How to Fix SXSW

Too crowded. Too self-important. Too over-scheduled. Too full of douchebags. No, it’s not Washington D.C. It’s Austin during SXSW.

I’m still trying to right my equilibrium from five days of… well, I’m not exactly sure what this was. Networking? In spades. Drinking? Far too much. Panels? When I could adequately navigate the schedule, yes. Throw in nightmarish traffic and frantic use of location-based services and you’ve got the perfect SXSW Interactive cocktail. Pun intended.

Before I go any further, I want to make a key point. The SXSWi producers, Hugh Forrest and Shawn O’Keefe are wonderfully nice and generous people who work their asses off to make SXSWi the best it can possibly be. Considering how renowned the conference is – and how many real and imagined celebrities attend it – Hugh and Shawn could easily be self-important jerks. And they’re not. They want nothing more than for SXSWi to be a conference *of* the people, with as much input and involvement by its attendees as is humanly possible.

I mention this because I spent the last 8 years intimately involved in the production of another tech conference, DEMO, and it’s really hard work. Orchestrating and synchronizing the million tiny little pieces of a conference takes patience, experience, at least one iron hand, and an army of dedicated and capable staffers. And DEMO only corrals about 7-800 attendees; I can’t fathom tackling a beast like SXSW. So I offer the ensuing critiques, extremely mindful of how easy it is to judge from afar.

How to Fix SXSWi

-Be more selective. With panels. There is such a thing as too much choice. When attendees have to choose between twenty-four panels scheduled at one time, something needs fixing. (Note that those 24 are only Interactive panels and don’t include any Film sessions.) Make the selection process harder. Make being a panelist at SXSWi a true honor, not just another face in the crowd. Fewer panels will also ensure a good audience for each session. Flying in from Silicon Valley to speak to an audience of 20 people – especially in this economy – isn’t a smart business expense.

-Be more selective. With moderators. Oh fine, I’m referring to Umar Haque’s conversation with Evan Williams. But if we learned nothing else from the Sarah Lacey incident, it’s that the South By audience wants an interesting, charged conversation, not pablum they can read on any company FAQ. In the case of keynote interviews, the casting of the questioner is almost more important than the subject.

-Be more selective. With parties. This is a little trickier, as the conference tried to crack down on unofficial parties a few years back and got dinged for it. But they need to make things easier on attendees. Jules Pieri, CEO of one of the Accelerator companies, Daily Grommet, said something very amusing and spot-on to me: “It’s like the worst part of high school – you always feel like you’re in the wrong place.” Personally speaking, I was too tired at the end of each day to navigate another schedule. Where should I go and at what time? And with who? And for how long? Faced with too many choices, the average brain simply shuts down. Perhaps a good compromise would be to set a limit on how many parties can occur in one night; then let the various hosts fight it out among themselves. Another thought is to segment them more. I enjoyed the Porter Novelli/Nokia happy hour each night because it involved some of my known network. And the Data Cluster Meetup, as odd as that may sound, was a huge success – lots of like-minded people eating, drinking, and sticking around for a while.

-Be more selective. With sponsors. Totally agree with Michelle Greer (linked above). I felt assaulted by brands this year. Whether it was the Sobe girls or the Bing-wrapped cars or the bizarre pushing of free bacon at 4th and Trinity, it all felt dangerously close to a carnival midway. The corporations have discovered SXSW. And nothing good can come of it.

-Feed me. If attendees wanted to make all those damn panels, they had to eat in the convention center. Leaving its environs for a restaurant guarantees that you’ll miss two hours of programming, at least. And the choice of food in the ACC was barbecue or cold sandwiches. For five days. Here’s a thought – take all those brands that are dying to reach us and make them sell us food. I would’ve paid a high price for a variety of foods to choose from. Silly point? Only if you’ve never attended any sort of conference. Well-fed attendees are happy attendees. Period.

