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10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:

| Essays

Background:

I’ve been attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as an attendee since 2000, a speaker since 2003 and an advisory board member since 2005. Since 2008 I have hosted Fray Café, a storytelling event on the Sunday evening of the conference. Fray Café has been at SXSWi as long as I have.

In that same span of time, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from a few thousand attendees to nearly 25,000 in 2012. In 2011, it surpassed SXSW Music, the organization’s oldest and signature festival, in numbers of badge holders. What was once a conference occupying 1/2 of one floor of the newly-built Austin Convention Center, now includes 15 “campuses” all over the city. Many of the friends I first made at SXSW no longer attend as doing do is too expensive, too focused on “making it” rather than making anything in particular, no longer relevant or all these reasons combined.

About 500x that many attendees have never known SXSW outside of what it is now–Huge corporate-sponsored parties, companies and products getting “discovered” that week in Austin, long lines at everything and a breathless sighting of Pete Cashmore. Their experience is no better or worse than mine, just different.

Every year when I return home, I take stock of what I learned in an essay called 10 Things I Learned at SXSW (previous years: 201120082007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002). This year’s version is below.

10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:

1. Justifying it.  I have a book due in June. And a lot left to write. That needs to be my focus right now and a week of staying out late and eating migas three times a day in Austin is a distraction. A lovely one, but still. Plus neither my wife (a conference speaker this year) nor I have a full time employer to whom we can pass along the cost of attending. That cost could buy you a very nice vacation or set you back until mid-July.

So how to justify the expense and time of going? Moneywise we got lucky and made cutbacks where we could. Timewise I borrowed a card from attending more businessy, less “bring-on-the-migas!” conferences (like this one).

I booked breakfast meetings. I went over the the speaker’s list and then my social media rolls about 3 weeks ahead of time to see if there was anyone in Austin who I had a) communicated with virtually but never met or b) met in a business context but would like to get to know socially. Know some of these people better might benefit me professionally someday. Making new friends is always a benefit on multiple levels.

Since I’m almost 40, I don’t stay out as late as I did at my first few SXSW’s. So it’s easier to get up in time for breakfast and grab coffee and toast with someone before morning sessions begin. About 1-3 of those meetings in the morning and I felt ok spending the remainder of the day screwing off.

Meetings also have a cosmic momentum of their own. At nearly every meeting this year, I would get a couple of text messages from someone else asking if I had a moment to meet. This isn’t because I’m Mr. Superstar or something. I think you put that energy out and the universe can sense it.

2. Panels.  This strategy felt ok with me because, the more I attended throught the week, the more I felt like panels (with few exceptions) were a waste of time. It wasn’t lack of content but way way too much content to keep straight and sort. Hundreds of sessions, talks, conversations and panels means an attendee either a) spends several hours pre-conference deciding what they’d like to see knowing full well they’ll get to maybe 20% of it  b) plays it safe and only goes to panels squarely in their area of interest or c) plays it equally safe and only attends sessions put on by famous people. The last option means waiting in long lines, punting on other sessions in order to wait in long lines and running the very real risk of being crowded out of the room anyway.

Those options all kinda suck. SXSW has hit a point when the attendee must either be uptight, myopic or a star fucker to derive benefit from conference sessions. The solution lies in certain tweets user experience, something South by Southwest, for all its talent firepower, has never been  that good at.

What if somehow the conference could take a list of interests and preferences you supply and spit back a list of sessions you’d probably like? And what if you could tweak that list based on what what hotel you’re staying at, where you’d like to eat lunch and how much time you’d like to walk between sessions?

That’s probably harder than I’m making it out to be. But if anyone has access to the talent for it, it’s this conference. Or they could confer their blessing/assistance upon Sched.org or Plancast or some other company that has already built most of the technical infrastructure for such a thing.

And even though I’ve said it a thousand times, a clear, systematic approach to recording and podcasting sessions would go a long way towards solving this problem. SXSW has largely rolled out recordings unannounced, haphazardly, and buried-deeply-in-its-site-1996-hide-and-go-seek-for-the-user fashion.

If I knew what was being recorded, how and when I could get it, I could make smarter decisions about what panels to see now and what to wait and catch up on at home.

If I’ve paid for a conference badge already, what’s the harm?

