SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?



South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

Snapshots from SXSW

It’s now been three days since I got off the plane at National Airport, officially ending this year’s SXSW itinerary, and it’s taken me that long to catch up on sleep, do laundry and edit and upload pictures. (The traditional post-conference LinkedIn binge remains undone.)  And maybe I’ve gained a smidgeon of perspective on the event too.

Attendees make their way through the convention center.Once again, my primary first-world problem was deciding which panels and talks to attend. I was more ruthless and/or lazy this time, deciding I wouldn’t even try to get to such relatively distant locations as the AT&T Conference Center at the University of Texas’s campus (where my 2012 panel drew maybe 20 people) or the Hyatt Regency at the other end of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

But then I wound up not watching any panels outside the convention center and the Hilton across the street. Of those, remote interviews with Julian AssangeEdward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald topped my list. But I was also fascinated by a debate about net neutrality in which law professor Tim Wu noted our own responsibility in putting a handful of giant companies in charge (“we don’t have a culture on the Internet of preferring alternatives”), a talk about wearable computing that pivoted to discussions of “implantables” and “injectables,” and an honest unpacking of the failure of tech journalists to break the NSA-surveillance story (TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis: “We need to step back from our role as cheerleaders and give a more critical eye to the people we’re surrounded with”).

My geographically-restricted attendance led me to miss many other discussions that had looked interesting beforehand. Not only was this narrow-minded conduct, it stopped me from walking around more to make up for all the food I ate.

It would be hard to avoid putting on a few pounds while in Austin on a normal weekend, but when you don’t have to pay for most of your food, courtesy of pervasive corporate and PR sponsorship, the city becomes a thoroughly enabling environment. And a delicious one! For example: the brisket at La Barbecue (thanks, Pinterest), algorithm-driven cuisine at IBM’s food truck, and breakfast tacos at Pueblo Viejo (that was on my own dime, and you should be happy to spend yours there too when you’re in Austin).

Austin’s nightlife hub on the first night of SXSW Interactive.As for empty calories–um, yeah, they’re not hard to find at SXSW either. This is the single booziest event on my calendar. That can be an immense amount of fun (my Sunday night somehow involved both seeing Willie Nelson play a few songs with Asleep at the Wheel from maybe 20 feet away, followed by the RVIP Lounge’s combination of touring bus, open bar and karaoke machine), but waking up the next morning can be brutal. To anybody who had a 9:30 a.m. panel on Sunday, only hours after the time change cut an hour out of everybody’s schedule: I’m so sorry.

And then the night after I left, some drunk-driving idiot crashed through a police barricade and killed two people.

Even before that, the “do we really need this event now that it’s been overrun by marketing droids?” conversation about SXSW was louder than usual. I have to note that three of the most interesting panels–the Assange, Snowden and Greenwald interviews–featured subjects thousands of miles away; in theory we all could have watched those from home.

But this is also an event where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise see and might not ever meet–a long-ago Post colleague from copy-aide days, Internet activists you should know for future stories, journalists who put up with the same problems as you, entrepreneurs with interesting ideas that might go somewhere, and so on. Maybe this is a colossal character defect on my part, but I enjoy those conversations–even the ones with the marketing droids. And that’s why I do this every year.

(After the jump, my Flickr set from the conference.)

(7:30 p.m.: Tweaked a few sentences because I could.)

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