A SXSW first-timer’s take

It’s been over a week since I got back from South By Southwest Interactive conference, and I’m still not quite caught up on sleep. (That may have something to do with having a toddler at home, and having that toddler come down with a cold.) I’m also behind on many of my post-SXSW digital chores: I only uploaded my photos to Flickr Tuesday, and here I am still writing the  “what did I learn?” post that I’d meant to crank out a day after coming home.

So let’s get it over with already. In a word: Go. SXSW is enormously informative and entertaining, it can be a good business-development proposition and takes place in one of the more pleasant American cities you could spend a long March weekend in. It’s easily worth having to recharge every device you carry every time you’re sitting still.

But you should be prepared for the chaos. I knew there was a lot going on, but I didn’t realize that, for instance, there would be 52 other events happening in the same 3:30-4:30 time slot as my panel. This made a mockery of many of my plans to meet other folks in the tech and journalism businesses, even with the help of battery-draining people-discovery apps.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much concentrated brainpower on display at most of SXSW’s talks and meetups. But there’s nothing you can do except try to appreciate the value of serendipity.

I also didn’t factor in how spread-out SXSW would seem. My talk took place in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, next door to the University of Texas campus. That was only a mile and a half on foot from the convention center, with frequent shuttle-bus service–but that still made for a round-trip commute of close to an hour in traffic. And because it was raining buckets that afternoon, only about 16 people made the trek to my panel. (Which was fine: We had an excellent discussion anyway.)

Aside from Saturday, however, none of the commuting involved was too objectionable. Downtown is eminently walkable, and I had the good fortune to share a rented home that was a pleasant 30-minute stroll from downtown. From there, I could also walk in about five minutes to a stop on Austin’s sole light-rail line that was just a three-minute ride from the convention center. Considering the insane cost of hotels during SXSW, I strongly endorse sharing a house with friends, or strangers if necessary–not that I needed much encouragement doing so after my successful shared-housing experiences at two NASA Tweetups in Florida last year.

I wish I’d thought to record my panel in some way, since it was not Webcast and nobody else seems to have thought to do so. That was apparently the case with most SXSW panels. At one I attended, “Preserving the Creative Culture of the Web,” archivist Jason Scott noted that he’d set up his phone to record the session for that very reason. So the only trace of my panel is tweets from people in the audience; I will try to append links to them to my earlier entry about it.

The last surprise at SXSW was the volume of free food and drink. It was a weird sort of corporate-subsidized gift economy–somewhat like other conventions I’ve attended, but with less of a sense that the publicists involved had to show a measurable return on the effort. It was easy to get used to the thoroughly enabling notion that you could show up someplace and not have to pay for whatever you might nibble or sip there. As I commented to a friend at one point: “It’s like being in the mob, except I can’t actually have people killed.”

(Even if you do have to pay for a meal, Austin offers perhaps the best dining value of any city in the U.S. And it’s fantastic eating: I don’t know how everybody there hasn’t bulked up on $3 tacos and $5 BBQ sandwiches.)

As you might imagine, I’m already set on returning next year, when I may even feel like I know what I’m doing on day one.

Self-promotional note: If you have other questions about SXSW–or anything else I’ve written about lately in the world of tech–ask me from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow during my Web chat on CEA’s blog.

12 thoughts on “A SXSW first-timer’s take

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