I love Austin so much I uprooted my whole family to live here. And Austin is at the core of SXSW; this conference really couldn’t happen anywhere else. But it felt a lot closer to Las Vegas this year. And I don’t want to live in Vegas.

The key, I think, to restoring SXSW to its original focus lies in its host city. In general, Austin is a big town that acts like a small community. It’s laid-back but not so much that it loses focus. It eschews the material for the cerebral, the fly-by-night for the sincere. All of those characteristics, along with killer content and a festive atmosphere, are what draw people to SXSW in the first place. I hope it can continue to do so in the years to come.

Panels to watch at SXSW

This post originally appeared in Austin Startup.

If you’ve been to SXSW before, you’re well aware of the glut of panels and parties. There is simply too much to do and too many places to be at once. The conference tries to alleviate the hectic nature with some pre-planning, offering the ability to build your own schedule on their website. But the technology is clunky and laborious; I know my eyes started to glaze over pretty quickly. So in the interest of preserving your sight and sanity, I thought I’d share some panels that jumped out at me.

Friday, March 12

2pm – If you’re an out-of-towner, check out Why Austin is the Killer App. Bijoy Goswami gave an abbreviated version of this talk at Ignite Austin and it’s one of the best encapsulations of the Austin tech scene that I’ve heard yet. It’s the perfect way to kick off your SXSW adventure.

3:30pm brings our first where-to-go-now decision (it won’t be the last) with three strong prospects
-Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive? – Would love to see revenue/business models re-enter the social media conversation. We’re not earning money with our smiles.
-How Your Brand Can Succeed in the New Web – From a man who knows, Brian Solis
-Is Technology Weakening Interpersonal Relationships? – One of my favorite ATX tech women is on the panel, Jenn Deering Davis; I know she’ll have great insights. And this is a potentially volatile topic.

9pm – If you have a Gold or Platinum pass, join me at the premiere of the Bill Hicks documentary, ‘American.’ And if you don’t know who Bill Hicks is, I can’t help you.

Saturday, March 13

This is likely the least hungover you’ll be during your time in Austin, so take advantage of it with a 9:30am panel, Innovation Overseas: The European Startup Environment. Marten Mickos is sure to provide some interesting perspective

2pmOpening Keynote: Danah Boyd. Happy to see a woman kicking things off in the keynote presentations. And interested to hear her insights on being publicly private in social networks. Or privately public.

3:30pm – Another good problem to have – Media Armageddon or Ze Frank? The juxtaposition is glaring: old media or web pioneer? I may hop between the two.

5pmHow To Spark a Movement in the 21st Century, from the folks at Meetup. Could be really thought provoking. If it isn’t, you’ll find me at one of the happy hours.

Sunday, March 14

Things look a little uglier this morning. You’re feeling the multiple happy hours from yesterday. And there’s a gauntlet of panels to face today. Rub some dirt on it, as my father used to say, and get back in the game.

9:30am – Get those synapses firing with some heady fodder: Exploiting Chaos or Story.Next with Dr. Sanjay Gupta (he’s famous!). The Adobe Sunday Brunch is also at this time, so you can refuel with breakfast tacos as needed.

Four excellent sessions at 11am:
-2009 Iran Election will hopefully settle an ongoing argument I’m having about social media’s true impact on real-world events
-Monkeys with Internet Access because I’ve been wanting to hear Clay Shirky.
-Online News of Tomorrow because I like Jeff Jarvis
-Yes Mr. Lessig, We Can Change Politics (11:20am) because I’m a political nerd

12:30pm – Though it’s clearly on the film track, A Conversation with Michel Gondry is listed in Interactive events. One of the most innovative and creative minds working today – a don’t miss.

3:30pm – *Cue self-serving segment* Beyond Algorithms: Search and the Semantic Web. Reasons to attend: I’m on the panel and have a history of arguing with Barak Berkowitz. And I’m clearly the least accomplished person in attendance. Check out the bios of my fellow panelists.

