SXSW Interactive: Beyond The Hype

sxsw-squareAs much as people love SXSW, there’s definitely a backlash. Some blame the conference for the ever-growing tide of immigrants to Austin, which is stressing infrastructure and heightening fears about water shortages. Others decry it as just another tech conference, or bemoan the hipster factor. (Can you tell I’m a local now?)

I see more and more people tweeting with dread (myself among them) rather than excitement about the event, so it seems we all need to take it down a notch.

Remember that, at heart, SXSW is still a “festival” — not a conference. Where else would you find panel discussions on things like: “Making More of Ourselves – Sensory & Multimodal UX,” “Unearthing the Atari Graveyard: The Search for ET,” and, um, “Orgasm: The Broadband of Human Connection“? (Heck, there’s even a Ping Pong Tournament.)

So, yes, it’s a great place to do business, but there’s so much more. So much more that it can be very very overwhelming. But try to get into the spirit of that and enjoy yourself — it is over a weekend, after all.

Elon Musk interviewed by Sean Mathis in 2013
Elon Musk (co-founder of SpaceX and chairman of Tesla Motors) interviewed in 2013

Following, my tips (some recycled from a previous year, but I stand by them) for surviving and thriving at SXSW Interactive:

  • Prepare, But Be Flexible. Later on this list, I’ll suggest you disregard your carefully-prepared schedule, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need one. In fact, it’s best if you have a schedule prepared that allows for Plan B and even Plan C. Say you’ve decided you want to go to one panel, or one party. If something doesn’t work out — and shit happens — be ready to move on to the next opportunity. Maybe you’re stuck on the wrong part of town, maybe you let yourself get caught up in conversation with someone you met, maybe a thunderstorm starts up just as you were heading out — whatever the wrinkle, don’t let it bother you. Just have Plan B ready to go, and pivot.
  • Take Care of Yourself. You’ll want to pack as lightly as you can, because you are likely walking a lot, but be sure to have a few key items: Water, so you don’t get dehydrated. A snack (maybe peanut butter crackers or nuts), in case low blood sugar strikes at a time you’re not ready to go in search of food. And, some years, a small umbrella. Along those same lines, wear comfortable, broken-in shoes. There’s nothing worse than hobbling. The same applies to your drinking strategy (yes, you should have a strategy). I don’t agree with the “don’t drink” philosophy, partly because I’m a bit shy and having at least one margarita helps me make conversation with strangers. But, moderation is key. Don’t embarrass yourself, and don’t ruin the rest of the show for yourself. Perhaps set a limit of 1 or 2 drinks per day, and drink club soda the rest of the time.
  • Allow Plenty Of Time. The sheer volume of humans wandering about Downtown Austin is very intense, and some of the venues are actually quite distant from one another. So, when you go to pick up your badge, allow a lot of time for waiting in line. Don’t worry, it could be fun — you could run into people you know, or at least you can Tweet with a complaint about the experience. The same goes for panels and keynotes that you consider must-attends. If you want to actually get a seat, arrive really early (I’m talking 30-45 minutes or an hour). I would imagine this recommendation could be multiplied by 2 or 3 when it comes to seeing Edward Snowden (via videoconference) or Eric Schmidt. (Though it looks like there are two simulcast rooms for Snowden.)
  • Find A Home Base Or Two. You may also need time for re-charging your devices or actually doing your “real work,” so be sure to find a centrally-located place — there are some that are open to all, while others are invitation-only — where you can plug in and get connected. And build this into your schedule, because you’ll need it.
  • Go With The The Flow. It’s easy to get uptight. Either you become too married to your schedule — so you spend your time rushing around from one event to the next. Or you become a party-chaser — always convinced that the best party is the one attended by the guy you’re following on Twitter. Guess what? The best party is the one you’re at, right now. The best food truck is the one you stumble upon when you turn the corner. Allow yourself some serendipity. It’s your SXSW, and it may not be exactly as you planned, but it’s likely to be pretty darned good if you seize the moment.

A few other guides of note:

Images courtesy of SXSW.