5 things I learned at #SXSW Interactive 2012


As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I got to attend this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Texas, from March 9 to 13. This was my first time attending SXSW, so aside from being overwhelmed, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Since today was my last day at this huge nerdapalooza, I thought I’d write down a few of my thoughts and impressions while they’re still fresh.

I should say first that it was great to meet so many people across a variety of industries. During my time at SXSW, I had conversations with film producers, software developers, CEOs, philanthropists, content strategists, graphic artists, community managers… the list goes on! I was so tickled that I even got to briefly introduce myself to some of my content strategy heroes, including Kristina Halvorson!, who encouraged me to blog more. In context, she meant for me to blog more about content strategy specifically — I’ll get to that! — but in the meantime, here are the 5 things I learned at South by South West Interactive 2012:


1) This is a conference of ideas you’ve mostly heard already, presented well
Panels at SXSWi are ranked by comprehension or difficulty level (or something)–basic, intermediate, and advanced–and I was honestly disappointed by how many advanced panels I found myself leaving after only 15 minutes or so of listening to the speaker. With one or two exceptions, after attending panels for four straight days, nothing I heard really blew my mind. After hearing years of hype about how life-changing SxSWi is, this was pretty disappointing.

The things that DID blow my mind were mainly where cutting-edge tech and art intersected — engineers doing amazing work with sensors and light, for example. Aside from that, a lot of the ideas presented were nicely packaged and argued well, but weren’t terribly new. Perhaps I didn’t hit the right panels, or perhaps it just wasn’t the best year for new ideas at SXSW. (Fellow attendees, I’m especially interested to hear your comments on this!)

Here’s a I video I took of something I found noteworthy: life-size boxing robots completely controlled by players using a Kinect:

2) It’s really not that nerdy or geeky
As a bonafide capital-G Geek and sorta-Nerd, I saw and met a lot of high-functioning, extroverted types at SXSW who made eye contact and could hold a real conversation. Yes, you’ll see some references to Star Trek or Star Wars, and yes, I saw at least 2 Deloreans parked around the festival, and yes, references to internet memes will be dropped with gusto, but when news reports call SXSW a nerd convention or some such, that’s just lazy. You’re seeing way more ironic mustaches and skinny jeans here than anything else. Let’s be honest: It’s a hipster convention, not a geek convention. (And that’s A-OKAY!)


3) The most high-tech things you’ll see may also be borderline scary
I attended a number of panels on cutting-edge technology and their applications, and the tech displayed therein has seemingly unlimited potential to be exploited…for good OR bad purposes. My faith in humanity fell a bit after attending a panel on marketing and consumer privacy (in relation to exploiting personally identifiable information or PII), because hearing marketers salivate about how to exploit PII can be a bit terrifying if you care at all about privacy and security. Even just walking around the SXSWi convention center halls and seeing displays hawking the latest and greatest in technology made me uncomfortably aware that the Eye in the Sky is definitely (already) watching and analyzing us.


4) The best fun is spontaneous
On my second night at SXSWi, my friends and I were flagged by a group of loud semi-drunk Brits and pulled into an unlabeled limo bus. We had no idea what was going on, but they soon put beers into our hands and that bus started blaring awesomely trashy techno music: we’d been pulled onto a party bus rented by a new startup social application. While bracing ourselves as the bus lurched back and forth, we actually managed to shout a few words at each other and establish some basic business connection. It was undeniably fun, and not something we could ever plan for. I’m glad for it, too. Why does it matter? Anyone who says they’re not going to try to have fun while at SXSWi is completely lying. While you’ll network your face off, some of the best networking happens at after-hours fun events.

5) Your feet are going to hurt after a day or two
Just like at any other tradeshow, you’ll be walking, but mainly you’ll be standing around. The walking wasn’t bad (I’m a Bostonian after all) but wow, the standing around was killer. Even in my comfiest sneakers, I was in pain after the second day.

A few extra observations…
Google throws the best parties: Google Village is a series of parties along Rainey Street where Google rented out entire bars and themed each one after a major Google product, like Droid or Maps. The atmosphere at these bars were perfect — a little geeky (lego robots!), very chill, and not too crazy. The music was never too loud so you couldn’t hear people talking. I enjoyed my time at Google Village and had some great conversations with fellow Google fans. (And hooray for not being the only Droid user in a sea of iPhones!)

A lot of people really can’t handle rain: As you probably heard, it rained the first few days of #SxSWi, and everyone complained about it. Well, everyone but anyone from Seattle or Boston, from what I can tell from the overall chatter. It was 50 degrees and rainy in March. In Boston, we call that awesome weather!

A big THANK YOU to the wonderful people of Austin, who were generous and kind to the noisy invaders overrunning their city. Austin residents do their city proud by how well they treated SXSW attendees, and they have a well-deserved reputation for being wonderful hosts.

I head back to my lovely home city of Boston tomorrow morning, I hope to do a write-up of apps, sites, and tools that caught my attention at SXSWi, some of which I’ve already taken for a spin. In the meantime, time for me to pack up.

If you’re interested in seeing the other photos I took, you can view my Google Plus SXSW photo album right here.

Was 2012 your first SXSWi too, or are you a veteran? I’d love to hear what you thought of this year’s festival in the comments.