6pm – Get your geek on at the Data Cluster Meetup before you head out into the night. Sponsored by Rackspace, Infochimps, Wolfram Alpha, and Factual.

This is the best party night of the bunch, so go forth and enjoy. Mashable, PBS, Guy Kawasaki, Gowalla, Microsoft – hope you trained your liver last night.

Monday, March 15

I won’t lie to you – this morning is going to hurt. I’ll leave a bottle of Excedrin and a bag of breakfast tacos for you by the t-shirt stand downstairs.

If you can manage a 10am, go easy on yourself and check out The Art of Eating In. But if that’s too early, go to Making Content Relevant To Me at 11am.

Gary Vaynerchuk is talking at 12:30pm. I have no idea about what but it’s sure to interesting.

Then Ev Williams has the keynote slot at 2pm. Let’s gang up on him and force him to answer revenue questions.

3:30pm brings our last where-to-go-now conundrum (Thank God – I’m getting weary)
-‘Seed Combinators’, with favorite local Josh Baer
-AI 2010 because I’m a sucker for robots
-My Three-Year Old is My Usability Expert, because this seems a fascinating topic

Did I say Sunday was the best party night? It might actually be Monday. Wired, Rackspace, TechKaraoke, GeekyBeach, Gowalla – even New Orleans is throwing a party tonight.

Tuesday, March 16

Last day! It’s a short one too so hang in there.

11amThe Chaos Scenario. Because I’ll listen to pretty much any NPR contributor. And because we’ll all be intimately familiar with the concept of chaos by this point.

2pmDaniel Ek of Spotify gives the last Interactive keynote, in an interview with Eliot Van Buskirk.

There’s a closing party at 8pm. And then we all meander back into the real world, hopefully sharper, wiser, and only slight worn down at the edges.

Password Schmassword

Conversations with fascinating people are, in my opinion, the best part of tech conferences. I haven’t even been at SXSWi 24 hours and have already hashed over: whether human-assisted tagging and metadata can be classified as semantic technology; the increasingly casual attitude we’ve all adopted toward our passwords; what it will take to interest the VC community in green technology (ahem); and, perhaps most importantly, how many breakfast tacos one has to ingest before complete diet integration is achieved. As a Texas native, I’m not a good judge of the last issue, as we begin eating breakfast tacos at birth. But a piece by Marshall Kirkpatrick today, along with an unpleasant experience with Spokeo two days ago, prompted me to tackle the password issue.

Frankly, I’ve become so used to giving my Gmail password to any social service that requests it, I don’t give it a second thought anymore. So when I decided to try out Spokeo in comparison to FriendFeed, I freely gave up my password thinking it would respond as expected: find some friends already using the site and prompt me to invite in others. Instead, it began trolling the Internet for all 500+ contacts I have in Gmail – including people I contacted once or twice on Craigslist – - and telling me of their detailed activity online. It felt invasive and downright creepy. Even worse, it contacted some of those people (not sure how it determines which people) and told them that someone was digging for info on them online, so they should 1) change their privacy settings on those sites and 2) sign up for Spokeo. (Not sure I grasp their messaging there. If everyone changes their privacy settings, Spokeo’s user base disappears.)

My friend Kelly, a super-smart developer in semantics, was one of those who received this email. We were discussing it last night and he made an excellent point that should be foremost these days and which I applaud Marshall for bringing up: a dangerously lax attitude towards our passwords is beginning to take hold in the industry and important initiatives like Data Portability and OpenID should be receiving much more support and attention. With lifestreaming taking hold – I’ll write soon about a hot company launching here, Socialthing – users and innovators alike need to keep the password issue top-of-mind. In the manic development atmosphere that has arisen around communities and social networks, the issues of privacy and security have taken a bit of a backseat. As a new era of all-updates, all-the-time is ushered in, we need to bring it back to the fore.

**Note: I haven’t talked with Spokeo yet for their side of the story and will post their side once that conversation occurs.