This was my 8th year attending the annual South by Southwest Interactive (aka SXSW or SXSWi) festival and I have to say, it may be my last. It’s not because I didn’t enjoy myself, meet tons of great people and learn new things – all of which I did as I do every year. It also wasn’t because of the crappy, rainy weather that we endured for half the conference.
No, it’s because I think SXSW has outgrown Austin. Just look at this lineup for badge pickup (it’s hard to tell but it’s actually a double looped line that snakes around the entire convention centre):
Every year, more of my friends attend the conference…and they tell two friends and so on. The estimate I heard for just the interactive portion this year was 24,000+ attendees. That doesn’t include the Film folks and the Music people that start arriving towards the end. I don’t know if any city can support a conference like this, while still having the charm of Austin.
The other thing that I’ve noticed the last few years is that the people that I met early on are no longer attending. It’s for various reasons but many just don’t make it a priority anymore like they once did. I was chatting with Erica OGrady (whom I met at SXSW a few years ago) about this topic at the Bing/Cheezburger party (which was a blast – see the photo above) and she’s also questioning her future attendance for the same reasons I am. It’s just gotten too big. It used to be lineups for the hot parties. But now it’s lineups for everything.
I wanted to check out Anthony Bourdain’s panel about how his No Reservations tv crew use social media. I figured I would show up 1/2 an hour early and get a good spot to take some photos. I ended up walking past a giant line about 45 minutes early (on my way to the trade show to kill some time) and it was the line up for Bourdain. It now seems that in order to even get into an A-list panel, you pretty much have to skip the previous timeslot’s panel just to wait in a line. I couldn’t even get into a few other panels because the doors were locked and it was full…despite me being early for them. Frustrating? Hell yes!
While I did make it into the panel, I almost didn’t bother because on the way back from lunch, we actually bumped into Mr. Bourdain as he arrived for the panel and he was gracious enough to let a bunch of geeks and fans get their photo with him.
This lineup craziness also extends to the parties and other night time events. So much so that you usually need to RSVP to them weeks or months before you even get to Austin.
This year, the Bing/Cheezburger party took it a step further. You had to RSVP via Eventbrite and then you needed to pickup a wristband a few days before the party from the Bing compound if you wanted to skip the party lineup. The key difference is that their wristband actually had an RFID chip inside that would give you quick access to the party as well as when a roving photographer took your picture, you could literally swipe your wristband across a receiver that the photographer had and it would post the photo they just took to your Facebook wall. Pretty amazing…if not a little creepy. It did make for a quick entry though.
Now, I’m the first to admit that the last few years, I’ve attended fewer and fewer panels due to the fact there is so many other great events and activities happening outside the convention centre. Some friends have even gone ‘badgeless’ because you really don’t need a badge to have a great experience during SXSW (although many events do require a badge unless you have VIP status).
This year was no different.
Google previously had a huge presence on the trade show floor but this year, they opted to rent out an ENTIRE neighbourhood within walking distance of the convention centre and setup shop as the “Google Village”.
Each house was decked out in Google colors and brands along with giant map pins out front. There was the Android house, the Developer house, the Maps house, complete with a Streetview car out front and many more.
One of the coolest things I found was in the Discovery house which featured a live web cam view of a Coca-Cola machine in New York City and a terminal that you could use to send a video message (and a free coke) to whomever walked up to the machine in NYC. They could then thank you for the coke via video (and you’d get an email link). A really clever campaign that will be spreading to 20 cities around the world and you can send a free coke from your laptop anywhere.
Another fantastic event held outside the convention centre was the GE Garage. This was a complete tent city of awesome technology that people like me love: tools and toys. They had basically brought one of everything that you’d find in an epic workshop or hackerspace and set it up and let you play with it.
They had a laser cutter/engraver where you could etch any design on your iPhone:
They also had a CNC machine where they cut out molds for the injection molding machine they also had on hand where they made iPhone cases with a built in pocket on the back for a Square reader.
If you ever wanted to learn how to weld, you could do that too. They were letting anyone help weld bike racks that would be donated to the City of Austin when SXSW was over.
They also had something close to my heart, a 3D printer table complete with the new MakerBot Replicator which hadn’t actually been released yet (they just started shipping to those that pre-ordered them). They were printing SXSW themed guitar picks for anyone that wanted one:
It was very cool to get to see one up close and I was also able to chat with Matt and Keith from MakerBot.
This also lead to a MakerBot meetup later in the week…where even the MakerBots got to ride in the famous Austin pedicabs.
As usual, there was no shortage of live music at night. At the Cheezburger party, the band FUN performed:
and at one of my favorite spots to see live music in Austin, the Belmont, hosted locals Ghostland Observatory with a fantastic show at the HP Cloud party:
and for the second year in a row, Neiliyo killed it at the ServerBeach party which the whole Eh Team crew come out for:
So, as you can see, there are still lots of great reasons to attend SXSW…and I barely spoke about the panels I attended. I’ve said the last couple of years that in order for me to attend SXSWi, it needs to be a different experience. So a few years ago, I spoke on a panel, last year I drove to Austin and this year wasn’t that different other than the size of the event. Next year may have to be something special for me to attend again…maybe I’ll submit a panel idea.
I’ll likely wait until the summer when tickets go on sale to make my final decision on attending in 2013. I may even just book a badge and hotel room as a placeholder which I can always transfer to someone else if I decide not to go…something I’ve been telling people for years if they want to attend – book in late July/early August if you actually want a hotel that is walking distance from everything…otherwise you’ll be stuck with a $20-30 cab ride each way to your hotel in the boonies.
Special thanks to my friends at Roam Mobility that loaned me and the Eh Team crew some of their Liberty hotspots which were fantastic for keeping us all online when many others either couldn’t get online or incurred huge roaming charges because they didn’t plan ahead. I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy one to keep myself. They also gave us some SIM cards to give away in Austin which helped out a bunch of Canadian folks. A full review of their service will follow in a separate post now that I’ve had a chance to throughly test it.
While in Austin, I met up with the folks from the Toronto, Ontario based Jugnoo to try out their new beta service that launched just prior to SXSW. It’s a one stop social dashboard to creating, monitoring & publishing content and campaigns for social media.
I used their tool to create these short video slideshows (5 in total, which I packaged in this YouTube playlist) using my own photos which are individual daily recaps while at SXSW:
It’s a pretty slick tool with lots of options and I only really played with the video creation component which was surprisingly deep. Using my photos as the raw material, I was able to either directly upload or use links to my Flickr stream (or URL) to pull them into the tool, arrange them in sequence, add titles and choose a visual template. I was then able to add a soundtrack from their large library of music. It reminded me a lot of using iMovie except it was completely browser based. Once the video was created, you can then publish to your choice of social networks. They also have integrated analytics and monitoring for anything you produce with the tool.
My only issue with the video creation tool was that it isn’t currently possible to edit the video after you render it out (the rendered video is saved, just not in a further editable format if you want to make changes to text, layout, etc.). But as this is a beta, I provided this feedback to them and they are hoping to make this happen very soon. It’s still a very impressive tool considering it’s all done in a browser.
[Disclosure: I was chosen from a number of entrants to work with Jugnoo at SXSW and was paid a small sum to cover expenses in Austin as part of the contest.]
You can view my full set of photos on Flickr or watch this slideshow: