3 Reasons to Skip SXSW Interactive This Year

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.

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SXSW Interactive 2011 Recap: Confessions of a Panel Nerd

SXSW Interactive is not yet complete at the time I am writing this.  My day gig beckoned, so my trip was truncated but the conference/celebration/nerd orgy (you can interpret that however you wish) continues.

2011 is the first year where attendance for  the Interactive part of SXSW will be higher than the music festival; like it or not, SXSW Interactive is a “rock star” event, with enough parties and promotional events to deplete the most extroverted attendee’s business card stash. Being an introvert and a nerd (as much as I love parties) I think the panels are still the best part of SXSW.

scene from a tradeshow

Like a dude who claims he reads Playboy for the articles, no one believes me when I say this. I know people who don’t even get badges for SXSW interactive, they just go to network at the parties. Thank god that’s not a requirement for my career, because missing out on the panels seems like a total waste to me and partying all the time seems exhausting. For those people who say that SXSW is low on quality content? I don’t buy it; those people just make bad panel choices. Guess what, that panel about brand conversations on Twitter won’t say anything new from last year – or the year before; expand your horizons. (My approach this year was to avoid any panel having to do with social media and my SXSW experience was improved exponentially from last year.)

Here’s what else I came away with last weekend:

GOOD: Less “conversing”, more creating. This year was pretty light on break-out technology/apps (Business networking platform Hashable got a bit of buzz)

music hack day presentation

However, I heard lot of discussion about creating: content, apps, movements. I went to a great session about Music Hack Day, a hackathon focused on music APIs and even electronic instruments. I hit another panel on mobile apps used by health workers in Africa and I saw Sen. Al Franken ask for the international geek community’s help to defend Net Neutrality (expect a blog post about this). There were several panels on online storytelling that I didn’t get to attend, but heard through the grapevine were well received. Overall, I felt like there was a real push toward doing, which I appreciate. An unsung highlight of the event were the 90 minute workshop-style sessions at the Sheraton, focused on coding and practical tech work. The UX and analytics workshop I attended was by far the best session I have ever attended at SXSW.

BAD:  Brands gone wild. Being constantly, aggressively  sold to is annoying. Even more so when you’re standing in line for a taco. This year in particular the level of hucksterism was overwhelming, from startups forcing their apps in your grill to big companies and their loud, brightly lit branded lounges and charging stations. HEY BUY THIS SHIT was the dominant message in the halls.  Even worse, it seemed that some companies seemed a bit too eager to use the crisis in Japan as a cool branding opportunity, or an opportunity to get some social media exposure. (I’m not talking about the sxsw4japan effort, however, which I thought was genuine and timely.)

Almost as soon as my time at SXSW ended I started thinking about whether I’d be back next year; it’s gonna be hard to say no, as annoyed as I am about standing in line for hours, and even with my continued reservations about how organizers have underestimated SXSW Interactive’s explosive growth for two years in a row, I always get what I come for: I learn a lot, I meet cool people, I catch up with friends, and I come away inspired. Also I eat lots of tacos.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive Days 3 and 4: There’s no one solution

Day 3 was a mixture of practical workshops and  topical discussion. I spent the morning at  a panel on user experience design: the “soft” red headed stepchild of web design  that’s secretly its backbone.  Of all of the panels I’ve attended here, Leah Buley’ s insight on how to work as a UX team of one will stick with me and hopefully guide what I do for years to come. I want to do more UX design!

I was not too impressed with a panel on online communities, and headed to the Can Social Media End Racism? panel. Of course it can’t, but considering how homogenous the SXSW crowd is for the most part, to be able to have the discussion in an environment like this was really important. For me, I still see so much opportunity to use online communications to really mobilize people to connect with each other and do outstanding things in real life, and panels like that one remind me that there’s a lot of untapped potential,  I want to be a part of it all.

The Web In Higher Education panel was PACKED. I was shocked at how well higher ed was represented here., in this standing room only crowd. It was, as co-presented Dylan Wilbanks noted, a “dour looking crowd.” Lots of frustration, staff vs. administration vs. faculty, it’s complicated and frought with politics, and lots of people seemed to need to get stuff off of their chest.

