slot. “In the past, sometimes you could bail on an event after ten minutes and have a chance of getting to another good one. Now, things are so spread out, you’re really committed – it might take 20 minutes to get to the next event and you’re kind of done, you’ve wasted (the slot).”
Many return attendees are disappointed at the substance of the content in those slots. Five year SXSWi attendee @zadi sits on the board of the International Academy of Web Television. She said panels with splashy titles seem geared toward maximizing attendance, but often don’t deliver on specificity. “A lot of people that are creating web series in L.A. wanted to come to the Interactive part of SXSW because a merging of tech and entertainment is happening in Los Angeles. We wanted to get all these creators together, but there wasn’t really anything targeted toward that.” She said her colleagues put together an impromptu “un-conference,” breaking themselves up into groups to brainstorm useful topics, and regrouping to address them in an environment “that wasn’t top down.”
Others were disappointed by some panelists’ bald self-promotion in talks that were long on generic, easily searchable biographical data and short on insight, especially, they said, when speakers appeared to be catering to the non-technorati crowd. At least half of the people approached for this story were attending the conference for the first time. And for @patriciamartin of Litlamp Communications, the newcomers are welcome. “Otherwise it’s in danger of becoming a cult.” she said. “I still get to panels, and I know that makes me a plebe. People who have been coming don’t go to the panels – they talk to each other. Which shores up the argument that it was on its way to becoming a cult.” She said more attention to content, and a mix of crowdsourcing and curation, would go far to keep the conference panels relevant. “It’s fair to say after years of success the elder statespeople who know a lot come here to have their brains fed – they’re going hungry.”
And ultimately, many SXSWi veterans seem most concerned about its essence; enabling vital thinkers to share a spark. @skyrog is an Austin native who now works in San Francisco as Community Manager for Xtranormal. He says despite the changes, Interactive remains an annual pilgrimage for talent from those two important tech cities, as well as New York. “So that adage that, ‘I went to SXSW but I didn’t buy a badge’ is still alive and well. You can’t walk 30 feet without running into someone who…is an influential person, and it’s useful in that way for sure. But the fear is that if you have this much ‘penetration’ or bad content inside, that sort of talent isn’t going to come every year. That will start to erode if the backlash is big enough.”
*Quoted source key:
@kaykas: Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Vice President of Marketing at Involver
@myersnews: Steve Myers, Managing Editor, Poynter.org
@zadi: Zadi Diaz, International Academy of Web Television
@patriciamartin: Patricia Martin, Litlamp Communications
@skyrog: Skyler Rogers, Community Manager at Xtranormal