March Conference Showdown

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“It’s spring break for designers!” Chris Fahey yelled in my ear. I couldn’t yell back, so I merely nodded. Day three of conversation over music and roaring crowds had left me with a voice that would make Billie Holiday jealous. I was now saving myself for concepts that couldn’t be effectively mimed or twittered.

This year was my first SXSW, a hoary old institution from the days of Web 1.0. My experiences of it until now were observing glassy-eyed but glowing back-to-back conference attendees wandering around the IA Summit in a happy daze of over-stimulation.

SXSW and the Summit are often only a week apart. Justification for attending both is a difficult sell to employer or significant other. This year I’d managed to both justify both. After the Summit, I would retreat to the Mohave with my husband and daughter to recover and make amends.

To those of you trying to choose for next year who haven’t done the IA Summit, let me say this: it is far better exercise for your brain. The Summit is an extraordinary 3-5 day thinker’s boot camp if you are a web professional of any sort (IA or not.) You will learn, grow, and be challenged intellectually. But its older cousin might be the choice if you have other skills to exercise. SXSW is a joyous networkathon blended with an insider’s glimpse into what will be cool and innovative next year.

In the Austin Conference Center halls, it’s telling that the floors outside the rooms are almost as thickly populated as the panel rooms themselves. In fact, it’s telling that panels comprise the entirety of SXSW. Panels are often thought to be the single worst form for disseminating information. Panels allow for moderators to coast with a list of questions, and panelists to show up unprepared, secure in their place as experts. Panels rely on improv; and these are web professionals not actors. Rarely do you get a scene out of “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

SXSW, hindered with this structure, does a remarkably decent job of surrounding topics with insights. But the title on the program guarantees nothing about whether the panelists will fulfill a given promise; a brilliant set of panelists failed to deliver on the theme of “what to do when the next crash comes,” but did do a wonderful job of discussing the role of the audience in publishing. An early morning panel on the future of the book spoke more to failed promising technologies (and sadly, shilled for a 2nd tier P.O.D. service) than what the book will become next. An audience member who stepped up to the microphone worked for Google books—the man who knew where books were going was sitting in the front row of the audience, not at the table.

These anecdotes hint at the reality of SXSW. It’s a BarCamp with the brains to pose panels on “practical” topics as a front so you can justify the expense to your boss. The accidental or informal meetings create the real value of attending.

I sat down on the floor to catch my breath and found myself next to Annalee Newitz, intelligently speaking to microformat innovation. The publisher of SmithMag asked to me to help him carry a huge handful of margaritas to his group–and we delivered beverages to the publishers of Salon and The Onion, who then expounded on the challenges of integrating video content.

We on the web often don’t show our faces. At SXSW, we get to meet as people first, as icons second. I chatted with Joan Walsh for a good ten minutes before realizing who she was. She said “But you were at my panel!” I said “You were a high powered executive then! Now you look like a chick!” (Not my first margarita, obviously.) Once off the panels, everyone looks like a dude or a chick. Austin is hot, and even hotter in the clubs and bars we pack to the gills. A crowd never much inclined to suits dons jeans and slogan t-shirts grabbed free from the expo halls, then goes out and treats each other like people rather than vendors and buyers.

If you want to do business, Austin is the place to do your footwork. You can make those friendships that turn into grownup conversations when you get home. If you want to meet your heroes, it’s not hard. And do you want to ask people who have done it how to integrate video, do live broadcasting, hire journalists, engage bloggers, write an API, get funding or kill and I.E. 6 bug? They are there and happy to tell you over a beer exactly what they figured out.

This year what might have been private planning via IM become public twittering on the hall monitors: What’s tonight’s hot party? Where are you going next? Need to bag this panel–get a beer across the street? Saw (Jeff) Veen, (Robert) Scoble, Tantek (Celik) in the bbq line… you get the picture.

Three days at the IA Summit was like three months at Oxford. But I did my business far more good in three days at SXSW (though my liver will never be the same). If you can do both, do so. They complement each other. If I had to pick, well… spring break comes but once a year. This girl’s gone wild.


  1. Also, they’re a month apart next year. Yay! say my braincells

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