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Grading SXSW Interactive | Digital Savant

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Grading SXSW Interactive

By Omar L. Gallaga | Monday, March 22, 2010, 01:30 PM


Everyone’s South by Southwest Interactive is different based on the panels you choose to attend, the parties you’re able to get into (did you remember to RSVP?) and the unplanned encounters you have along the way. It can be magical if you balance work and play, planning and going-with-the-flow, but it can also be frustrating if the festival stars don’t align quite right for you.

For 2010’s festival, the record attendance could have made the event a crowded disaster, but somehow, that didn’t happen. Instead, the fest felt busier, but also more varied and spread out. If the festival isn’t careful, it runs the risk of sprawling out and diluting its best parts, but you can bet organizers are already considering this for SXSW 2010.

So, with the understanding that my SXSW 2010 probably differed greatly from everyone else’s, here’s my grading on different parts of Interactive:

Panels: B+ — I complained before the fest (in a graphic, no less), that some tropes of panels seem to happen again and again and are noticeable to those of us who attend every year. Panel names frequently have attention-grabbing, curse-word-laden titles, include overly provocative speakers (say, porn stars), or rehash themes that come up every year and are never resolved. But attending the actual panels, I found more hits than misses and I left fewer panels out of boredom than any previous years. Smart panel organizers included good visuals in the presentations, opened up the floor early for questions from the audience and wisely used their expertise. That being said, I heard of several high-profile panels with audio problems and I attended at least two sessions featuring solo speakers who addressed big, empty halls (more on that below under “Organization”). But overall I found the panel programming to be more useful and varied this year.

Keynotes: C — The Ev Williams keynote was worse than a trainwreck: it was just boring. And despite her obviously gigantic brain, keynoter Danah Boyd was mostly preaching to the choir with obvious examples of privacy breaches by Google Buzz, Facebook and Chatroulette. I didn’t attend Daniek Ek’s keynote, but it sounds like it went well and Valerie Casey’s plea to keep the fest sustainable did draw attention. But Ek was at the fest to promote a service that isn’t available in the U.S. yet and which may be hurt instantly if Apple decided to offer a music streaming service. He was a good choice for a Tuesday keynote as the Interactive fest yields to Music, but his company, Spotify doesn’t feel like a slam dunk for the U.S. market. Casey of the Designers Accord seemed like a great keynote choice and seemed to have been greeted positively. So, overall, the good balanced out the bad, but it sounds like there was no knockout keynote like last year’s Tony Hseih talk or 2008’s emotional keynote from Post Secret’s Frank Warren.

Parties: A- — I couldn’t hit every big party, but the ones I did attend seemed to have fewer long lines and better attendance. The party scene seemed to have spread to a bigger variety of large clubs and to my eyes the lines seemed more organized and moved more quickly than, say, last year’s Facebook party or Mashable’s bash at Six Lounge. The stand-out for me was Scoot Inn’s Cog’Aoke and TechKaraoke at Six, both of which felt like the perfect combination of music (a live band served up karaoke at the latter), alcohol and geek energy. Less successful were parties like Gowalla’s fest at Belmont, which was packed uncomfortably indoors because of rain. Next year: less standing around drinking in crowded bars and more interactive events featuring live music.

Organization: B- — The 3 p.m. line to pick up badges the day before Interactive was a beast, but to everyone’s surprise, it moved quickly and efficiently. The new format of having panels in four different locations was a little less successful — while some events all the way over at the Radisson Austin did attract attendees, I found myself skipping anything that took me too far away from the Convention Center area during the day. Locations for panels sometimes seemed to make little sense: On at least two panels I saw a solo speaker address a cavernous exhibit hall with few people while a panel featuring speakers from CNN, MTV, Facebook and Mashable was packed to the gills with people. While I can’t imagine the logistics of organizing so much programming across so many rooms, some of the locations didn’t make a lot of sense and attendees and speakers sometimes suffered for it.

Weather: A+ / D — The first few days of the fest were gorgeous; the kind of weather that makes people move here (just don’t tell them about August in Austin). But Monday and Tuesday were rainy and cold. The Monday night parties in particular suffered as rooftops and outdoor patios were abandoned and the areas indoors were crammed with people. Venues that were only a few blocks away walking distance suddenly required a cab ride.

Official app / Web site: C- — I didn’t talk to a single person at the fest who was impressed with the official “my.SXSW” app. In fact, people told me they gave up using it before the fest when it wouldn’t function (it was soon fixed) or gave it up after the first day when they couldn’t find information about panelists on the app. The app didn’t include a built-in QR reader, requiring attendees to download a separate app for that only to find that the codes on everyone’s badge only led to the attendee’s profile on the SXSW Web site. Once there, there wasn’t an easy way to import that contact information on the go. In short, the app was full of problems. The Web site was much better than last year’s version, but there’s still something about it that feels clunky and difficult to navigate. Luckily the Web site’s search (for panels, speakers, etc.) works quite well. But every now and then you’d find a weird glitch (like keynotes not being listed under “panels”).

Unofficial tools: A — Sched.org was still great on the Web, but a mobile app wasn’t available on Apple’s App Store until the fest was ending (oops). Luckily, tools like sitby.us took up the slack as did FourSquare and Gowalla, which proved extremely useful at the fest, as did the multitude of Twitter apps that attendees used to post photos and Tweets during panels and parties.

Vibe: B+ — The most unscientific of these categories, but I found most attendees to be positive, friendly and ready to learn, engage and participate. It was a departure from the gloom and doom of years past. With the emergence of tablet devices, more mobile and the explosion of social networking, it felt like new energy has been breathed into the fest since 2008.

Overall: B+ — Despite potential landmines and an economy that’s still hasn’t completely rebounded, the fest was bigger than it’s ever been and several people who’ve been to the fest repeatedly told me this was their favorite so far. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but for a fest facing so much growth so quickly, it’s amazing the whole thing came together with few hitches. There’s room for improvement for 2011, but the fest organizers should be very proud of how much happened this year and how much enjoyment festgoers got out of SXSWi 2010.

Want to know what other people thought? Take a look at some of the responses I got on Twitter to my question of how you’d grade the fest. The responses seem to range from A- to B-.

Got your own grades? Post them in the comments.

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Written by wesley83

March 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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