SXSW: Chaos, But Quest for Bonding & Authenticity Reigns

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I first attended SXSW Interactive in it’s early days and wasn’t familiar at the time with its Music and Film content, it’s true foundation. That said, Interactive was small and intimate enough that I was able to cross over into Music and Film because there was time. I’m not sure if I simply got lucky, but was happily surprised and amused time and time again.

Unknown musicians’ in second-tier venues that didn’t necessarily rock my world or uncover any jewels, were a cut above the rest, so much so that we were jamming and dancing until the wee hours of the morning.

Interactive was raw, undiscovered, and organic. The mood and purpose centered around community…..a bit like the reason you went to Koh Samui before they built their first high rise hotel. You went for its beauty and the fact that those who made the attempt were people who were there to discover, learn and explore.

Today, there is more than one SXSW. Interactive registrations were up 40% from 2009, which means that March 2010 housed and entertained more than 15,000 attendees. What the volume did for me was move the needle from an organic community-driven event to a moving circus with multiple agendas.

By the end of the first day (which due to the nature of SXSW, was 4 am the next day), I thought and tweeted: Has SXSW become the CES of Social Media? By the end of the second day, I thought: Has SXSW become the Burning Man wanna-be of Social Media? By the end of the third day, Florida’s Spring Break of Social Media?

Many of the sessions were aimed at virgins, others wove in interesting dialogue in and around what is happening or changing right now, i.e., the horror film producers/directors panel. It was impossible to find folks, even with Foursquare and Gowalla in full force and I checked in on average 10 times a day to assess the energy and trends.

It’s no grave surprise that with the massive growth in numbers that segmentation and off-site events will occur within the SXSW brand, not unlike the TEDX events which have spun out of TED.

With VIP passes in hand, there were still one hour waits for parties, 2-3 hours if you didn’t manage the right access card in advance, even with a massive network, text messaging and phone calls. There was a divide between the early social media creators and curators and those marketing to them and the latter subscribed to VIP List or STAND IN LINE.

Unless you’re willing to sign up for a Spring Break experience and getting drunk on cheap beer and tequilla while you’re standing in line, to only arrive to more cheap giveaways and booze when you finally make it through the door, it’s time for better quality. It’s clearly time for new players and micro-brands and events to emerge within the SXSW walls — aimed at ADULTS: adult conversations where real-business and real-marketing conversations can happen.

An annoyed Paul Carr writes a piece in TechCrunch entitled: SXSW: Because Hell Doesn’t Have Enough Promotional Stickers. I resonated with so many of his points, yet I deny not that I encouraged clients to attend, bring STICKERS and lots of them.

Stickers still have an impact here and I participated every step of the way, leaving them on tables, plastering them on people’s jackets and butts (yes, really) and giving them away at parties. Saturated and tacky, but they’re still part of SXSW’s MO and scene. In order to win at the ‘tease and leave-behind, you’re required to play the game and that game requires you to go from venue to venue to venue to venue.

Paul rants: “In reality, it’s just a non-stop orgy of bullshit fanboyism – a chance for people with stickers on their laptops to go and add more stickers to their laptops; an opportunity for sweaty dorks in Diggnation t-shirts to line up for two hours in the hope of getting Alex Albrecht to – I dunno – sign their laptop, I suppose, or maybe give them another freaking sticker.”

You hate to admit it but if you’re over 30, hell yeah, it’s spot on.

I’ve been going long enough that running into industry people where ‘real’ conversations can happen on your own terms, in your own time, still have tremendous value. Now, however, with 15,000 people and more sessions than you can keep up with even with a full time planner and admin, you really have to work at it.

At one event, I ran into a WordPress developer who screaming at me over the loud music, gave me a fix to a glitch we needed to resolve for a client and at another, I watched rappers master a creation using all of our brand names on the fly in the hallway. I met smart people who had a lot to say (when they were sober) and bonded with people in the biz in the same way we all do during college reunions. That’s what makes it still thrive, because bonding and the quest for authenticity reigns.

While you can argue “what kind of authenticity can you find amidst a pool of parties with cheap booze, long lines, loud music and drunk people?,” the bonding that can happen from merely showing up still exists, at least for now.

I would like to see the birth of more insider events that capture a bit of the old with the new, with more community discussions after hours and less VIP lines and bad booze parties. It’s time. With 15,000 attendees, trust me, it’s time.

Writes Jay Baer in a moment of mutual discouragement: the conference isn’t that good. He says: “several people I know who live in the developer or entrepreneur world frequently checked in on Gowalla at panels and parties that I had never heard of, and were completely off my radar. The feeling of community, and “we’re all in this together” is slipping away.”

I waited in line for sessions that could have really used a leader or experienced moderator. Tons of industry buds were on panels and gave great talks, but more sessions than not had people with little experience or mediocre presence on stage. It boils down to submission of a quirky interesting session name that can get a lot of votes.

Jay writes about his dialogue within his own social media bubble: SXSW is conference roulette. Evan Williams’ (co-founder, Twitter) keynote was so disastrous that an anecdotally estimated 80% of those in the room left before conclusion. Sadly, I missed Ev because of a conflict, but heard that moderator Umair Haque was too glowing and barely gave him a chance to speak.

Louis Gray seemed to also agree. He writes, “after thousands of Twittering geeks and quasi-geeks alike had settled in to the packed exhibition hall and overflow rooms to hear the latest updates delivered straight from Twitter’s leader, their excitement soon turned to boredom and finally, severe annoyance, as the interview’s pace, tone and content fell well below expectations.”

While community will always reign in the eyes of social media purists, SXSW Interactive needs to pay more attention to its vetting process moving forward if it hopes to retain the standards and educational value that people expect every March.

Geo-loco was buzzing this year and events like SXSW are such a great use case scenario for geo-location services. I could get a sense of the pulse in real-time in a matter of minutes. For example, i.e., JoeKZcat and WallyRogers213 just checked into The Belmont, meaning that the volume and energy of the party would likely increase within a 30 minute period. The same applied to well known people who left a particular event and went somewhere else. You could also easily see what was trending and what wasn’t.

Bar codes were the other thing. I’m not buying in yet. Sorry.

Then, there was the blogger lounge which was full of random people. At any given time, I think I counted 5-10 bloggers out of 80-100 who had nothing to do with blogging. From an authenticity perspective, it was lame. That said, I ran into some old and new pals within its walls and the passing musicians who gave their time to entertain were great.

I picked up three signed books from industry pals, including Charlene Li’s new book: Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (more about it after April 15), Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness (right up my alley, can’t wait to dig in) and Brian’s book for brands and businesses: Engage – great name and cover.

The Sex Scene showed up too as did players and wanna-be social media gurus from around the world, including Europe, South Africa, Australia, and LA. (its own country some would argue). Amanda from TechZulu interviewed me on what was in my SXSW bag – tips for future attendees.

David Spark’s ten favorite videos from 47 he shot over the course of the week and Daniel Terdiman over at CNET had 15 posts, the SXSWi experience from his eyes.

The upside is that the movers and shakers still show up and creative hallway conversations still happen. The random moments, however, are what really make it still worth the trek. Future treks given what SXSW has become just means that you have to really prepare for it – know you won’t sleep or eat and that you’ll have to work that much harder to sift through the mediocrity which includes panels and conversations.

And, I’d add, get creative about hosting your own off-site high quality events that will draw the real creators and game changers.

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