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SXSWi 2008 Recap

This was my 9th SXSW (I've been to every SXSWi since 2000!), but my first time doing SXSW Music (hence the lowercase "i" in the title). SXSWi was once again much larger than the previous year's, and I think that in terms of organization and logistics, Hugh Forrest and gang have done an impressive job handling the growth. That being said, I have to agree a little bit w/ Jay - I have my concerns w/ where SXSWi is headed. While it had grown a lot last year as well, my 2007 experience seemed to have had both a lot more spontaneity, serendipitous moments, and nostalgic fun (by which I mean being able to hang out and catch up w/ old friends that I only see once a year). I still had a good time though, and I was definitely pacing myself (having headed in directly from all-nighters at ETech and a week of music following), and I'm looking forward to 2009.

Some general thoughts first:

  • A lot of the problem I think stems from the fact that SXSWi is now so big that it has sessions on every floor (1, 3, 4) on every corner of the ACC - besides taking most of the in-between session hangout time to hike from one end to the other, it also means that it's much more difficult to hop between sessions and (probably most importantly) that there *is* no more hallway to hang out in. In all the past SXSW's, whether it's been the 4th floor hallways, the Omni Lobby, or the back of Paradise, or any of the various parties, it's been this sort of mingling that's driven what's made SXSWi really special for me in the past. Obviously my experience isn't universal, but I think the growth has forced a lot more structure because of capacity issues and there's been less stumbling onto great stuff.

    In terms of solutions, I think that for the sessions, it's hard - the ACC is laid out the way it is, and the rooms are all booked full. I think that knowing that all the sessions were being recorded for future podcasting made me less worried about missing out on anything, and maybe that needs to go to the next step (livecasting panels)? Having some better sort of central gathering place is probably the best suggestion (maybe one of the expo halls or the lobby area of the playpen + dell lounge + weird transportation booths).

  • I actually liked the Core Conversations that I swung through/by, but the way that the they were put together into a single room made it pretty impossible to hear or actually conversate. Honestly, I'm not sure how this can be dealt w/ unless they somehow get rooms - I know they were valuable, and even the "niche" topics filled up w/ 30-50 people per session. O'Reilly style BoFs probably wouldn't work since night-time is for party-hopping.
  • Although the parties themselves have also changed in character... The operative phrase for those not arriving 20 minutes before the start of the party seems to have been "one in, one out." This is a situation that is perhaps rife for some sort of techno-social solution involving mobile technologies. While in the past it was nice to have single gathering points, it seems like what's needed now is to have multiple high-capacity events going at any time and with event organizers helping to route over-capacity appropriately - I have to say that SXSW Music, while being much larger, didn't feel half as crowded...

Now, onto the events/sessions - by and large my session/panel experience has continued to get better. I partially attribute this to increased quality, but also (because a lot of people seemed to have hit some bad sessions) a better sense of how to recognize things I'll like and in avoiding stinkers. I also did pretty well at forcing myself up regardless of how tired I was, so here's some mini-reviews.