Wilbanks said that “higher ed web combines the worst part of startups with the worst parts of large corporations: limited resources + tons of bureaucracy.” Putting it that way, it made me want to throw myself out of a window.

He also noted that women in technology tend to be underrepresented in every industry -EXCEPT higher education. So is higher ed the pink ghetto of technology? Is it one of the few places where a female may be able to advance their careers? We didn’t actually have that discussion in the panel, but it’s worth thinking about. Ultimately, though, I met a lot of wildly creative people at the higher ed web panel and meetup later that day. Together there’s a metric ton of great ideas and potential innovation. Dour though the crowd seemed, no one was lacking in passion when talking about their jobs. That gives me hope.

I pretty much covered a lot of Day 4 in my post yesterday. The one panel that stood out was Engagement 1.0: Understanding the History of Fan Interactivity featuring one of my academic heroes, Henry Jenkins.Nothing new was said if you’ve ever read any of Jenkins’ work, particularly Textual Poachers, his groundbreaking look at fan culture, but as with the racism panel, I think it opened up the dialogue to some folks who may not be aware of this subculture. And since so much of online media these days about niche rather than broad audiences, it’s important, I think, to understand the role that fan culture has played in really shaping the “social web” we see today. There were a few marketers in the audience who essentially asked how/if any of this information can be leveraged on a marketing level. basically everyone on the panel said the same thing. “yes, if you actually listen to your fans rather than telling them what you think they should hear.”

Jenkins used Star Trek as an example of a media company that destroyed it own fanbase by trying to police fan activity (trying to shut down fan run clubs and fan made movies) while at the same time trying to force new Star Trek spinoffs down fans throats. The lesson: fans know what they value from the experience, so listen to them and learn from it.

I’ve got one more day here, ending (for me) with a talk by another one of my gurus, Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson of Wired. I am winding down from the SXSW Interactive experience, excited and frustrated about the future, but ultimately still psyched by its possibility. I feel like we are all learning from each other here, as we all fumble in the dark toward whatever future online media brings our way. But the fun is in the process,  I think, and as long as that is the case, SXSWi will continue to blow minds each year.

One more day to go!

Some SXSW-inspired thoughts about online communities, affinity, and the rules of engagement.

I am starting to get a bit overwhelmed by all the SXSW talk. But much of the palpable tension regarding social media and corporate interaction I’ve been able to crystallize and articulate in a way that may actually be useful; at least for me.

It was best explained in the “Make Yourself More Interesting” panel on day one: the tension between developing a transactional interaction with users versus a relationship building interaction in their social media initiatives. I think the real tension comes from corporations/organizations trying to force  their online engagement into a transactional interaction while in the process of  relationship-building.

It rings false; consumers know it, so they leave and create relationships on their own.

The fact is, we don’t need companies to create communities for us to interact online. We can do it on our own. We do it better, and we have more fun in the process. Companies need us more than we need them, so the onus is on companies to give us a reason to interact with them online. Whether it’s through interesting content, or discussion, or free stuff. (Never underestimate the power of free stuff. It was my big reason for going to the Google party last night.) But with “social media marketing,” companies assume that affinity alone is the going to be the draw to a Facebook page, Twitter feed, whatever.

I think people get involved in online communities for three reasons:

1.) to interact/communicate with like minded people

2.) to feel more connected to the source of their affinity (product/celebrity/cause)

3.) to get information that they can’t get anywhere else about the source of their affinity

In theory, a company should be able to achieve the last two things better than any fan could, but often they don’t.

Mostly because companies are so focused on the end-game (buy our product! give us money!) they don’t spend enough time really doing the first thing on my list, interacting and communicating with the community they are trying to build. They are too eager to exploit the community interaction before it’s even had time to build.

That’s why bottom-up, fan-based communities tend to grow and mobilize more effectively, the rules of engagement are different, people want to connect with each other; the end game is the connection, not the transaction.

The ROI (if you really want to define one)  is a community of like minded people who share information  and resources freely, so when the time comes (if it ever does) to mobilize that community or to get them to do something (like pay for something), all you really have to do is ask, if you even have to do that at all. Think Obama, or read my Nine Inch Nails post from a couple of weeks back for an example. No really, READ IT.

