The Southby and the Southby

If attending a web conference is like going to a concert, South by Southwest in Austin is like Glastonbury: a massive multi-track event where the people on stage aren’t as important as tracking down the friends you know are somewhere in the crowd.

An incredible amount of work goes into the event. When Jessica and I showed up in Austin last Thursday evening and headed straight to The Wholly Cow for a burger, there was a group of Southby volunteers at the next table, planning the next day’s activities like soldiers on the eve of battle. Make no mistake, South by Southwest is a triumph of planning and execution on a scale I can’t even begin to comprehend. I’m always amazed when I see Hugh wandering about looking cool as a cucumber—I’d be freaking out if it were me.

The interaction portion of South by Southwest has been getting bigger with each passing year. For a while this was a source of pride, then nervousness, and now …well, now it has become something quite different to what it once was. It’s not simply that the crowd is larger; the crowd is different.

Where once the core audience was made up of web-loving geeks, now the overwhelming majority of attendees are there to hawk their product/app/start-up by whatever means necessary. I tried to take a live-and-let-live attitude with those people, but it’s hard for me to maintain that attitude when I find them actively repulsive. I mean, honestly, it was like wading through a sea of spam.

I was chatting with Aaron in Austin airport afterwards and he said he was trying to take a City And The City approach to unseeing the douchebag world, but that’s difficult when they keep breaching by thrusting flyers and schwag into your face when you’re just trying to get into the Austin Convention Center (though you could potentially spend the entire event without ever entering that building, what with the panels spread out amongst many venues across town).

I did attend some great panels at South by Southwest, and I did have a great time meeting up with old friends and making new ones. But I felt like I had to work quite hard at it this year. I had a constant feeling of FOMO from all the talks I was missing and there were lots of friends who were also at the event that I didn’t even see once the whole time. So if you weren’t in Austin and you were watching from afar via Twitter, don’t worry: even the people who were at South by Southwest weren’t at South by Southwest.

Evan had a similar experience and I think he’s right about why there are so many desperate marketers showing up:

I think that’s largely Twitter’s fault; the company’s breakout at SxSW 2007 has made success at the event a Philosopher’s Stone for startups world-wide. Unfortunately, most of these folks have missed the subtle fact that Twitter wasn’t successful because it was at SxSW, but because it was useful and interesting to the kind of people who go to South by Southwest. The same goes for other South By success stories: Foursquare, Lanyrd. In other words: if you don’t appeal to that audience, dropping a trillion-dollar marketing bomb on downtown Austin for a week in March won’t make you Twitter. It’ll just make you poorer.

To be honest, I’m not sure I can justify another trip to South by Southwest if it means paying for an overpriced hotel room and wading through all the Conference Center crap to find the gems hidden within. But Evan points out the problem with simply giving up on the event:

South by Southwest has been a huge boon to the technology community. It deserves a better response than a sniffy adieu.

He’s right …but I’m not sure there’s anything that the event organisers (or the subset of attendees who aren’t meatspace spammers) can do about it. South by Southwest has become an unstoppable juggernaut.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Austin to be born?

Y’know, I’m okay with South by Southwest being a different kind of event now than it once was. I’m glad that it’s successful. And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other excellent events for web geeks.

If I don’t end up returning to South by Southwest, I’d definitely miss it. And I would definitely miss Austin. I’m looking forward to going back to that most excellent town for An Event Apart in July—it will be my first time being there when it’s not South by Southwest.

An Event Apart, by the way, had an excellent one-page advert running on the back cover of the chunky South by Southwest printed program. It simply said: One Track.