3. Annoyance. SXSW Hassle is now an annual ritual. Every September I try to reserve a hotel room for and am asked to surrender my right lung for the right not to sleep on the street during the festival. I then find myself saying “1000s of dollars, 2 hour waits for lunch and endless jostling by hordes of strangers because my friends can no longer afford to attend. This is the last year I will submit to this nonsense, SXSW! Good day to you sir!”

And every year I come back and it’s not as bad as I thought. The crowds and inflated prices are now a fact of life. I can be mad at them or I can not go. Thus far I have still managed to spend time with the people that matter to me, make a few new friends and attend and produce events that make SXSW so special to me. The Red Eyed Fly, home of Fray Cafe for the last 8 years, gives us the room at very favorable terms. Ditto the site of my last-night-of-SXSW dinner, a 9-year tradition. And my friends old and new still manage to find enough places to eat, have coffee or meet up that haven’t been so totally overrun as to make them unbearable.

4. Must Haves. As a result,this year was the first time I put it to words my list of Must Haves. There may very well come a day when not enough of my friends can afford to attend or venues can’t afford to cut us a break or I can’t spare the time or the money or the headspace anymore. At that point, South by Southwest and I will have lived out our meaningful life together and will part as friends. I take things a year at a time. Minus Fray Cafe and 20×2, a critical mass of friends and the opportunity to make 3-6 more, SXSW will not have enough for me to return. That hasn’t happened quite yet.

5. Fragility. I would be an idiot to not to keep in mind how fragile this all is, how easily jobs or kids or the economy or the passage of time can keep anyone or all of these wonderful things from happening. And how that is no one’s fault. South by Southwest is wonderful but it is not life. It is a ship-in-bottle-sized version of the spirit we want our lives to have–inspiring, loyal, supported and real. But to get angry when life interferes, when someone must stop going or can’t go this year or a venue closes, or new people show up or an event is simply not possible is yelling into your own pocket, an angry, myopic, silly waste of energy.

SXSW is a growing/evolving thing as we are. The challenge is to accept that, move with it and STILL make it special.

6. Newcomers. “Every year is someone’s first SXSW” my wise friend James McNally said, which I take to mean “Don’t be the schmuck moving the goalposts and saying ‘everything was awesome when I first got here. But now that YOU’RE HERE it’s not anymore.”

Put another way, to an entire generation of attendees, South by Southwest is about loud parties and waiting in line, and seeking out venture money and free beer. And they would look at my friends, with our out-of-the-way gatherings, and paying our own way and say “Why?”

They are entitled. They’re entitled to have the experience be anything they want it to be. As am I. It’s pretty easy to stay out of each other’s way and no one is hurting anyone else just by being there.

7. Newcomers Part II. New comers are inspiring. They remind me that South by Southwest is an experience that can give over and over, to diferent people, at different times in life. And there are always more looking for the rewards I have found from it.

In the weeks leading up to SXSW, I heard from at least a half-dozen acquaintences that they were coming for the first time. I invited them to everything I could, advised where appropriate and tried to meet individually with as many of them as I could. I can say that now most, if not all, are friends.

That’s the beauty of that second week in Austin. You get to know each other quick. And yet it feels 100% real and usually endures.

8. Breaks. On at least 3 occassions, I took a long walk with an old friend I’d run into on the streets of Austin. I was probably missing a panel or a free taco or a spotting of Sean Parker but whatever. Those things will happen if they are meant to. Time with an old friend in this midst of that chaos is a precious gift. And a needed repose when you are no longer the 25 year-old adventurer I was my first year at the conference.

9. Shoring up. Footnote to #5. Just because certain things are fragile doesn’t mean we should be content with them staying that way. So after I turn my book in this summer, I’ll be putting in some hours to make sure the parts of SXSW I care out have solid home bases and enduring legacies.

10. Take off and go. I crossed the half-way point of my book right before we arrived in Austin. I’ve a ton to do before my June deadline. SXSW was both a break from it (I didn’t write while there) but also a reminder, a reminder that I am excited by the path I am on, incredibly lucky and grateful that I still get to do this each spring and feel as though my relationship with it gets different but better with time.

SXSW and I are in the long game for now. There are many adventures left to be had.