Recommendations to improve SxSW seem to boil down to limiting the number of attendees, and various techniques to consolidate the conference in a small number of venues.
I wrote a post a few weeks ago — it seems so long ago — entitled Why I Am Not Going To SxSW. I was all wrong. Let me explain.
SxSW ia a petri dish for the social, mobile future.
My piece was primarily oriented to the event — the SxSW Interactive conference — and my past experiences as a participant. You know, ‘the rooms are too crowded’, ‘uneven sessions: some great, some terrible’, that sort of thing. I kvetched about the size of the town, everything too cramped… basically treating SxSW as a conference, and comparing it to other conferences.
Again, I was wrong.
SxSW has conferences embedded in its writhing chaos, but they are — sorry, conference organizers — the sideshow.
I wound up being in Austin during SxSW — various clients asked me to meet with them there — and so I wound up being at SxSW for a few days (catching a few meetings here and there) without attending even a single session of the event. So instead of watching people talk about where tech is going, there I was watching tech going.
And I realized that I should have come like an ethnographer, watching people and seeing what they were up to. SxSW ia a petri dish for the social, mobile future.
What did I see? Mobile, mobile everywhere. Much fewer PCs, smart devices, iPads, mobile social apps of all stripes (like Jyri Engstrom’s Ditto). Caroline McCarthy seems to have had the same experience, and she wonders what we can learn:
Caroline McCarthy, At SXSW, a peek at the post-laptop age?
How will this all translate to the “real” world? At SXSW, attendees are social-media lab rats, running around the maze of Austin bars, hotels, and conference rooms equipped with strange, glowing sensors that give them ambiguous signals about where to go and what to do at all hours of the day and night. Most of their quotidian professional routines—which, for most, would involve being at a full-size keyboard at a desktop computer—have come to a standstill. The city’s collective blood alcohol level, I’m willing to wager, is unusually high.
At SXSW, a case could be made that we are, indeed, living in a post-PC world. But SXSW isn’t how the real world runs. When Twitter captured the attention of the tech world at SXSW in 2007, it took well over a year for even the fringes of mainstream culture to catch on—mainly when celebrities realized that it was a great platform for self-promotion. And there, we’re talking about a free Web service, not a major change in the purchasing and productivity habits of millions of people.
The PC isn’t dead. But at SXSW, it’s moribund. And if you consider the annual festival to be a prognosticator of what the digital lifestyle will eventually be—well, then, maybe it’s time to make some predictions for a few years out.
SxSW is an artificial urban experience, with enormous social density, and a population with nothing on their minds but social connections and coordination of activities. It’s a hothouse, an artificial ecology where the number of connections that can be acted on — for meetings, suggestions, introductions — are at something like a human maximum. SxSW is coincidensity raised to its logical extreme. Like a swarm of mayflies flying in swarms, mating, and with nothing else on their minds. Except SxSW a mini-city of technoids with nothing but connection — and its uses — in mind.
Sure, don’t get me wrong. People are there chasing their personal goals — making deals, showing off software, hawking their newest book, looking for work — but the underlying ground that they are standing on is something from the near future, a combination of more connected urban experience and the mediated social experience of ubiquitous computing: mobile and social.
SxSW has done us all a great benefit, but seeding Austin with a tech salt lick — the conference — that acts as the beacon, rallying some initial core group to come to town each year for the conference. But the outliers who come for the circus and who never go into the tent to see the clowns and the trapeze, those twinkling, shifting hipsters who throng the streets, clubs and lobbies of Austin during SxSW are not just tech faddists: they are visitors from the future, a future with fewer old school PCs in it, and where everyone is rejinkulously connected.
Over 50% of the world’s population is now urban, and that is expected to rise to over 60% by 2030. The cities will not only be bigger, but increasingly dense, so what we learn from SxSW today could shape the social, mobile, urban landscape of the near future, since many of the architects of the future were there, taking notes.
So, again, I was deeply wrong. I’m glad now that circumstances brought me there, and in this different role: outside the conference, out in the messy, powerful flow of the SOMO (social, mobile) world.
I wrote a post not long ago, called Why I Am Not Going To SxSW. I detailed my reasons for not going — uneven conference, too many crowds, too much of a Mardi Gras atmosphere — and that seemed to hit a nerve. I have heard back from a lot of folks, like in the comments, on Twitter, and in face-to-face conversations, and there is a SxSW backlash going on, for a lot of those reasons.
I also got involved in an email discussion with Hugh Forrest, the organizer of the SxSW Interactive program, where we exchanged a lot of insights and ideas. After a lively give-and-take, I ended an email with ‘and let me know if I can help in any way.’ He’s taken me up on that, so I will be joining the SxSWi advisory team for 2012. But I still didn’t plan to attend this year.
However, a few clients of mine have asked me to visit them that week, so I will be swinging through Austin for a few days, although I won’t be attending the conference.
Podio has implemented a rich and deeply designed platform for social work, based on a streaming model of communications, just as the company’s positioning would suggest. The nature of that platform is unusual, in that it is not a means to integrate with external applications, like Salesforce or Zendesk. Instead, it is a platform that is first and foremost for users, or user organizations, to develop the specific structured apps that they need to get their own work done.
