SXSW – A conference too big to experience

Mar 12, 2014
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After the sun sets, I find myself walking Austin’s iconic 6th Street looking for a tech meetup or, perhaps, an open bar/buffet. It’s my 5th and final evening here at SXSW, as the digital festival wraps up, and I’m noticing a distinct change in the profile of the average pedestrian. Somewhere between the Spotify House and the conference sessions, SXSW Interactive has transitioned into SXSW Music, though this comes to no surprise, as SXSWi has become somewhat of a warm-up for musicians in town for SXSW Music.

For nearly a week I’ve been treading the proverbial water trying to stay afloat at South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the most important conferences in tech today. The festival, which celebrated its 25th edition this year, is first and foremost a music festival – evident by the city’s vibrant music culture which culminates on the infamous 6th street – however, it has also become a reputed Film & ‘Startup’ festival, as well a a Gaming and overall entertainment festival.

Brands like Samsung & Yahoo buy out entire buildings to show off their commitment to innovation, while less digital brands like State Farm Insurance  use this event as an opportunity to remind consumers (who are willing to pay $800 for a conference) that they, too, are tech-friendly.

One’s first day as a SXSW virgin (that is, a first-time attendee) is akin to the first day of high school – everyone else seems to know exactly where they’re going, and you can’t help but feel like, no matter how much you prepared and read up, you’re not ready. There’s no need to picture everyone in their underwear to calm down – that won’t help, as many are walking the streets in just that.

By day 2, I realized that my Millennial sense of FOMO (“fear of missing out,” the idea that, at any time, one might be missing out on a quintessential part of their existence) was misplaced. It is not a Fear, but a Reality, that, no matter what you are doing at SXSW – listening to Julian Assange or Edward Snowden in a conference, attending the RGA Techstars demo day, perusing the exhibition hall or visiting the many off-site events – you are undoubtedly only doing one of at least five extremely worthwhile things.

On Day 3, I’ve given up trying to optimize my time. I understand now why those with whom I tried to set up meetings said “I don’t do meetings at SXSW – I prefer serendipitous encounters” and I’ve opted to go with the flow. I follow SXSW veteran and French entrepreneur Fred Montagnon for an evening, and end up skipping two or three one-hour lines for VIP parties, and even end up watching Montagnon casually walk into the house where Justin Bieber was preparing for his surprise set at SXSW.

Day 4, I realize that I’ve finally got the hang of things, so I opt to stroll through the exhibition hall, pass by the Indiegogo house to meet up with Kate Drane, who’s speaking at our Connected Conference in June. I try out the compact bike “URB-E“, which had just that day crossed its fundraising goal, and I grab lunch at a SXSW Film venue where I chat with a director & costume designer for one of the films selected at SXSW Film. I finish the afternoon at the French Tech Club, and spend the evening at the invite-only Vimeo party.

Day 5, I work all afternoon – I’m too tired to walk, too exhausted to listen, and too behind on work not to work. So I work, until the evening, of course. Then, I watch the bats fly out from under the Austin bridge (Google it if you’ve never heard of this). By now, SXSWi is all but wrapped up and SXSW music has started.

SXSW- A conference too big to experience

I am happy with my experience at SXSW, with how I used my time. Here’s a list of things I didn’t do:

  1. See Snoop Dogg, Chromeo, DJ Shadow or any other headlining musician.
  2. See the Spotify House
  3. Attend a single main session (I did catch one Q&A for a women in entrepreneurship discussion, which I’ll write about soon)
  4. Meet a tech celebrity (though I did see Ron Perlman)
  5. Promote my conference or my blog in any official capacity

No matter how I spent these past five days, I knew that I was missing out on something – and I’m OK with that. There is no other conference that I have been to where I have felt like more stuff is going on (and less like I needed a badge). It doesn’t matter that the next Foursquare hasn’t been identified, or whether a particular party went over as planned or had too long of a line. SXSW is a unique conference, that I will attend every year from here on out, just to be in a situation where I know that, no matter how much I accomplish during the conference, I will have missed out on just as many opportunities in the process.

Image courtesy of Heisenberg Media