SXSW FYI

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.

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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.