This is supported by the Podio App store, where a number of pre-defined applications form the starting point for an organization’s ‘podiofication’.
And going even farther down that path, the addition of an rich services interface would mean that Podio apps could integrate with third party apps, as well. So a company that is already using Zendesk could simply add the Zendesk Podio app into a space, and be up and running.
I am sold on the design of the Podio platform: I think it will line up well with the needs of business to structure whatever can be structured in Podio apps, and to leave flexible and fluid the ad hoc interactions that make up a great deal of the work we do everyday. A great fusion of stream and structure.
Podio will be demoing the streaming collaboration tool at the Four Seasons’ Congressional Suite on Saturday afternoon, with a happy hour from 4-6pm. They are also holding a Podio Work 2.0 Hackday in San Francisco on 20 March, where third-party groups will be competing to build the coolest add-ons and integrations to Podio.
I am also going to attend the ideaCOMM lunch on Sunday, invited by Danielle Gould, founder of Food + Tech Connect, a friend from the Food Tech Meetup in New York City. A bunch of folks working at the forefront of the Food/Tech movement will be there.
I will also be spending time with some Austin-based firms, like Appconomy, a mobile start-up I encountered at Calacanis’ Launch conference a few weeks ago, led by Brian Magierski and my old friend Steve Papermaster. (PS I have to hand it to Jason, that was an amazing collection of companies: I have a long overdue post in the works on that.)
At any rate, I will be in town, so ping me (@stoweboyd on twitter) if you want to flag me down.
I have attended SxSW Interactive a few times, and I’ve found it to be a high-tech Woodstock, without the mud or the music. Just lots of people milling around, and queued up for the parties, the after parties, and the after-after parties.
The selection approach for the talks is all about popularity, and there is no obvious thematic control, and no MC, so the sessions are very uneven. Some can be great, but the majority are a rewarming of shopworn topics. The most popular talks are too crowded to admit all those that want in, so you’re lucky if you get into one in five of those.
Austin is also not scaled for an event of the size of SxSW. The venues are too small, so it’s almost impossible to breathe at the cocktail parties. There aren’t enough hotels downtown for the crowds, and so people have to stay at the airport, or out at the lake and travel miles to get to the event, and the only mass transit is the bus.
I hope that we finally get around to developing a distinctive New York-based, but international tech conference (‘TechNYC 2012’), one that stands in distinction to SxSW. One with a wide scope, covering the most critical topics in technology. It could have a combination of invited speakers and an open and public proposal approach, but one where the final selection of talks would be worked out by a small group of organizers, to diminish the artifice of the popularity game (‘please vote for my proposal!’).
New York is the perfect place for a giant event like this: plenty of hotels, good public transit, a growing tech environment, great universities, and a location where everyone whats to visit.
And no mud.
Borrowing on the idea of Extropianism, Sotropians anticipate that social networking will
change the course of human history, shifting the way humans function everyday on an
individual and social level and ultimately affecting such areas as government, business and education.
We’ve put together an amazing panel (our own Jodee Rich along with Brian Solis, Stowe
Boyd, Deanna Zandt, and Mark Pesce) to discuss the concept of openness and how
social networking will improve the human condition.
We’re fascinated by the thought of how we as individuals will be different in 30 years
as a result of social networking technology. And we hope to spark this conversation at
Even if you don’t think you’ll make it to Austin next spring, we’d still appreciate
you letting the SXSW organizers know you support the Sotroprians!
VOTE here: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/6934
(Voting ends 11:59 CDT on Friday, August 27)
Doc Searls recently posted that he was headed out for several ‘non-unconferences’ — naming Etech (where I am right now), and SXSW as examples. Marc Canter launched into a tirade, where he stated — accurately, I think — that those two events are not unconferences at all, based on misreading Doc’s post. He subsequently updated the post, when people pointed out that he missed the ‘non’.
Perhaps coincidentally, Dave Winer wrote a post called What is an unconference?, that outlines the core features of unconferences:
This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences.
The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
It’s probably much worse than that. My guess is that if you swapped the people on stage with an equal number chosen at random from the audience, the new panelists would effectively be smarter, because they didn’t have the time to get nervous, to prepare PowerPoint slides, to make lists of things they must remember to say, or have overly grandiose ideas about how much recognition they are getting. In other words, putting someone on stage and telling them they’re boss probably makes them dumber. In any case it surely makes them more boring.
Turning things around
So then, how do you turn things around so that we can harness the expertise we just discovered and get a discussion moving efficiently and spontaneously without forcing the interesting conversations into the hallway. I wanted to see if there was a way to get the hallway ideas to come back into the meeting room. It turns out there was.
First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do? Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.
And, despite the fact that I seldom agree 100% with Dave, I buy in on this unconference definition.
But I don’t agree with the implicit notion that there are two kinds of conferences in the world. I think there is a short list of dimensions, not just one. And here they are.
Continue reading this post at Conferenza.