  • Break Bread w/ Brad - This was much more successful than last year, thanks to 1) reserving a private space 2) admitting mostly people who knew who Brad was and 3) getting people to pay up front. The slideshow with the old school 0.3MP pics of SXSW's past was a nice touch. This was my first Friday event, although it appears that the schedule, like the rest of SXSWi has metastatized - there are good things going on in the day on Friday now and I'll have to plan accordingly...
  • Kick! - This was a welcome return and a good chance to hang out in the sun on Saturday morning. Since Anil got 6A to sponsor this year, there were breakfast tacos as well. Kick! Ass!
  • Harold and Kumar Panel - OK, this was a Film panel (yay Platinum badge) - actually, the only one I dropped in on, but come on, Neil Patrick Harris. Need I say more? I actually misread the time on that one, so only caught the tail end before hoofing it over to the Interactive Keynote, but still. Seeing Doogie in person? Awesome
  • Keynote, Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson - I've blogged before about my (intellectual) man-crush feelings about Jenkins, and it was great to see him, even in the overflow room. This is a guy who speaks in fully formed paragraphs extemporaneously and even manages to elicit extremely erudite questions from the crowd. I met him briefly on the escalator down and kibitzed about Obama.
  • Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts - there were a lot of interesting sounding sessions going on, but I chose this one because I'd never seen John Gruber give a talk and because this session seemed like it'd have the highest chance of having information that would be missing w/o the slides. It was split evenly between Gruber and Lopp, and it was fairly entertaining if not particularly enlightening.
  • Worst Website Ever: That's So Crazy, It Just Might Work - Andy's panel was probably the most fun of this SXSW. Merlin had a good deck, but I do believe that Jeffery Bennett was robbed (of one dollar). If you missed this, maybe that'll teach you to never skip a waxy production.
  • Google Party - skipped it, heard the line and crowd was insane. We had our party at the same venue last year and it was nice to hear the favorable comparisons. Throwing a good party is hard work! Had a nice relaxing dinner at Mekong River instead.
  • 16-Bit - apparently we got there just at the right time - a huge line formed right after we got in. (coincidence? :) The bar line was impossible, but we were saved by enterprising individuals with 6-packs. This was my favorite party at SXSWi (a pretty low bar this year, the only one where I had much fun at). We left early for Paradise though as a fair number of people didn't get in...
  • Paradise - although I didn't spend as much time there this year, it's worth mentioning because it was actually less crowded w/ random people then last year (apparently there was a change of ownership, which worked to our advantage). Also, it was unfortunate that the kitchen closed at 12AM. The bite of burger I had there was *awesome*.
  • PureVolume - I head over there the first night and the last night; didn't have as good of a time; just a different crowd this year I guess
  • How Manga Explains the World - I though Daniel Pink's session was best session at SXSW 2005, so I was pretty set on heading into this. I wasn't as blown away this time around, but it was still very engaging and well worth attending. He also gave out copies of his new book (which I feel the same as the talks I guess. I liked it, but I felt A Whole New Mind was better)
  • Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs - I started out in the China session (potentially great topic but substandard panel) but quickly migrated to Jared Spool's talk, which was great. The right mix of entertainment, showmanship and informational content (where the function and form support each other - I'm sure there's a design meta-lesson there).
  • Designing for Freedom - I was actually hoping to hear more about what freedom and design mean within a social context, when communities start using your tools, but I don't think it ever went there or the question I asked at the end adequately articulated that. For example, what design changes do you make to Orkut when the Brazilians invade and drive away English speakers by spamming all the groups in Portuguese? I'm less interested in talking about "skinning an app" than discussing the sort of interactions that happens when you have these different cultures/groups colliding.
  • Screen Burn - got a chance to take a look at the Blackbird 002 case in person - it's surprisingly chinzy and cheesy, although the internals are quite nicely laid out
  • Space Tent - Props to Buffington for explicitly pointing me to the space tent as I was entering the expo hall - I might have missed it otherwise, and it was most definitely the best thing I saw at SXSWi. The demo they were showing had NASA's Digital Universe Atlas, which included navigable astronomical data of the known universe loaded and other cool stuff. The main downside seems to be that they sell their software for $28K (they mostly do installations for museums and the like? see here)
  • Afternoon Delight - Yahoo!'s little soiree this year was at the Iron Cactus. Good food, good drinks, and just the right size/type of crowd (throwing parties during sessions might be the way to go moving forward).
  • The Gawker party was incredibly crowded by the time we got there so we had a relaxing meal (with Texas-sized portions) at Sullivan's instead. It was good, but ended up taking forever, both for meal prep and for service, as their computers were down. From there, we headed on over to ACL and caught most of the Spinto Band set (but missed Litespeed Champion, whom I would end up trying to catch and miss 4 times this SXSW). After a quick stop-off at the Blogger party I went to try to catch MC Frontalot but didn't like the lines, and called it a night instead.
