SXSW INTERACTIVE is an amazing festival, conference, and annual gathering of the tribes—a place to see, be seen, and find out not only what’s happening on the web, but what will happen in the coming 18 months. The festival’s explosive growth—from minor music festival adjunct to megalopolis attracting over 20,000 interactive attendees this year—mirrors the miraculous growth of the internet itself. And the festival’s challenge echoes the challenge all internet community faces: in a word, scale. Not just the mechanics of scale, but the gauntlet of obstacles that must be overcome if a community is to grow wildly while remaining true to itself.
It is hard for someone who has not attended to imagine the scale of the thing—I flew here from New York on a JetBlue jet whose every passenger seemed to be attending this show; it was like a flying blogroll. For that matter, it’s too big for attendees to completely comprehend. It’s like New York City that way: you can visit, get a taste of it, you can even move there and be part of it, but you can never take it all in. And of course it is impossible for current attendees who missed the early years of SXSW Interactive to picture what the conference was like in the old days, when almost everyone attending knew everyone else personally or by reputation.
Each year I wonder if this will be the year the festival gets too big for its own good (or too big to be good), and each year SXSWi remains great—but great in a different way than before (again, just like the internet). Each year I salute the people behind this show. I could not even dream of putting on an event like this. I am a boutique guy at heart. I know how to make small things good for a select group of people with a certain taste and interest. The people behind SXSW cater to select needs and special tastes, too—but they also do massive. I’m looking forward to this year’s show, which begins today, and to my own panel and the panels and presentations of my friends (including friends I haven’t met yet).
As for the lost intimacy of SXSW that some of us long-time attendees lament, it isn’t really lost. The first trick is to show up on Thursday, before most attendees get here. Register early with short lines, then buy a water and sit anywhere in the vast conference center. Within five minutes, you will meet new people; within ten, you’ll see old friends. You can then go off with these new or old friends and enjoy a luxurious lunch table at a place you won’t even be able to get into after Friday.
Always arrive a day early. You will not regret it. My experiences yesterday and the memories I will take with me have already more than justified this year’s pilgrimage here.
And once the festival begins? Don’t be afraid to occasionally skip a panel and go off with people you bump into (whether that bump takes place in the hallway or on Gowalla and Foursquare).
Coffee drunk, cold pills swallowed, mischief managed. All right, SXSW. Thrill me, baby.
Kristina Halvorson on the porch at Moonshine on the afternoon before SXSW Interactive begins. Part of this complete breakfast.