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SXSW Interactive: Never As Good As the First Time

I’m behind on summing up my thoughts on this year’s SXSW Interactive. A lot of people have panned the conference, saying “SXSW sucks,” “SXSW is dead,” and more constructively, “the conference isn’t that good.”

Fast Company called the keynote with Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams, “the most horrifically devastating keynote presentation in SXSW history,” and the WSJ called it “underwhelming.” Ev knew it, and his interviewer Umair Haque even apologized.

While I’m usually far more critical than most, I honestly thought the week away from work was entirely worthwhile. I got to hang out with a ton of people who’ve been on my want-to-meet list for years, make new friends and business contacts, enjoy a rockin’ Cog’aoke karaoke competition, and eat a ton of great BBQ. Were the panels that thought-provoking? No. Did I see any new, innovative technology? Not really. But when has SXSW ever been about the content? It’s about the people. And with almost 14,000 people in attendance this year, if you can’t find people to meet who inspire you and provide you with new business opportunities, it’s not SXSW’s fault — it’s you.

This was my second year attending (last year being my first), and while I’m thrilled that I got to share the experience with my boyfriend Orian Marx this year, we both agreed that we got more out of the conference in our previous visits.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think the conference is “getting worse” or that our industry has jumped the shark. I just think there’s a universal truth about SXSW — it’s never as good as the first time.

Immediately the lovely Sade is brought to mind. Hit the play button to hear the song [requires JavaScript on].

“It is a possibility/
The more we know the less we see/
Second time is not quite what it seemed”

The first time you attend SXSW, it’s magical. It’s a long-awaited assembly of neighboring tribes who come together to share knowledge, and passion, and culture. And the first time you’re a part of it, you feel like you’ve arrived. There’s so much possibility; the field expands in front of your eyes and suddenly your career means so much more.

But once you’ve seen it, you can never un-see it. Anytime you return, you’re never going to experience that first discovery again. It’s always going to feel like a disappointment.

I just wish people could see it for what it is, put the bickering aside, and use Austin as the convergence point it’s meant to be. As professionals and human beings, we need to create our own opportunities. It would be nice if folks understood that sometimes, most of the time, you have to work to keep hope alive.

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  • lorrianne

    This feels very similar to my thoughts on Burningman. Never as good or as completely overwhelming/overstimulating as the first time. :)

  • aaronirizarry

    Nice thoughts on this Whitney… I wasn't able to make it this year, but will be attending next year.

    I have always been under the impression that it is more about the community aspect, though the panels are good, most people really just enjoy getting away for a week, and enjoying some time with their peers.

    oh, and nice Sade reference…

    ~ Aaron I

  • nichelle

    Totally agree. This year was second year going as well, and I have more opportunities in the pipeline because of it. Let the “SXSW haters” hate. I will be back next year.

  • http://openid.claimid.com/rubyji Ruby Sinreich

    I actually thought it was pretty good this year or at least I had a good time, and it was also my second SXSW (the first was 2006). There's a certain amount that just is what you make of it. For example, I didn't go to Ev's keynote because it didn't sound that interesting to me, so I didn't feel ripped off when it sucked. But I went early to get a good seat for danah's, and it was well worth it. Of course there are always some bad speakers, and there are always too many hipster-poseurs, but the conference is so big that you can really avoid the BS and just focus on the people or topics that you like.

    Here's a blog entry I wrote about some of what I got out of SXSWi 2010: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/ruby-sinreich/sxsw-

  • http://www.tonybacigalupo.com Tony Bacigalupo

    Right on. This was my third trip, and in many ways it feels a little less magical this year– but it's still so incredible. The combination of meeting new incredible people, making better connections with people I already know, and some BBQ and karaoke thrown in for good measure is going to bring me back next year, no doubt.

    Nowadays it's far too easy to get caught up in sensationalist headline-grabbing banter like “SXSW is dead” when the reality is rarely quite so extreme.

  • http://www.badassideas.com/ Samantha Warren

    Hey Whitney,

    This was my fifth SXSW and I think those who think that SXSW is getting worse instead of better …. are doing it wrong. Every year gets better for me, and this year it was the best! The fantastic thing that makes SXSW a unique conference is that it is what the attendees make it. Don't like the panels? Propose a better talk for next year! Partys suck? Throw your own! I have found that Hugh & the other folks who run the conference are always really receptive to ideas on how to make things better and this year I saw many improvements that were made in response to complaints from years past.

    Totally agree with ” As professionals and human beings, we need to create our own opportunities”

    It was great to see you there… though it was brief. Hopefully we will be able to catch up sometime in the future.

  • http://www.orianmarx.com/ Orian Marx

    This time was certainly better for me than the last, because I got to share it with a hot red head.

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  • http://spencerfry.com/ Spencer Fry

    I had the best time ever, but can't compare it to any past SXSW conferences.

  • http://www.cigreds.com/ Electronic Cigarette Girl

    I feel the same. Not in regards to SXSW but trade shows in general. The first time you go is something to remember. Then it gets a lil stale year after year.

    With that said, I still think SXSW was great this year. My first year there was when that band played Com'on Sea Legs!!!!

    -Bella :)

  • http://www.manilajones.com Chris

    Great blog! I wish I was able to make it this year.

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