Fallout from the SXSWi Culture Identity Crisis


Is South by Southwest Interactive (SxSWi) about exploring the future of technology? Or is it the new celebrity destination outside of Hollywood?

Seth Rogen. Shaq. Snoop. Jimmy Kimmel. Even McLovin joined in on the action.

Despite the more than 30,000 attendees, the conference is in the midst of an identity crisis. Will the tech community continue to embrace an event that has "gone Hollywood?” In my opinion, the tech community will begin to look elsewhere if the conference focuses on an empty commodity versus discovering great companies that can change the world. 

Attrition will kick in. In order to preserve the famous networking and creative opportunities that originally got it off the ground, SxSWi needs to finally embrace change.

A Conference Grows Up

When I first attended SXSWi in 2008, foyers were filled with intimate conversations around microformats and web standards, forcing web developers to blush with the kind of socially awkward passion that only a cave-dwelling coder could express.

Sales prospects were plentiful—and accessible—resulting in my own business-development run of 400+ business cards exchanged. This was by far the biggest conference I had ever attended (with “only” 9,000 attendees), yet lines to get into sessions and parties were bearable if you were patient (save for monster opening/closing events).

I can remember real breakout apps, too. AirBnB, FriendFeed and a host of Twitter knockoffs were the rage that year (Twitter had just launched the year before), and 2009 had a clear winner with Foursquare. 2010 pitted Gowalla against Foursquare, 2011 was messaging apps like Beluga and GroupMe, but 2012 made us choose a favorite location aware app like Highlight, Glancee, or Sonar -- though most of us uninstalled them once we left Austin.

Then I’m not sure what happened.

2013 had no clear breakout app. This year, Edward Snowden's virtual appearance and the fact that Seth Rogen and McLovin were staying at the Four Seasons can be considered amongst the "highlights.”

Pitching alongside 29,999 other people and competing to give out a quarter the business cards I did in 2008 is not exactly a selling point. Neither are the hour-long-plus waits in lines to get into a session or event.

I wonder whether this year will be my last SXSWi. If SXSWi wants to sustain its kingly status, the conference needs to keep up with changes in the tech industry—and it’s not.

No one would argue SxSWi is supposed be about creating new connections, inspiring ideas and casting a vision for the future—but these days, it’s become a corporate convention shoved into the halls of a BBQ-fueled hackathon. The cultures are so different that at some point it just stops making sense to keep it the same.

Stop Shying Away from the Reality

While some in the tech industry have voiced a knee-jerk reaction to the proliferation of bigger sponsors and more enterprise brands at SXSWi, these newcomers only seem out of place because SXSWi hasn’t made space or preparations to accommodate them.

SXSWi originated as a place for excellent solutions to see the light of day and expose their advantages. It was established during an era when everyone was focused on consumer apps—that the mere mention of enterprise apps would have instantly made you the party pariah.

The opposite is true today. Some of the most creative, groundbreaking innovations are now happening in the enterprise space, and in hardware as well. The enterprise is experiencing a major and much-needed software upheaval.

Hardware too has changed the role of software. From 3D printers to wearables, a lot of new software is now about the empowerment and enablement of hardware. SXSWi isn’t giving those apps the platform they need. There’s no separate track for enterprise software, no showcases for advancements in CRM or NoSQL databases. If enterprise- and hardware startups can’t expose their products properly to a SXSWi audience, then where should they go?

The Only Experts are in the In-crowd

One final place that SXSWi needs to put on its big-boy pants for would be in speaker selection. The majority of sessions are still elected speakers and panelists. If “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is any evidence, crowds don’t always choose the most quality result. Of the more than 500 confirmed sessions this year, how many are being run by true experts in their field?

I’m sure all of the speakers have interest and perhaps some authority in their space, but SXSWi hasn’t done a stellar job of curating the specialists. The ratio of expert speakers to amateurs should be much higher than it is. If you do find a diamond-in-the-rough specialist, you only have one opportunity to hear them speak—they’re only allowed one presentation. Better get in line early not to miss them.

If You’re Old Enough to Drink, You’re Old Enough to Think

SXSWi is turning into the 40-year-old guy who still goes to frat parties and rides his scooter/skateboard everywhere (there’s a time and a place).

The conference needs to understand the responsibilities that come with maturity: Evolve with the interactive industry, the changing paradigm of software platforms, and focus some expertise for both presenters and audiences.

I believe the interactive portion of the conference can and will get a grip on what it needs to be. It’s just a matter of time and patience. Once that happens, we attendees might get the intimacy, knowledge and epiphanies we’ve all been yearning for.

Marcus Nelson has founded five successful startups. He is now the founder and chief executive officer at Addvocate, which helps companies humanize their brand experience by enabling all employees to engage with customers. A recognized leader is social media marketing, Marcus holds a patent for technology that determines someone’s brand influence, wrote the original specifications and helped build the prototype of Salesforce Chatter, and is an expert in user-experience design. Follow Marcus on Twitter: @addvocate

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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