I've always had a recreational desire to go to South by Southwest (does anyone actually spell it out in print?), but I've never been able to make a business case for going. This time around, my employer could, for the purpose of getting our distributed team together and being around a lot of people and things that offer inspiration. Who am I to argue with that?
We were there for the interactive part (the others being film and music), and my initial self-direction was to seek out as much as I could that was relevant to my job. This, as it turns out, wasn't a great strategy, because the relevant stuff didn't go very far in the weeds and wasn't really ripe with new information. As a result, half of the stuff I went to was not particularly valuable to me. However, there were other things that I went to that energized me and even blew my mind. I saw Joe Biden talk about cancer research, the editor of the New York Times talk about journalism and Senator Cory Booker talk about the need to focus on love. Hopefully they'll release the video with Mark Cuban, because I hear that was good, too. I saw a talk about online activism that really got me thinking.
What I should have done was spend more time looking at the massive schedule, outside of the tracks that I thought I should focus on. Turns out amazing people like Kerri Walsh Jennings were there, and I didn't realize it. In some ways, that might be the fault of the entire event, that it tends to want to be all things to all people. It's spread out across dozens of venues. The low-quality stuff ends up taking space, and I spent almost as much time queueing for things as I did seeing things. It seems to me that they should book half of the content in bigger rooms so more people get to see what they want to see. Not everything is recorded, either, so there's no way to see it after the fact.
The fact that the hotels and restaurants price gouge leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. I get it, that's capitalism, but doubling your price for breakfast just because you know you can feels gross. The people of Austin seem generally welcoming, but that part doesn't feel good at all.
Still, I don't want to suggest that it isn't worth going. As is the case with most conferences, the conversations you have in the hall are where it's really at. Heck, in my case, those conversations lasted all the way back to MCO, where I had a chance to talk with the mayor of Orlando and his staff (he was at SXSW for a talk on domestic terrorism). Indeed, I talked to people in similar businesses, activists, nerds, artists and even one relative from Ohio that happened to be there. As for my team, we had one conversation in particular that seemed like a breakthrough moment that will help shape our product going forward. That's pretty exciting.
I'm not sure if I'm in any hurry to go back next year, but at some point, yes, I'm sure I'll be back.