2008 was my first year in Austin. The year of the Zuckerberg interview. I knew basically no one in tech. And even fewer people knew me. I had just started working for VentureBeat. My badge, which I had bought before starting the job with VentureBeat, said I worked for ParisLemon.com.
Seven years is not a lot of time in SXSW-years — I know plenty of people who have been going for twice as long as that (and many more who have gone even longer). But it is enough time to have some perspective on the event — at least as it has existed in the “social, local, mobile” (I refuse to use that forced acronym) world. So here are some thoughts having just left SXSW 2014.
The entire thing feels muted. I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way. It’s not like I’m saying “SXSW sucks!”, I’m just saying it doesn’t feel like it has the same energy that it did even in 2008.
Austin feels like it’s spreading out. Also not necessarily a bad thing. But I think this is one of the main reasons for my first point. Rather than everyone hanging out in a four block radius, it’s more like an eight block radius now. This makes sense since the event is much larger than it was even in 2008.
The result is parties that are less crowded (good) and parties where you know fewer people (bad — though maybe good).
Brands dominate. This isn’t new, but it continues to become more clear. Everything is sponsored. I swear that even some sponsored things are sponsored by someone else. It’s also easy to hate on this, but it does mean that as long as you can get to Austin and can find a room, you can do nearly everything else for free.
Austin remains a cool city. The food is obviously excellent (assuming you like BBQ). But if you can get outside of the 8x8 SXSW grid, there’s a lot of other great things in the city as well. If you’ve been to SXSW multiple times, I’d highly recommend venturing outside the bounds.
Rain makes SXSW 1000x worse. I think in my seven years in Austin, it has rained about half the time. The good news is that this year, it really only rained for one day. The bad news is that the one day was awful. Thanks largely to Austin’s ass-backwards transportation laws (no Uber allowed), it was impossible to get anywhere in the rain. And if you did manage to get to a party, it was likely ruined by the fact that many of the best spaces in Austin incorporate outdoor areas — and those have to be closed down in the rain. So, you have the same number of people in half the space. What fun!
All of this is made worse by the fact that the day after SXSW Interactive, it was absolutely beautiful. 80 degrees and sunny. This is Austin at its finest. Sadly, SXSWi varied from rain to cold to clouds for the most part.
The Lack of Uber Really Sucks Seriously, WTF, Austin?
Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges. But really, you don’t. The truth is that there are only a few panels maybe worth going to.1 And those are likely to be hard to get into (waiting in long lines). Honestly, I’d skip getting a badge if you decide to go. The cost isn’t worth it. And if you really need to, you can probably borrow someone’s.
One night to rule them all. I don’t know why, but it sure seems like each year there’s a vast conspiracy between multiple parties to hold the best parties on the same night at the same time. Actually, I’m quite sure the opposite is true and these people should actually coordinate in the future. Not every party has to be on Sunday night just because it’s the middle of the event.
SXSWSars. I can confirm that it’s a real disease from my previous five years. But this year I managed to avoid it. How? Unclear. It was either a healthy dose of Lone Star beer or going to bed every night before midnight. I recommend both.
Overall, I found SXSW to be enjoyable this year. But that’s mainly because I kept it simple. I ate good food, drank good beer, was able to take a bunch of meetings in a relatively confined radius, and walked around Austin. I’m long over my “SXSW is over!” phase (that was roughly 2010 or 2011). But I also don’t exactly think it’s the best festival around.
I do worry that it’s getting too generic. And in an age of economic restraints, I’m not sure I would tell anyone they need to go to SXSW. But I absolutely would have after 2008. And I can’t quite tell if that says more about me or SXSW yet. Maybe I’ll figure it out next year.
Aside from the ones you’re either on or go to in order to support loved ones, of course. ↩