  • Scalability Boot Camp - also worth mentioning that the Marriott's free breakfast is really what made rolling out of bed for the 10AM sessions possible (Hampton Inn and Marriott both have breakfast bars). I was pleasantly impressed by the panel's preparation of "slides" and "talking points." I left midway through to check out the Building Developer-Friendly Web Service APIs session and was substantially less impressed. I ended up back at the Scalability session.
  • The Web That Wasn't - I've actually seen most, if not all of Alex Wright's presentation before, but it was still worthwhile (it's that good, you can check out a version on YouTube)
  • PMOG: The Web as a Play Field - Merci and Justin were great, and Justin had one of my favorite slides of the conference. Still, I do wish I had caught the keynote, which by all accounts was quite good.
  • Design Eye for South By - I've really liked the Design Eye panels in the past, so I was pretty excited by this year's session - especially since there's really no end to the ways in which this year's topic, the SXSW site itself (no offense), could be improved. What I wasn't expecting was to be sitting in a panel where they droned on for 40min (out of a 1hr preso) without showing anything. And then for it to be a rather underwhelming styled friendfeed. Yeah, well, that could have gone better I guess. (you can talk about 'strategic' design, but if you want to do that, maybe covering some of the basic use cases (err, bands? mobile?) might have been good). I'm not gonna harp on it, I just wish it had been more worthwhile (or at least entertaining).
  • Bio-Networks: Using Mobile Technology to Impact Healthstyle - I hung out in this session way too long. Basically the entire time was spent covering this person's ITP project without having any sort of insights in the topic area (physical instrumentation in general, or even on fertility in specific - ie, she wasn't able to answer questions people had about the effectiveness of the device because obviously it hasn't been deployed yet). Still, this made for a bit of good wandering time.
  • 20x2 - was pretty great this year (and I even caught the whole thing!) -- more videos than usual, which seems to be sort of a cop-out (although I quite liked Rannie's vid). There are always great ones, but I think Simon Batistoni, gave the standout answer this time around.
  • For better or worse I spent most of the rest of the night at the Frrvrr party w/ a few friends. Not being the most social, but catching some good bands. After a brief stopover at Ginger Man (mmm, framboise lambic on tap), I went to check out PV - which had a ridiculous line, so I ended up heading back to the hotel, but caught some friends heading to Magnolia's Cafe (when in Austin...). This turned out to be a very good thing - not only a late night breakfast with good company, but I also said hi to an old co-worker (we both worked in Austin in 2000) who also turned out to have proposed to his girlfriend at the postsecret keynote I had missed. It's a very, very small world.
  • Life After the i-Phone - I was pleasantly surprised when I rolled in to this panel because I didn't know that Scott Jenson was going to be up there. He's given the best mobile UI presentation I've seen (at a BayCHI session @ PARC), and obviously his recent work, particularly GMaps Mobile speaks for itself. So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that this was by far and most definitely the worst session I attended this SXSW. Personally, I put the blame squarely at the feet of the moderator, although there were some real bozos on the panel as well (I love it when a panelist who's spent the past several turns parroting the previous speaker says he has nothing to add and then continues to speak for several minutes). I peeled myself off after the Q&A started and it was obvious things weren't going to get any better, but wow. Just wow. I'm absolutely certain that everyone, panelist and audience alike came out of that room stupider. Net subtraction of value. Which is a shame considering that there are truly interesting things to talk about in terms of how the iPhone has affected mobile design and the industry.
  • Core Conversation: Next Generation Education: Bringing the New Web to Campus - Sam Felder led this conversation admirably. It was too bad that the room was set up the way that it was, it was really good to get attendees to actually participate
  • Keynote: Jane McGonigal - awesome, awesome presentation. even if there was a bit of an intellectual shell-game going on (bringing games into real life isn't the same as turning life into a game because there are basic issues with how ludic qualities such as the magic circle (playing by the rules, safety net) don't map when it's real life and people don't know they're involved. still, well worth thinking about the larger impact of these things we make).
  • Creative Collaboration: Building Web Apps Together - yay, designers + developers. I'm not sure it was exactly representative but I do like all these people and they show the "better way" of how things could be.
  • Futurists' Sandbox: Scenarios for Social Technologies in 2025 - After several minutes of listening to the future diary of Rollergirl I left. Interesting fun-fact: all futurists talk in a sing-songy way like Bruce Sterling
  • Taking Over the World: the Flickr Way - Simon has a very relaxing voice
  • Drinks at the Four Season (the back patio is quite nice), a trip to the Whole Foods (there's a no picture policy, but I got a few shots off) and then headed in to the tail end of the Digg Shindigg which had started filling up w/ music people I didn't know (instead of web and film people I didn't know)
2008-03-23 02:26:10