SXSW 2003

I didn't start out feeling gung ho about this year's south by southwest interactive festival, in fact I wasn't having that good of a time until the last day. Last year was fun enough, but I sort of felt that maybe the conference had been replaced by others.
While the market has been down for the past few years, it didn't seem to negatively affect SXSW too much in the past. It weeded out the stupid and the weak: no one talked of synergizing their sticky eyeballs after 2000. This year however, not only had the crowd of hucksters returned to the golf courses from whence they were created, but unfortunately so had many designers, writers, photographers, and bloggers. The crowds seemed smaller this year, and there were several designers that didn't choose to attend.
Friday night, I rolled into an amazing Austin evening. Watching the previous week's forecasts and seeing cold temps I thought the festival's theme might become "everyone in sweaters." A quick warm snap made this year as perfect in terms of weather as the past. But after settling into my hotel and catching up with pb after he arrived, we noticed a lack of peers in the area. While we missed the big event of the evening already, there didn't seem to be anyone else around. We had a quiet dinner with Andre and Dana, and afterwards noticed the Omni's lobby was totally dead. We got back to our hotel around 10:30 and the night was prematurely over. What happened the packs of 50 geeks roaming every nook and cranny of the city like in years past?
After getting the first long sleep and big breakfast in days, we caught the very end of the Kick event and I was happy to finally see everyone was here. Saturday's keynote broke the champagne on the boat for me and David Weinberger got up to share his common sensical long-range view of why the web matters, and it didn't disappoint. The convention space for panels seemed a bit smaller this year, with most rooms holding maybe 50 people, and a big room that could handle 150 or so. There were oodles of bloggers around, perhaps the decline in attendance was only in the professional sector. I can't remember seeing a lot of people sent by their workplace in the halls and presentation rooms.
Hugh and the gang seem to tweak their setup every year based on feedback and the new panel schedules worked pretty well this year. Most presentations were a short 60 minutes, with 30 min breaks in between. There were plenty of panels to see, though if I was pressed to share any downsides, the 30 minute breaks seemed a tad long when there were a string of panels I wanted to get through. I don't know if everyone would agree that 15 minutes was a better time, but although the breaks let me catch up with speakers after their talks, and take time to check email and write up notes in the hall, sometimes it felt like too long of a break (especially after the 2nd or 3rd one of the day). As always, there were times when I didn't want to see any panels and times three great things were happening at once, but there's not a lot that can be done to combat that kind of scheduling. At one point I thought "why doesn't Hugh ask some bloggers to look over the schedule to point out conflicts" thinking that we webloggers had our fingers firmly on the pulse of the conference, but then I remember attending Po Bronson's "What should I do with my life" panel. A condensed version that showed up in FastCompany a few months back rocketed to the top of daypop/blogdex and stayed there for a few days upon its debut, but Po's panel was only about 1/3 full when I would have predicted a packed house.
The subjects of panels themselves were for the most part interesting, though I noticed a lack of vision in many. My memory may be fuzzy, but I seem to remember the most exciting panels at SXSW (and any other tech conference for that matter) focused on what was next. Instead of looking towards the future, I felt far too many panels talked about the present. The theme of some panels (including my own) could be summed up as "This is how the world views weblogs (right now). This is what CSS is currently like. This is what it means to run a non-profit site (right now)."
The most interesting panels this year seemed to be all the non-technical panels that discussed social issues. The panel on how communities could deal with online deaths, Kevin Warwick's talk about his cyborg-ness, the Po Bronson reading about how to find ones purpose in life, and Bruce Sterling's panel on the future.
As usual, the social gatherings eclipsed anything the official conference sessions could offer, and the organizers did a good job steering attendees towards parties, open bars, and site launches. The Fray Cafe was a blast, and maybe it was due having an in-house bar. As the night wore on, people loosened up and got up on stage, probably due to the social lubricants available from the bar. The 20×2 event was a lot of fun. Hearing Dakota Smith play at the familyalbum.com party was a highlight. And it was the first time I made it out to Bruce Sterling's house party.
Like I mentioned earlier, this year's conference didn't really click until it was almost over. I think it was a combination of good panels (Po Bronson's morning panel asking the audience to think about their life's passions and Bruce Sterling's afternoon talk that looked into the wacky frontier of the future) and talking with new folks that brought me a bit out of my element. I got to see new creative projects people were working on. I got to feel a little out of place talking to people I barely had met.
While I didn't have any direct discussions or see any panels that discussed specific issues I faced, the environment of the last couple days in Austin sent my mind racing. I came up with a dozen new innovations for my personal website that I wanted to work on as soon as I got home. In the dead time between panels I came up with novel ways to optimize MetaFilter that hadn't occurred to me before. Seeing other people's projects spurred on a new idea for a photo essay. On the plane ride home I started writing what I hope will become my first story either performed or written for the Fray. I brainstormed ideas for a technology story I'd like to pitch to a magazine. After seeing digital video cameras everywhere, I came up with an idea for a short film I'd like to someday do.
I'm happy that I got to attend this year's SXSW. After days of panel discussions and nights filled with drinking and socializing, I came away rejuvenated and inspired to work on lots of new projects. In the crowds that only come together once a year, I found motivation and I've already begun to work on all the new ideas I got there. While the content of panels wasn't ground-breaking across the board, the conference itself has carved out a niche as a place for creative minds to gather and interact, and that's where I find the real magic lies.
Photos from this year's SXSW