SXSW Interactive is not a tech conference anymore

sxsw is over

Call the morgue.

I just got back from Austin, where I got to check the pulse of SXSW and see how it’s doing. If you want the TL;DR for the next 1300 words, this is it: SXSW Interactive is DOA. Other tech conferences are quietly moving on, and the tech industry is doing the same.

Last year, I was an Austinite, and a local member of the startup community. I commuted in from my apartment to attend, and it was my city that was being invaded by the tech scene’s Spring Breakers. This year, I attended SXSW as a tourist, having moved to SF close to 6 months ago.

This year, I wasn’t one of the locals faking (or not faking) their distaste for the crowds of fewer nerds, but 10 times that many marketing people from San Francisco, and all over the world, to the ordinarily small town of Austin.

As an import, I looked at SXSW with very different eyes than last year. As I walked and Uber Pedi-cabbed around Austin from party to party, event to event, the crowds felt awfully thin. In comparison, once Music kicked off, 6th Street came alive like everyone expects it to. Interactive didn’t generate the same raw energy it had in years past.

There has been a lot of talk that South-By is “over,” and the proof I noticed was compelling. A number of the “influential” folks had opted not to attend. Lots of people were talking about XOXO in Portland being the new “under the radar” influencer conference that the cool people will attend instead. And as I wrote this, I saw Tweets from YxYY popping up in my feed as further evidence that the innovators and creative folks who make SXSW amazing may be abandoning the festival.

I didn’t quite understand how SXSW Interactive could possibly wane until I started thinking about the roots of what SXSW Interactive really must have been like a decade ago. Picture a small nucleus of entrepreneurs and technologists taking refuge in the slower pace of Austin for a big palaver about the amazing things they were trying to build, to share new ideas, and get drunk together one weekend every year.

Now, picture that not happening. Instead of taking advantage of Austin’s slow pace to draw out the ideas over a weekend of badass panels and intimate parties, large company interests have done their very best to turn downtown Austin into the Vegas strip, replete with free booze and meaningless parties sponsored by Coke-a-Cola, Doritos, and Target.

SXSW Interactive from a decade ago didn’t need Vegas Edition anymore than CSI needed a Miami edition. If that is what SXSW has become, the organizers should own that and move to Vegas.

What the hell happened?

SXSW’s heyday would have been before smartphones, when it was still wasn’t cool to know how to spin up your own dev server, and startups hadn’t become so mainstream that Bravo TV, home of America’s Next Top Model, decided to try a startup reality show.

The conference has gotten bloated. Attendance will easily exceed 30,000 this year. You can’t make a genuine connection in that crowd. There’s simply too many people to navigate Austin and find the people you’re looking for. It’s totally out of control as a marketing fest.

The masses have taken over the festival, which means the early adopters are moving on to the next event. That’s the way of things. Conference Darwinism.

But really, there’s no shame in the SXSW organizers capitalizing on the profitability of the festival, feeding off of the reputation of innovation that has been spurred there in the past. But the fact that everyone universally agrees that SXSW is a terrible place to launch is telling. And it means that SXSW should probably stop marketing itself the same way it did in 2005.

When Target is partnering with FastCompany to throw a giant party at SXSW, you know that the target market is no longer the startup community.

Yep, there’s tons of money to be made at SXSW, and more power to them for cashing in. It’s an incredibly profitable market to cater to and I don’t fault the organizers for chasing the money. After all, based on what I can see, there are plenty of conferences in plenty of awesome cities for the tech set to migrate their time and attention to.

Of course, the conference organizers love the growth. It means more money. What’s better than selling 3,400 SXSW badges? Selling ten times that many.

Does innovation require small, intimate groups to happen?

The fertile conversations of years past aren’t happening as much. Unless you’re already in the same GroupMe with Robert Scoble and Brian Solis, you’re probably at a party that an agency spent a gazillion bucks planning, but ends up being a glorious spectacle that everyone attended, but nobody remembers.

Finding *the* hot event is a game where people stay buried in their phones, hunting on various apps, hoping to locate the epicenter of “cool” before it vanishes into the night, or behind a velvet rope.

