Decompressing: How I Ran Through SXSW

South by Southwest

I’m back from my second year at the South by Southwest interactive conference and I must say that it was a totally new experience for me. And while there have been posts written condemning SXSW as a place full of douchebaggery and others praising it for being a great one, I’d like to think that it was a bit of both. Now, don’t get me wrong…there were some things that I’d like to see done differently, but I would still recommend SXSW to be one of the conferences that everyone must go to, especially if they’re involved in the online space.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts, I volunteered to go to SXSW this year as one of their photographers and for the most part, I think that it was a superb move on my part – simply because I had access to some great people and was able to document the entire conference. Granted this responsibility took me out of the loop from getting to a lot of great events that I would have liked to, but I would not have changed how I did SXSW this year. For the most part, I met a lot of great people and also reconnected with a bunch of others. The parties were great networking opportunities and if you went to any of them, then you surely got to meet both your peers and occasionally ran into a lot of the “thought leaders” in the industry – those that you read about on blogs and even some actual celebrities (e.g. Ashton Kutcher, Milo Ventimiglia, etc.). My days were so busy, in fact, that I barely had 30 minutes to myself to even collect my thoughts and rest before it was off to yet another panel or keynote.

The panels that I did go to and stayed longer than 5 minutes after snapping photos were pretty mellow – nothing noteworthy stood out to me. Even the keynotes were a bit different from last year. While Tony Hsieh’s keynote was quite moving and inspirational last year, Danah Boyd’s talk about privacy and publicity on the Internet was great but nothing insightful – it didn’t scream at me, “I bet you didn’t know this…I’m teaching you stuff!” Even the next day’s keynote featuring Valerie Casey failed to motivate me – the one thing that I took away from that was her trying to have us move towards being service-oriented and help others…a noble cause, but I think it fell a bit on deaf ears, in my opinion. And while I was able to access a majority of panels easily with my SXSW press credentials, I unfortunately couldn’t get into Ev William’s keynote – but I heard through the web that it wasn’t that big of a deal. In fact, probably the biggest thing noteworthy from that was the stream of people trying to evacuate the room because of the dreadful interview.

In my recent post on surviving SXSW, I mentioned that you should keep track of what your main objective for going is. If it’s to learn all that you can about a particular topic and go back to your office and teach others, then I think you could have learned something great at SXSW. In fact, what I found quite interesting was that they had an “unofficial” track for video production and marketing. I noticed a theme on the third day of sessions that all centered around doing online video. I’m sure that if I examined the schedule more closely, I could have noticed a pattern amongst all the other sessions sorted by day. This was a pretty good move on SXSW’s part, officially or unofficially. But remember what your main objective is…for me, it was to photograph as many things and get out there and network. It worked splendidly for me last year and I’m sure that it would this year…and I was not proven wrong. Oh, and I was pleasantly surprised to run into Charlene Li who gave me a sneak peek at her new book Open Leadership which is set to come out around May 2010 (I think).

So what would I do differently next year? I would look at the different sessions and events and look at which ones would have a better cost-benefit ratio to it. If I went to a panel or session, what would I get out of it and what would they teach me that I didn’t know versus going out to a meetup with Brian Solis and Gary Vaynerchuk where they filmed a live episode of WineLibrary.TV? I’m thinking the latter would prove beneficial because I can get my name out to these influencers and talk with them and perhaps have a more intimate conversation than it would be had they been on a panel. My motivation to photograph them has succeeded 10x over – I have photos of folks like:

But let’s address some of the criticism about SXSW…was it all that and a bag of chips? Compared to last year, I’d say that there was definitely something different. Sure, there were several thousand more people there – a huge increase and it definitely appeared more crowded. How crowded? So crowded that people that I came to SXSW with, I hardly saw most of the time & when I did, it was only for minutes. There were so many things to do that I didn’t even get a chance to see all the people I knew – we just wound up being so tied down with other events and interesting things that there wasn’t enough time to get together. And what about the douchebaggery that people claimed was prevalent at SXSW? Oh it was there…I’m pretty sure, but I didn’t see any of it myself. Unfortunately, Austin is a great town and when we come by every year, it’s becoming more like a true spring break atmosphere like we had when we went to Tijuana or Panama City during our college days (a la “MTV Spring Break with Carson Daly”). I think that there’s definitely a great chance for folks like us to meet some of the thought leaders and make some serious connections with business people and chat with some of the folks working on the tools that we’re using in our daily lives – like FourSquare, Twitter, GoWalla, Tungle, etc. We’re all normal people and SXSW, for the most part, represents that. And sadly, yes, there are some bad grapes that attend SXSW that just are mean and degrading to other attendees and├é┬ádecidedly ruin it for others by causing trouble, mayhem & unwarranted mischief.

For businesses interested in sending people to SXSW, I’d say to them that they should embrace SXSW and not shy away from letting their employees go. If you are involved in the online/interactive sector, you’re going to get to hear people on panels talk about their own efforts and while they may seem to pitch themselves for an hour, you’re going to be able to walk away with some great case studies that you can take back to your employers and share that knowledge. Plus, you’re going to be able to make some business connections that may lead to long-term partnerships or perhaps even new customers.

And lastly, a tip…anyone I met at SXSW will tell you that I was running from one end of the convention center to the end, never really stopping and going to all the parties. That’s the trick…never stop. Always be on your guard about the next opportunity and seize it. If you want something, go after it. SXSW will not stop and tell you what you need to do. Make your own opportunities…these five days will surely give you a chance to reinvent yourself and present some great surprises.

SXSW PhotosPhoto recap: If you’re interested in looking at what exactly went down at SXSW, including at the various parties such as the Mashable MashBash, TechSet/Windows Phone Opening Party, TechKaraoke, at flash mobs, the TechSet + Windows Phone Blogger Lounge, sessions or even the keynotes, then you’ll want to check out my Flickr photostream for all the photos. These photos are available for use on websites, blogs and publications and will be used by SXSW in the future. Photo credit to (cc) Kenneth Yeung — thelettertwo.com.