For the last ten years, I've attended SxSW Interactive, a wonderful conference focused on changes in the way people interact, especially online. When I started going to SxSW, it was a much smaller conference and more like a fan convention than a typical industry convention. I felt as if I had found my tribe and met lots of new people that I have kept in touch with ever since. I learned a tremendous amount and hopefully added to the discussion a bit myself. The trip was a sabbatical from my corporate life.
Over the years, SxSW Interactive has changed, as all thing do. Many old time attendees complained a bit every year, but I was still enamored of the event and defended it's unique status. Last year, I was a bit dismayed, as a trend of recent years became complete. I found that the highlight of SxSW was almost exclusively events outside the show itself. Meals, drinks, and events outside of SxSW became the focus of my time, not an addition to the sessions. Sessions were hard to find and attend. The explosion in number of sessions and widely disparate locations lead to hard choices about what you could actually see. Gone was any chance to casually strike up a conversation in the hallways. Stand still for a moment and a marketing person was trying to hand you a postcard advertising a start-up or film.
I struggled with understanding what had changed. Was it me? Was it the show? Both? It's taken me about a half year to really understand what happened to SxSW, but now it's clear to me exactly what's happened.
SxSW Interactive is now a business conference and no longer a conference for individuals.
Conferences for individuals
It's clear that SxSW has now grown and changed into a full fledged business conference. Yes, there a several sessions that I'd like to see, but mainly because my friends are in them rather than the topics being discussed. The opening keynote is by a business consultant. I've met the guy, and he's not a bad guy, but his sole focus is spoon feeding the basics of social media to C-level executives for consulting dollars. His talk will be old news for the alpha geeks and nothing new or innovative to report.
Yes, there will be interesting sessions, but finding them between the endless ones about start-ups and marketing approaches is hard to do. I mean when you have sessions titled "Keeping Loyal Consumers Engaged by Shaking Sh*t Up" and "Startup Marketing: Big Results with a Small Budget" is there any doubt that this is a business conference?
How interactive can a conference be when the larger talks require large overflow rooms linked via closed circuit television? How revolutionary can a conference be when even the power plugs are sponsored? How fresh can the information be if the speaker is there to promote their book, printed on paper?
Clearly there's a market for today's version of SxSW Interactive since every Austin hotel is full and the place will be packed even with the badges for Interactive at $850. The average person will need over $2,000 to attend. Not many individuals have this kind of disposable income.
As a veteran attendee other major business conferences like NAB, CES, and Comdex, I can say that there is plenty of value to attending these kind of events, but the value was always to my company and not to myself. Meetings were had, deals were made, relationship were created, but always for the benefit of the company, not the individual. Today's SxSW Interactive is about companies, not individuals.
Holding SxSW in the neutral ground of Austin allowed the mixing of the various geek tribes from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, and other places to exchange ideas and concepts over kickball, BBQ, and beers. Amazing ideas and companies came out of the mix at SxSW. Even a number of marriages between the blogerati began at SxSW. The cross-pollination that happened in the casual surroundings of 6th Street has led to numerous great things.
Too bad the idea of casual anything is gone from the SxSW experience. This mixing of tribes is going away as the branding of Silicon Valley, Alley, and Beach are creating business competition where there should be enjoyable coordination.
The thing that attracted me to SxSW Interactive in the first place was that people were interested in Michael, the guy from LA that blogged, not what my company was. That SxSW is gone now.
Change is good, but change is hard. I am going to miss seeing my friends and I have no doubt I'll be second guessing myself when the show is happening, but it's time for me to move on to finding a new place to meet with my tribe. My tribe is no longer in Austin, they're on the move elsewhere.
The time is right for a new conference that is focused on interesting people and not on companies. There is not a lot of money to be made, but to help inspire the next generation of great ideas, it is surely needed.
Lastly, to those that are going, remember the most important rule of SxSW: ABC - Always Be Charging!