Everyone who attended this year spent a lot of time either trying to catch a good gathering, or waiting in line, and not nearly enough time engaged with the people SXSW is supposed to be about.

For balance, I did meet some amazing people this year, and had a handful of *amazing* conversations. There were a number of small, intimate events that I was really proud to attend. But those intimate interactions were an edge case, not the norm.

In 2005, fewer than 3,400 attended SXSW. With 30,000 plus attendees this year, no wonder it felt so hard to find an intimate gathering. You might as well be hoping people would notice your brand new iPhone app out of 750,000,000 in the App Store.

Maybe influencer conferences like SXSW simply have a shelf life. Clayton Christensen might even have a comment about the edge of innovation and Tech Conferences.

What it comes down to

The people who live on the cutting edge of innovation and new ideas are the men and women who make a conference like SXSW. When a group of those folks gather together and share ideas for a week, everyone comes away talking and blogging about the AWESOME of simply being together. People reveal (launch) their new products, key relationships are formed, and companies get funded precisely because of the influential nature of the attendees and the access they get at an intimate conference.

Of course, when they come back the next year, a few folks who aren’t quite on the cutting edge will join them, and a few years later, Doritos and Target will catch on, and send their agencies, and that transforms what was a pretty badass gathering of folks into a big frat party, which is a lot like what SXSW felt like this year.

There were pockets of greatness where I looked around and found myself surrounded by people I knew from the pages of PandoDaily, VC firms, and various startups all talking in one big extended group. Under the right circumstances, a small group of creative people, famous or not, who hang out together for a weekend will invariably share amazing ideas and come away saying, “Holy shit, that was magical. I can’t wait for next year.”

That was what SXSW was like in its first few years.

I don’t believe that the spirit of innovation at SXSW has disappeared from us. It’s just moved on. I’m guessing that every great conference will have a shelf life before the masses “catch on.” I also don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. With every declining institution, there is a new opportunity for creative people to create something new. Andrew Warner calls them “the ambitious upstart.”

Find which other conferences they’re going to this year, and you’ll find the same magic that SXSW used to be.

Here’s to finding that magic in 2013.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter

Writing off into the sunset...I'm a storyteller for products, people, and communities. Seen in the New York Times, Inc.com, the WSJ, and Smashing Magazine. I write with my photos here: Instagram.

15 comments

  • There was a mini-conference centered around the Capital Factory that pulled in all the people you were looking for.

    It has become so big that there is a new underground. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Joshua, you’re 100% correct. Capital Factory facilitated amazing interactions all week long. I was up there quite a bit, and WP Engine hosted our small customer party late one afternoon in the kitchen. Those sorts of smaller, intimate events allow creative people to share their ideas and spark inspiration. But once you walked outside of Capital Factory, things just got nuts.

      As for a new underground, you’re right. That’s definitely happening 🙂

    • Thanks for the props Josh Ellinger, but I wouldn’t call Capital Factory a mini-conference. We just had a lot of people hanging out and coworking. But it did create the serendipitous interactions that are some of the magic of SXSW. I think you would have had a similar experience if you were hanging around the Startup Village or Mass Relevance or other downtown hotspots.

  • I found SXSW to be more disruptive than beneficial to my company. For context, my office is right in the middle of everything at 5th & Brazos. The net result of the event was that noone could come in due to no parking, my office shook from bass every day at noon, and anyone I would normally connect with in Austin was too busy avoiding downtown.

  • You’re obviously in the right about the direction the conference has moved in. But if you’re a start-up and you have a great new platform the world should hear about—why wouldn’t you cater to the Doritos and Targets of the world and figure out a great way to monetize a relationship to turn dreams into reality? Symbiosis with marketing seems to be met with such distaste, when those with the foresight to sell to the marketers before the marketers even come calling will inevitably find success. And sure, much of that festival presence will always be fluff, but it is with the development and networking of talent and technology in mind. Which, at least for me, serves to make the beacons of brilliance present all the more illuminating.

    While SXSW is no longer ‘undergound’, I’d argue that is a good thing for not only the tech world, but the start-ups themselves, marketers and advertisers, and the masses who feed off of them. The irony I see is that some folks who develop new social platforms are quite physically inept at sharing.

