Listen to Austin 360 Radio

SXSW Interactive grows up, faces social backlash

Not everyone had a great time at SXSW 2010; here's hoping 2011 grows gracefully

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Is the South by Southwest Interactive Festival - which last year passed SXSW Music in paid registration to become the largest leg of SXSW - fighting for its soul?

In the space between the time when the fest began to be known as "spring break for geeks" (around 2008) and last year when Jolie O'Dell, a tech writer for social media news site Mashable.com, lambasted it as a fest with "Too many people, not enough tech," something changed.

SXSW Interactive, which began in 1994 as part of the "SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference," has grown in recent years. A lot. Last year's growth rate was nearly 40 percent, and early estimates suggest it could grow that much for 2011.

The growth, which at the festival has manifested itself as long lines for RSVP-only parties, packed-solid keynote presentations and a scarcity in downtown hotel rooms (Austin brother, can you spare a futon?), has created a backlash among some longtime attendees as well as newcomers turned off by the crowds.

But just like an underground band that suddenly got mainstream success, it's not lacking for fans. The convergence of popular culture and tech culture - those smart phones, those apps, those status updates - has transformed Interactive from a funky tech conference that always welcomed digital artists, porn stars and sci-fi writers into a social event.

With the exception of the massive TED conferences and Apple's new product announcements, it might be the nation's largest tech social event. The waves and waves of people can bring down a cell network, as they did with AT&T's hapless wireless tubes when iPhone became popular in 2009. They can spread the gospel about a little-known, new technology beyond the fest, like when Twitter landed like an atom bomb in 2007. They can ruin the fest for attendees like O'Dell, who on March 16, 2010, posted that she'd been harassed, stolen from and turned off. She vowed never to return.

Critics and curation

Although some defended the fest, a raft of bloggers and commenters chimed in about the rise of so-called social media douchebags, the fawning among attendees over Twitter celebrities (Ashton Kutcher, Justine "iJustine" Ezarik) and all the drinking, hard-partying and boorish behavior that goes on at the fest.

You'd think it was a convention for Hell's Angels the way so many bloggers write about the festival. "How to survive SXSW Interactive" is a popular topic among tech blogs in the weeks leading up to the fest.

For their part, organizers say they were already responding to criticisms about crowding and the festival's identity even before tech blogger Robert Scoble posted a December piece calling for smaller, more intimate "micro-events."

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, says that decisions about how the fest is organized - like spreading it to 10 separate campuses with specific themes - is meant to help attendees find smaller groups of people with whom they have more in common. A series of 65-70 daytime meet-ups will work toward that goal as well.

Although the fest has been focused on curating the programming and getting the stage set, it's also trying to encourage attendees to be more aware of the choices they have, whether it's the hundreds of panels or the plethora of parties.

"One thing we're really trying to emphasize is that SXSW is what you make of it," Forrest said. "If you want to go to parties with 1,000 or 2,000 people, we'll have those. If you want to go to smaller parties or go out to dinner with new friends, there's plenty of that, also."

Grow up

Instant-communication tools such as Twitter and location services such as Gowalla and Foursquare have ironically made the festival more connected, but they also are more apt to create swarms of people and to reduce the festival into hotspots and 140-character sound bytes.

Forrest and veteran attendees say the best way to avoid being a SXSW Interactive casualty is to be in the moment (heads up from the Droid screen, please) and to have a solid plan of action, with the option to bail on it at a moment's notice to spend time with friends and new acquaintances.

Wesley Faulkner, a tech worker and entrepreneur who has attended the past few years, spends two months setting up his schedule using online tools like Plancast.com. But once the fest starts, he plays it by ear, especially if things get too crowded.

"It's like Disneyland. If the line is too long, there's always another ride," Faulkner said.

Author and SXSW Interactive panelist Stephanie Klein partakes of the drinking and partying but thinks that many of the night events that surround the festival have become obsessed with exclusivity and status and that many attendees have followed suit.

"I get very irritated by this whole wristband, VIP treatment that happens at South by Southwest," she said, "and I'm also anti party-hopping; it's middle-child syndrome. It's thinking that all the cool parties are happening somewhere else instead of being in the moment."

What people need to bring to the fest, Klein says, are basic manners and a dose of self-esteem. "Be ready to go up to talk to people and talk to them. Offer them candy. If that doesn't work, offer them alcohol."

And visit the bathroom. "I meet a lot of people in the bathroom, quite frankly," she said. "You catch some good information. People are very disarmed."

South by Southwest Interactive is still largely about technology - some of the smartest futurists, designers, bloggers and scientists populate the panels, readings and trade show at the fest.

But it's also become a fest about following the Golden Rule, about knowing when to say when, about being kind and generous and amiable in crowded conditions and about always being on your best behavior (especially when there are thousands of Tweeting thumbs and camera phones around you).

In other words, the 17-year-old SXSW Interactive is emerging from a bit of an awkward, gawky social adolescence; we all hope it turns into a grown-up we can be proud of.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

South by Southwest Interactive 2011

When: Friday through Tuesday

Where: Austin Convention Center and nine other downtown-area campuses

Tickets: Walk-up registration $750

Information:sxsw.com/interactive

SXSW Technology Summit (included in Interactive registration)

When: Wednesday- March 17

Where: 6th floor of the Austin Hilton Downtown, 500 E. 4th Street

Information:sxsw.com/node/6693

@austin360.com/digitalsavant

2 p.m. March 10: Join a live chat about SXSW Interview. Also on the site, find our live coverage, panel previews, podcasts and videos. Follow our Interactive Twitter account, @360sxswi at twitter.com/360sxswi

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for the March 16-17 Technology Summit. It will take place on the 6th floor of the Austin Hilton Downtown, 500 E. 4th Street.