Like everyone else, I just got back from the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin. This was my third time, and right up until the start I thought it might be my last. It was big in 2005, huge in 2006 and was outright massive 2007. There were literally hundreds of speakers and attendees numbering in the thousands (I’ve heard estimates between 4,000 and 5,000, which feels about right). We’re told the Interactive conference outsold Film for the first time since its inception, by a factor of 3-to-1 according to rumor.
I feared Suckswuh was jumping the shark this year, and would be so overextended and overwhelming as to become unfun. But, strangely, the size had just the opposite effect, for me anyway. With so many people there and so much going on, I felt less pressure to meet and see everyone and everything, and instead just enjoyed who I was with wherever I was. I attended the talks I was most interested in and went to just a few parties, usually turning in early. I had more real quality conversations this year than at the previous two, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Deeper, lengthier conversations with fewer people is far more rewarding than brief, sound-bite chats with hundreds.
It seems the very immensity of the thing forced people to narrow their focus to just the things they really wanted to attend and the people they wanted to speak to. And yet, it didn’t seem to splinter into closed cliques as much as in the past. Obviously there were groups that tended to cluster together, as always happens, but this time around they seemed more fluid and relaxed, the cliques mingling and cross-pollinating freely. This social free-formedness is one of the things that makes SXSW so much fun.
On a sadder note, there were several absent friends, people I’ve met at Suckswuhs past that couldn’t make it this year. Meri, Elly, Simon, John, Jon, Kelly, Stephanie, Jessica, et. al.: You were missed. On an especially sadder note, Lauren had to leave early because her mother was in a nasty accident. By last reports she’s in stable condition and will make a full recovery in due time. Best wishes to Lauren and mom. Hopefully your second anniversary will be better than the first.
When it came to daytime programming this year, there seemed to be far less about “how to do ___ with CSS” and more discussion about design and media in general. Web standards aren’t just Kool-Aid any more, they’re the main water supply.
I neglected the mobile/social/gaming/business tracks wholesale, but tried to hit most of the design-related sessions. Highlights were “Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0” by Andy Budd and Jeremy Keith, “Why Grids are Good,” by Mark Boulton and Khoi Vinh, “Bullet Tooth Web Design,” by Andy Clarke and Jason Santa Maria, and “Web Typography Sucks,” by Mark Boulton and Richard Rutter (that’s two for two for Mark Boulton; the man knows design and speaks about it with elegance and clarity).
The 25-minute “Power Sessions” were an interesting experiment, and worked well for the most part. The main fault was that all of those sessions were originally proposed as hour-long talks, so cutting them in half forced the speakers to leave out a lot of good info. Even so, most of the shorter talks I saw were well done. If the Power Sessions return next year I hope presenters are allowed to pitch their ideas with a shorter length in mind from the start, to allow sessions tailored for short-form that won’t feel so incomplete and rushed.
There were a lot of sessions I missed out on, but I resolved not to get too upset about it. As with people, when there are just too many presentations happening at once you’re always missing something good, so why worry about it? I chose to skip a few entire blocks of time so I could get a bit of work done, and while there are things I’m sorry to have missed, I’m choosing not to dwell on those regrets.
A major sour note was struck at the climactic closing party, where a special VIP section had been closed off in one corner of the venue. That section didn’t seem very special, and the people within it didn’t seem any more important than anyone else. We’re all equals at SXSW, siblings in industry, geeks who share the common bond of passion for our work. And here’s this pointless pocket of exclusivity, needlessly drawing an invisible barrier between The Accepted and The Rejected. Utterly weak. I’ll be ranting at length on this shortly.
While the VIP thing was stupid and annoying and left a bad taste in the mouths of most, it wasn’t enough to completely ruin the Suckswuh experience, just to tarnish it slightly. It sucks that our lasting memories of Geekstock ’07 will be marked by snobbery and snubbery instead of the uninterrupted camaraderie the rest of the week offered.
The final morning was a bit sad, as it has been before. Saying farewells with full knowledge that most of these people won’t be seen for a year at least, and quite likely never again, is enough to make anyone choke up a bit. Yet this was also a little different this year, a little more relaxed and joyous. For one thing, Twitter absolutely came into its own at SXSWi07. With mass-IM updates from all the folks in my list, I can maintain some contact with this entire circle of friends I’ve made. In fact, even arriving at SXSW was smoother this year. Twitter made it seem as if I’d spoken to everyone just yesterday, with less need for “so what have you been up to this year?” small-talk catchup and instead diving right into real conversation about topics other than ourselves. And so the goodbyes were less teary because I’ll be twittering with everyone tomorrow anyway.
The first time I went to SXSW I was starstruck. The second time was like a reunion. This time it just felt like coming home. Overall, this was hands down my best Suckswuh to date and I will definitely be returning next year.