For the last several years I’ve been meaning to attend SXSW Interactive, but time after time something always got in the way. Last year, just after the 2010 festival concluded, I decided to lock-in early for 2011. As soon as tickets became available I snatched one up, booked my hotel and flight, and began the long, slow wait for the 2011 festival.
It would be hard to exaggerate just how massive this conference has become. Attendance for the Interactive arm of the festival is now higher than that for the music festival. The festival is full of interesting sites and sounds and everyday there are panels featuring tech superstars like Clay Shirky, Jane McGonigal, and Jonathan Zittrain.
This is not to say that every panel is good, or even worthy enough to be at a conference of this stature. I walked out of several panels over my six days, but I almost always found something more interesting just down the hall.
The range of discussion topics at the conference is quite broad. As Internet and mobile communications have become increasingly important across disciplines, SXSW Interactive has drawn speakers and attendees from a wide variety of industries. Web designers, human rights activists, marketing directors, and journalists are all there en-masse looking to make connections or find out about the next big thing. The topics I attended at this year’s conference ranged from the ethics of crowdsourcing, to using open data to build programmable cities. In many ways the scale and variety of the programs are good in that everyone can find something of interest, but this abundance can lead to uneven results. Some panels are just better than others and its hard to predict which ones will be good just by looking at the schedule.
If you’ve already studied a topic intently, some of the presentations can have an awfully ‘101’ kind of feel to them. For example, on Saturday there were two presentations on ‘location based services.’ Both lectures were at exactly the same time and hosted only 100 yards from each other. Each had descriptions that were nearly identical. This might not be so bad if one was marked clearly for beginners and the other was marked for more advanced developers. In this instance the content was nearly the same. I attended one, left in the middle and then went into the other. After a few minutes, I left that one too.
Eventually I developed a strategy to avoid these kinds of situations by going to talks that focused on concepts like net neutrality or publicness versus privacy rather than specific technologies like digital wallets or geo-location. Once I adopted this strategy I found myself walking out on far less talks and found greater connections to what I was interested in learning about.
The locations of talks were spread out across Austin. From the AT&T Center north of the capitol, to the Hyatt hotel on the south side of the river. Nearly all of them were accessible to walk to, but I sometimes found myself making hard choices about whether to skip the Q&A section of a presentation in order to make the fifteen minute walk across town to another location. I learned that if I timed things right, I could be greatly rewarded. Talks outside the Austin Convention Center were sparsely attended but for me, they contained many conference highlights.
Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu, author of one of my favorite books from last year, the Master Switch, hosted a lecture on net neutrality so small that it turned it into an intimate town hall. And even though I showed up at the last minute, I was still able to get a decent seat to see journalist Jeff Jarvis deliver a presentation on privacy based on research for his latest book Public Parts, which won’t be released until September.
It’s these lucky moments that make going to SXSW Interactive worthwhile. As Hanson Hosein noted in his Flip the Media piece on the festival a few days ago, for the six days this festival lasts Austin becomes the “center of the universe” for the technology industry. For the crowd of enthusiasts like me, this is a once in a year opportunity where we can participate in conversations that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
For example, on the opening day of the festival, Clay Shirky gave a keynote about the role that social media played in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. During the Q&A session that followed one conference attendee asked Shirky what he thought about Flickr’s recent removal of photos posted by Egyptian blogger Hossan Arabawy– photos stolen from the former Egyptian regime that exposed the Mubarak government’s abusive practices. Shirky encouraged the audience to push Flickr to reinstate the photos and support exposing the former government’s practice of torture.
But the discussion didn’t end there. A few days later I attended a session called ‘Building Human Rights into Your Social Site.’ One of the speakers on the panel was Ebele Okobi-Harris, a lawyer who works as the Director of Business and Human Rights at Yahoo, the company that owns Flickr. The same man who brought up Flickr’s removal of the photos was in attendance here as well, and was able to ask Yahoo’s lawyer directly about the issue. Another man in the audience stood up to tell Okobi-Harris that he was the benefactor who funded Arabawy’s Flickr Pro account, and he wasn’t satisfied with her answer. A healthy civil debate ensued.
The point of the story isn’t just that this conversation was kept alive by passionate people over the course of several days. It is that SXSW is unique in being the kind of place where these sorts of conversations can happen, because once a year, the city of Austin becomes the place where many of the people who care about these topics most, converge.
From an MCDM student’s perspective, SXSW Interactive is an unparalleled chance to make connections, find out about new and inspiring projects, and hear lectures by many of the authors, designers, and journalists whose work we study in our program. It’s a chance to ask questions, learn new things, and maybe even have a little fun.
No matter what area of technology you’re passionate about, at SXSW you can share that passion with others. You can add your voice to the dialogue, and discuss your thoughts and ideas with others. Conversations that can span different sessions, spill into hallways and continue online. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what community is all about.