For the past few years, The Learned Fangirl has enthusiastically covered the sessions and keynotes of South by Southwest Interactive. There was a point when SXSW was the most wonderful time of the year for startups, bloggers, VC’s, coders, and social media douchebags. 5 days of networking in a glorious haze of free beer and tacos.
But this year, TLF reluctantly plans to sit this one out,which saddens us because we have a lot of great friends presenting this year! The reason? It’s not worth the money.
Though the price of a badge has nearly tripled in the past three years, at $950, SXSWi is still a deal compared to similar tech/innovation conferences like Techcrunch Disrupt or TED. Even so, the tech conference marketplace has become a crowded, fragmented one – SXSWi is no longer the must-attend event that it used to be, and that money may go further at other, more specialized events.
Here are the three reasons TLF is skipping SXSW and why we think you may be better off spending your (or your employer’s, lucky you!) money on a conference that you’ll get a lot more out of.
1.) It’s too crowded to meet anyone new or do anything cool
Last year, SXSWi attracted more than 19,000 attendees, eclipsing SXSW music for the first time. On one level, this is great news: this growth has lead to more attendee diversity – and more opportunities to meet new people doing interesting things from a across the wide spectrum of technology related fields. And that’s awesome, except for the fact that most events are way too crowded to actually meet anyone new.
Conference attendance started to outgrow the convention center about two years ago. Session rooms were packed, standing-room only affairs. You had to stand in line for a hour or more to get into the decent parties. There was a certain kind of networking serendipity that was promoted (maybe romanticized?) at previous SXSWi’s — the whole idea of stumbling out of a session you’re really jazzed about, and into a conversation with random strangers in the hallway of the convention center and then running into those same strangers and THEIR friends at a party later than evening. With 20,000 people milling around, there’s no way that happens anymore. You’re lucky to randomly spot people you already know while shuffling through the halls like hungover cattle in between sessions.
Last year, SXSWi organized debuted the “campus” concept, which hosted sessions at different hotels in Austin. It was a good start, and the sessions were tracked well; the journalism sessions, health and government sessions, the UX sessions, and gaming sessions were generally in the same area. However, if you happen to have multiple session interests, then the hike back and forth across town ended up becoming most of your day. Still, the campus idea is a move in the right direction, but time will tell if this idea can scale with the continued growth of the conference.
Nowadays, SXSWi seems to be a place to coordinate meetups with people you were already planning to meet up with anyway, but not about connecting with anyone new.
2.) The focus is way too broad now
As I mentioned before, the professional tech world has become highly fragmented and specialized and in the past few years, there’s been an explosion of conferences to cater to niches of all types. SXSWi covers everything under the sun when it comes to tech, which is great, but also means that most of the information being shared tends to stay at a really high level. So if you want to dig deep into anything, whether it’s content strategy or analytics or videoblogging, you’re better off going to a more specialized conference. Still, SXSW is great for inspiration, and the idea of coders and bloggers and social media folks and entrepreneurs and designers and theorists all converging in one place and sharing ideas is a tantalizing one, but you’ll have to actually meet those people, which brings us back to point number one.
3.) There’s no archive of past sessions
After the disappointment of getting shut out of myriad sessions last year, we took comfort in the fact that most of them were being recorded and would surely be posted on some sort of archive after the conference was over. That didn’t happen. Outside of the keynote sessions, none of the other session recordings were made available to attendees after the event. Whether this was due to production or permission issues or an oversight by the conference planners, we don’t know, but it takes away from the value of a conference registration to not have this content available. Plenty of other conferences do it; it’s standard practice now. Maybe this year, conference organizers will archive and post these sessions, but to me, such an archive should be baked into the price of a badge.
So. that’s it. TLF will be following SXSWi on Twitter and one of us (knock on wood) will be headed to Austin later in the week for SXSW Music. But what are your thoughts? Do you think SXSWi is worth the cash? What tech conferences are you planning to check out this year?