  • I have to respectfully disagree. SXSW has evolved but its anything but dead. Sure, it’s not the same as it was 10 years ago, but it’s still an incredible experience that would be hard to duplicate elsewhere and I wouldn’t want to give up.

    I don’t think of SXSW as one massive conference. It’s been three as long as I’ve known it (Music, Film and Interactive) and many other mini-conferences have spun out of it over the past few years (Gaming, Edu, Startup Village, etc). I think this was a brilliant move by SXSW to capture the momentum and density of the bigger events and still allow for intimacy and serendipity.

    SXSW has always been about bleeding the edges of creativity between these different spaces so that you get some music guys at the tech events and some gaming guys at the edu event, etc. I don’t think that this melting pot happens at any other event. I’m glad it happens in Austin!

    • Hey Josh, thanks for the comment and for standing as a pillar of the Austin community, including SXSW. I was a bit worried that I might ruffle feathers (particularly yours) with the post. Your opinion matters.

      Like I mentioned, there were indeed some awesome, intimate events at SXSW this year, some of which other commenters have references. There are pockets of amazing, but it was incredibly hard for me, and other people, to find the intimate events that spark inspiration at SXSW.

      I don’t think those are gone for good, and I do want to see them come back around.

  • Lots of very good points here — I appreciate your feedback. Reading / digesting / implementing community feedback is an incredibly valuable resource in our effort to improve the SXSW Interactive Festival year after year.

    Otherwise, let me be the first to say that I 1000% agree with the headline of your post. We are not a tech conference anymore because we were never ever ever a tech conference. Since we started in 1994, we have always called the event a festival. The choice of words here is very deliberate. “Conference” implies stodgy and academic and boring. By contrast, “festival” is the best word to describe all the amazing things that occur when you mix so many creative people together in one place in one time.

    As for this concept that SXSW Interactive was much better in 2005 when there was a smaller crowd in attendance, I think you are suffering from the myth of the golden past. I was managing the event in 2005 — and I am very proud of what we did then with very limited resources. But there is no comparison between the quality of people attending SXSW in 2005 and the quality of people attending the event in 2013. To use your phrase from another post (see http://www.austingunter.com/2013/03/whats-the-difference-between-austin-and-san-francisco/), the density factor is light years better now than it was eight years ago.

    Are we also a lot bigger now than we were then? Absolutely. But bigger has never been the goal in and of itself. By contrast, better is always the target — and a target that I think we are reaching. With so many more opportunities now for people to make meaningful career-enhancing connections with fellow digital creatives from across the US and around the world, SXSW Interactive is much more relevant now than it ever was before.

    Not that we have any intention of resting on our laurels. We are already hard at work on implementing improvements (many of which were suggested by the community) that will make the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival even better than what happened in Austin this year.

    If you’ve got more specific / detailed feedback on how we can improve next year’s event, you can always reach me via e-mail at hugh at sxsw dot com.

    • Hey Hugh,

      Thanks for taking the time to post. I’m a huge admirer of the work you’ve done in a variety of places, so it’s personally awesome for you to drop by to discuss this. Particularly since I pulled out some heavy rhetoric on here to make a point: I found “tech community” lacking at the festival this year. My singular perspective doesn’t speak for anyone else, but I wanted to offer it anyways. I’ve always found that vocal members of a communities I’ve helped organize often were incredibly willing to invest their mental energy into helping the community or group continue to grow and be healthy.

      You weighing in here 1) provides a deeper perspective on what your intentions are for the Festival, and therefore where I can reset my expectations in future years, and 2) reflects a willingness on the part of the organization to listen. If nothing else, that’s a huge gesture that never goes unnoticed, and does a lot of good on its own.

      I’ll send you a quick email with the gist of what I thought was missing this year. If I can be of any help beyond offering that to keep the festival healthy and growing in future years, I’m at your service.

      -AG

  • Great post. Veteran Austinites are even starting to say, “Austin is the new Dallas.”

    • Thanks for the comment, John, and I love your piece. It’s interesting to see this conversation take shape and grow this year. It’s either the trendy thing to “be over SXSW,” or there is something important happening that will shift attention from the Festival in the future.

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