SXSW 2011

Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky, with sponsors

It's hard to believe I started going to SXSW eleven years ago, but for my ninth trip to Austin, I decided to do it up like an adult with a family and kids and only stay a few days instead of doing a 6-7 day drunken bender like years past. I landed Friday afternoon and headed home Sunday afternoon, so as a result I didn't get to take in as many panels as I had hoped, but overall it was a fun time. Some memories from this year in no particular order:

  • The Old Timers Ball ("Web 2.Old!" -- Rex) was a great success. It was everything I wanted in a gathering: low-key, had the bar to ourselves, could hear ourselves talk, and I got to catch up with about three dozen people I never saw again in the masses. Huge, huge thanks goes out to Kevin Smokler for the idea and Kevin Newsum for organizing it, getting the bar ok, and basically doing everything (all I did was blog about it and enjoyed it). I hope this is a tradition, especially given the size of the event.
  • BIG BIG BIG. Rumors were the total attendees were getting up to the 20,000 mark. There were over 1,000 talks over five days by 2k speakers. It seemed like any time slot had about 20-30 panels going on at once, in locations all over downtown Austin. In years past, it has felt too big and I've felt too anonymous but this year felt like it was twice the size of last year. Holy shitballs was it a big event. I might instead go to smaller conferences in leiu of SXSW next year. I wish the 100 people I know from SXSW that I like to hang out with would choose a smaller conference with me so we could actually see each other and interact. I honestly missed seeing at least two dozen close friends completely, since the whole event was so spread out and there were just so many people around.
  • Last year I said Foursquare was a killer app for finding friends and finding my way around at nights, but this year it was all about Lanyrd (and their SXSW specific subsite). They started off by building the killer app I wanted last year, a way to see where/when all my Twitter friends were speaking, so right off the bat I could see a list of everyone I knew and what they were going to talk about, and build a schedule from it. Then using my friend network on Twitter, they could show me every panel that my friends marked off as interesting enough to track and/or attend. This whittled down the insane 1000+ options to about 2 or 3 cool options for every time slot (instead of 20-30). Thanks Leonard Lin and Andy Baio for marking off so many panels, I just filtered through their lists to find the diamonds in the rough.

    Lanyrd was also amazing because it required no setup, you just authorized Twitter and it was completely customized instantly for you. I also enjoyed their Chrome plugin to show SXSW schedules in user profiles. For the week leading up to SXSW, I could see many people's plans and talks and it helped filter out good stuff even more. I also was amazed with Simon and co's active development of the site at SXSW. By my second day I noticed a new mobile version of the site had a feature showing you every panel going on right now and how far away from each you were, as well as everything coming up next (if your current choice was boring you to tears). Lanyrd made this gigantic conference manageable and gave me the ability to navigate through the nonsense thanks to a couple clicks and the power of my Twitter friends.
  • I stayed at Ben and Katie's house instead of a hotel and it was great. We got to have quiet slow mornings away from the hubub, and enjoy fine coffee and breakfast tacos without any crowds.
  • Food was pretty great this year. I got to have a huge meal at my favorite Austin restaurant Parkside, and I got to eat a ton of tacos. The truck-based food world that hit LA and Portland was in full swing in Austin and gave lots of quick simple options. Sadly, I didn't get to hit my favorite Polvo's and sample their amazing salsa. Oh well.
  • Bubble. Everywhere you looked around the convention center was a massive sponsored logo. You couldn't walk ten feet without noticing several people in matching t-shirts trying to give some free shit away. There was enough free food from companies that I know people went days without having to pay to eat. It was kind of crazy, and felt more like a NASCAR event than a technology conference.
  • Pop-up shops were awesome. I love the idea of temporary storefronts and I've enjoyed seeing them in NYC before. I got both a Glennz tshirt and a new iPad from their respective pop-up shops. There's something cool about taking a traditional brick-and-mortar business model and making it agile and fun and light like the Internet. I hope future SXSW events have as many pop-up shops as food trucks.

Ben Brown

That was about it. I had fun, I liked coming home before it was over, I ate well, and I enjoyed my talk. I also liked recording it and posting it and I hope more speakers at massive conferences record theirs at home so those that wanted to see it but missed it while trying to see 34 other panels at once can see what you worked on that was worth flying across the country to present. Overall I wished I got to see more talks, but I also got to sleep a bunch, but in the end the lasting memory really is missing seeing a lot of people I know because it's a bit too big. Sorry Shawn and Hugh, I know you work hard at it and it shows in being a great event everyone wants to attend, but I think we may have a case of too much success, especially for an old-timer like me.