If companies /organizations want to do this (and honestly, I think very few of them can do it successfully) they will have to do a few things:

1.) Be more open. In real life (hopefully) your friends are diverse and far from “ideal”. Same goes for social media.

2.) Shut up and listen to your fans. Really, that’s it. SHUT UP. and LISTEN to us.

3.) Don’t freak out so much about the right thing to say, talk to people like it’s a conversation, not a press release. Admit when you screw up, when you are mad, be random, like a real person would. It’s OK. we will love you more for it.

4.) Be patient. Just because a whole slew of people don’t love you immediately doesn’t mean they won’t ever love you. Like real-life, the best relationships take time to build.

5.) Accept when we get mad at you, and know that if we love you enough, we’ll be back.

That’s it for now.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive: Day 1 – “Waiting for the Tourists to Leave”

touristsNo, I hven’t finished the “Kill Social Media” t-shirt I threatened to wear to SXSW, but I plan to.

 Fact is, it may not be entirely necessary. A lot of the frustration that I vented about in my earlier post has been shared by a couple of panel presenters already, and it’s only been one day.

I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution of any kind, but I think we’ll start to see some  social media stalwarts “give push back” (to borrow one of my “favorite” corp-speak phrases) to traditional marketing agencies/corporations shoehorning old practices into new media. Skittles’ recent foray into social media was a big topic on this first day, and I’m sure it will come up again, and again and again. Was the idea of making the Skittles website a social media hub, to give up the brand to its consumers, a bold and audacious idea or just another example of a big compnay paying lip service to the power of social media without investing in actually buidling community? One attendee at the (awesome)  Blacks in Tech meeting I attended later in the evening said he was “personally offended” by the Skittles campaign, that it was like “co-opting” the practice and culture of social media. That was probably the strongest opinion I heard but for the most part , but there were few people  I heard that were impressed by it all.

If you’re reading and attending SXSWi as well, a quick word of advice: if you want to attend any panel with the words “social media” in the title, either come early or make other plans. It’s standing-room only conditions here and likely to get even crazier. Being shut out of two social media panels, I instead attended two web design panels and they were fantastic. At one of them, Oooh, That’s Clever! (Unnatural Experiments in Web Design),  web designer Paul Annett challenged designers to create not just usable website, but beautiful ones; that creating a delightful experience for users is just as important for marketing as usability, Here’s where my  web usability freak, Jakob Nielsen fangirl side comes out: “Ugly and user-friendly all the way!!!!” But I do appreciate a becautiful website. For a couple of minutes. The two things don’t have to be mututally exclusive.

I guess.

The last panel I attended for the afternoon, Try To Make Yourself More Interesting, was when the Kill Social Media sentiment started to rear its head. The palpable tension between practicioners of social media and the companies that employ them is growing.  There’s defnitely a push-and-pull  between the needs of traditional marketers/media professionals  to quantify success, to measure ROI, and social media practioners for whom experimentation for its own sake, connecting and building community is the main – if not only – goal. Can these two goals co-exist, and perhaps lend themselves to supporting the other? I don’t know. One panelist (i think it was DL Bryon from Bikehugger) mentioned that he was waiting for the social media “tourists” to leave (ie marketers) so that the natives can get back to business. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen completely.

Panelist Kristina Halvorson commented that “social media has not changed the corporate structure.” It hasn’t, yet, though it probably will, over time. Convincing marketers  and media professionals that they no longer have complete control over their message, or their audience (and that they probably never will)  is a hard sell. I understand the reluctance to embrace what is essentially spitting in the face of decades worth of communications/marketing dogma. I don’t have an answer, but to acknowledge the change that’s already on the horizon, and it’s resulting struggle was very cathartic. For those social media folks who aren’t working at a free-wheeling start up or PR firm but use social media  in more traditional communications fields, this tension is a big part of the work. It was nice to have that acknowledged.

That’s it for now, I’ve got some thoughts about blacks in tech, blogging and personal branding that’ll I’ll save for later.