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Monday, March 29, 2010

SxSWi 2010: the art of balancing social with substance

Circus Mashimus lounge @ SxSWi 2010I attended my first SxSWi this month with the great folks at Team Mashery, showing off API demos and prototypes from Circus Mashimus lounge sponsors Best Buy Remix, CafePress, Hallmark, Giiv as well as Geek Sideshow participants Netflix, The New York Times, and Billboard.

Having attended numerous tech events & hack days, I felt both the kudos and growing pains that attendees have described as SxSWi seeks the events balance between of social and substance. At any tech event, you a) need both and b) can't overload one at the expense of the other.

SxSWi 2010 was:
  • a great networking event where I met and reconnected with loads of Web and mobile application developers and designers who work with APIs.
  • a fun venue where the Austin event staff (both union AND volunteer) actually smiled and were proactively helpful (take that, Javitz and Moscone).
  • too long (5 days? really??)
  • a forum where online trends, particularly around location-based and social networking, gained momentum and solidified into generally agreed upon directions for 2010
From TIME Magazine's Ten Tech Trends for 2010 out last week, “South By Southwest Interactive is nerd paradise — Austin's annual tech smash has minted its share of Internet darlings. (Foursquare in 2009; Twitter in 2007.) While this year's conference didn't have a clear breakout star, it did offer insight to the trends and ideas that will be shaping the Web in 2010.”

  1. Location, Location, Location
  2. Building Platforms, Not Websites
  3. Social Gaming
  4. Augmented Reality
  5. Living in the Cloud
  6. Birth of the Backchannel
  7. Frictionless Payments
  8. Social Objects
  9. iPad
  10. A Richer Web
SxSWi 2010 was not:

a "tech" event, by which I mean the majority of attendees code at the event. If the relatively-balanced gender ratio on its own didn't give it away immediately, let me be more explicit. This is not the event where engineers gather in programming language BOFs, sessions have code in the preso decks, and multitudes of coders hunker down in hallways huddled with their laptops around power outlets.
  • full of meaty content. I personally went 1 for 5 in terms of good sessions (good presenter + informative content). Even after last year's Zuckerberg keynote fiasco, the Evan Williams keynote has the dubious distinction of out-sucking the previous year's keynote. Bad sessions + bad keynotes = bad substance. I think O'Reilly events, on balance, do the best job of producing tech events that scale (over 2,000 attendees) and also provide good substance and social opportunities.
  • terrible. Some bloggers have already let fly their usual "cooler than you" pronouncements that SxSWi about social castes now that it has gotten so big. (Interesting that both bloggers recently left their gigs at ReadWriteWeb and Valleywag.) Snark makes for good SEO and reality TV, but both are too one-sided in their analysis.
Being an event where the year's upcoming tech trends are called out in a great town like Austin is great for social. I do hope SxSWi ups their game in 2011 by hiring a great content manager to deliver on the substance.

The SxSW music festival has done a good job for the last twenty years at being the must attend event for its industry, where business gets done. Perhaps musicians are less distracted by the spring break atmosphere of groupies, fanboys, beer, and the perils of popularity than their geek brethren, having been sufficiently inured long ago? I'm rooting for SxSWi, and hope they fine the right social/substance balance.

Photo attribution: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

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