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Tuesday
Mar132012

The Cult of SXSW

SXSW is an annual film, music and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas. I've attended for six years and spoken at the festival three times, and this year, I was really disappointed by my experience. What follows is my assessment of what's gone wrong and some suggestions for making it better.

Why attend SXSW Interactive?

A human ad at SXSWTo learn? Maybe… but anyone who’s been knows the quality of the panels is spotty, and most are podcast and/or streamed after the fact, so you don’t need to brave the crowds to access session content.  Of course, with the right attitude, you can learn something anywhere – and I do usually find a couple panels that really stay with me -- but after attending the fest six times, I feel confident saying that education is not the event’s main value.

To network? Undoubtedly. People pack their time at SXSW with meetings and meet-ups. It’s a chance to schmooze in person with potential partners, or that guy you know from Twitter. Share some barbecue, some brews, and get that relationship going, under the bright Austin sun (unless, of course, it rains, as it did for the first few days of this year’s fest – a decided interruption of, as my husband calls it, “adult spring break”).

To promote? YES. Oh, yes. Throngs descend on “Southby” to hawk their product, whether it’s a an app or a film or a film app. But the thing that gets the most promotion at SXSW is SXSW itself: “I’m here,” attendees proclaim on their social networks.  As a friend of mine observed, a lot of agencies send people to Southby for no reason other than to be able to say, “Yeah, we were there.”

Southby as Status Symbol

The registration line at SXSW - some people waited 2 hoursOf course, you get even more bragging rights if you can say you spoke at SXSW. I find this absurd, since at least 50 percent of the panels I’ve attended over the years (and probably closer to 80 percent) have been awful. Just because someone is a subject matter expert doesn’t mean they know how to give a presentation, something the festival’s organizers don’t seem to grasp.  I went to a panel on comedy writing that nearly put me to sleep – the moderator and panelists lacked stage presence and energy, and the session itself lacked focus. A marketing panel was so full of bravado, the panelists forgot to interrupt their self-congratulation to actually offer practical advice.

(Full disclosure: As I mentioned above, I've spoken at SXSW for the past three years. I'd like to hope I'm not among those who wear this fact as an empty badge of honor. Jordan and I work our butts off to put together useful, well-crafted sessions about the applications of improv for life and work, and based on the feedback we get, people seem to find them useful. But maybe I'm delusional.)

Of course, some sessions are good. I really enjoyed a conversation between Steal Like an Artist author Austin Kleon and Everything is a Remix producer Kirby Ferguson. They were smart and passionate about the topic at hand. Unlike so many presenters, they seemed engaged – present. They made me think, and the session energized me.

And that’s why I’ve come back to SXSW, year after year – to be energized. To recharge. To see what creative people are doing, in all kinds of fields. Unfortunately, the event has grown so large that I’m afraid this kernel of value is getting lost – drowned out by unmanageable crowds and an overwhelming corporate presence. I remember attending back in 2002 on behalf of PBS, and feeling like I was “the man” – everyone else seemed like garage and basement tinkerers. Now, every major brand is there, from Google to CNN. 

Is the Festival Losing Its Way?

Members of The SourceThe best thing I saw at SXSW this year was a documentary called “The Source” about a cult in LA in the 70s. It was very well done – the tone was neither mocking nor indulgent. You could understand what attracted people to the group in the beginning – a shared interest in health and spirituality – and then you could see things go off the rails, as the group’s leader started boinking all the underage women and members became preoccupied with magic. Watch the trailer:

Watching this film, I found myself thinking about the fine line between passion and fanaticism. The person who prefers organic food turns into the person obsessed with chemicals. The person who enjoys using social media becomes the person who never disconnects. The festival that starts as a gathering for passionate, creative members of the burgeoning interactive media community, then turns into a brand, a symbol, that people worship for its image-boosting powers, rather than an actually valuable experience?

Making It Better

I love SXSW. It's been good to me. I write this not as a snarky rabble rouser but as someone who wants to see the festival find its way. Of course, maybe the changes at SXSW Interactive are just reflective of changes in the web industry as a whole -- more corporate, more brand-conscious. But in a city as cool as Austin, at a festival with such awesome offerings for the film and music communities, there has to be a way to keep the Interactive offerings, well... weird.

Let's not blindly worship, sending in our applications to attend and speak at next year's fest. Let's ask the organizers to make a better festival experience. Here are a couple specific suggestions:

  1. Require video applications from would-be panelists. This is an idea my friend Christa threw out at dinner one night and I love it. First, it weeds people out -- if you aren't willing to take the time to put together, say, a 2-minute mini-version of your session, then chances are you're someone who's just looking for a resume booster, and won't end up putting in the time to prepare a really solid session. Second, it makes presentation skills part of the vetting process. Just because someone is a subject matter expert doesn't mean they could give a decent presentation to save their life. For what people pay to attend SXSW, they deserve better quality sessions with better quality speakers. Finally, SXSW could post these 2-minute videos for all greenlit sessions, as a way of helping attendees plan their schedules.
  2. Limit content and attendance. The event has simply gotten too big. SXSW should set the bar higher and greenlight fewer sessions, and cap attendance. This way, those who do attend get more value for their registration dollars, both in terms of session quality and by avoiding frustrating lines at every turn.

What would you add to the list? If you attended SXSW Interactive this year, are you planning to come back next year? Why or why not?

Images courtesy of Flickr users Justin Levy and Jess Zimbabwe and the website for The Source

Reader Comments (4)

Hi Amanda - great post. I love, love, love the spirit of it - offering up suggestions for making this energizing event better. I'd like to see that happen as well. Just saw that we got the feedback email in our in-boxes today. Will be including the video bit of the application. :)
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChrista Avampato
Thanks Christa! And kudos to you of course for the video idea -- so smart.
March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda
Hi Amanda:

Thank you so much for your take on the event. I have never been to a SXSW event, but I've been to plenty of other smaller-scale tech/social media/lifestyle conferences. I agree with you about speakers....I have a feeling that, with all the hype about how great the festival is, expectations of the speakers' ability are high. And in a lot of cases, we feel let down when speakers fall short in this area. I know I've felt this way.

I also like your description of the fine line between passion and fanaticism. I absolutely agree with what you wrote.

Having taken a year's worth of improv lessons, I'm very curious to read more about applying improv in life and work. Taking those classes changed my life forever. Again, thanks for sharing your insights!
March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim
Hi Tim! So sorry I didn't see that you'd commented sooner -- and thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I think you're right that the hype around SXSW sets the bar high in terms of our expectations for speakers...maybe rightly so? I also have a low tolerance for weak presentations in general... as evidence, I present this performance I did at Ignite DC a few years back, meant to poke fun at terrible Powerpoint presentations ;)

http://tasteepudding.com/2010/05/most-awkward-powerpoint-ever/

I see from your blog that you're in Chicago, which means you are in the best place on earth to be falling in love with improv!!! Have you seen TJ & Dave perform?
March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

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