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Dilemma: Should I attend South by Southwest Interactive Conference in March?

Frankly, I’m deadlocked. I’ve been attending South by Southwest Interactive since 2002. Should I go for the 7th year in a row?

I’ve changed my mind about 20 times, and frankly, I expect to change it 10 more times. I need to make a decision before January 15 (that’s when the price goes up $25 to $425).

Here are my thoughts.

Reasons Not to Go.

  1. It’s getting more expensive.
  2. People are getting younger, and older people seem less relevant to the discussion. Even last time, I felt like a spectator to many of the panel topics. I find any subject interesting (up to a point). But does my opinion really count?
  3. My ability to process new technologies and ideas is limited. In 2006, I wrote a diary of going to SXSW which captured the creativity and brainstorming of a conference. That was fun (although exhausting). But over time, the buzz of being exposed to these ideas was tempered by the fact that I could not try out or play with most of the ideas I had been exposed to. Ok, so I attended a panel on video podcasting. That’s great. But what about actually trying it yourself? Unfortunately an ordinary geek’s free time is limited, especially with work and family getting in the way. It can get depressing because it calls attention to how much more I can and should be doing. Instead, I should be spending my free time doing it. It’s a kind of bait shop for smart people. Tempting, but unattainable.
  4. Same old people. Same old ideas. Even though SXSW and the attendees are interesting, after a while, a sort of groupthink occurs. (Time-Warner bad, twitter good, freelancers are good, full time workers are bad. Enterpreneurship is good, service (i.e., notprofit or government) jobs are bad. SXSW has/had a lot of web designers. Yes, that’s interesting, but only so many people can be Jeffrey Zeldman or Matt Mullenweg. These are niches, but to make a name for yourself, you have to identify alternate niches.
  5. Do I really matter? (The question of status). Some Internet celebrities show up here, and many have remarkable stories to tell. But noncelebrities have stories to tell also, but who cares about them really? The minor figure of one year when he shows up the following year can be an Internet celebrity (or the multimillionaire) of the next. But the definition of success seems to become narrower and more affiliated with the company you work for (or the major media company who backs you). By my personal standard, these definitions don’t really matter.
  6. Switch conferences once in a while. At this point I’d love to go to a totally different conference. A conference for executives or elementary school teachers, or Southern writers or marketing whizzes. My rule about conferences: always go to conferences where I am likely to know the least about a subject.
  7. I attended a great seminar about web usability where they talked about successful brainstorming. One key element to brainstorming, the speaker mentioned, was ensuring a diversity of viewpoints on the team. Rather than having 4 TV writers on a team, it was more helpful to have a TV writer, a doctor, a student and a restaurant manager.
  8. 4 days of time I could be writing/making websites/learning a technical skill. Unfortunately, companies are stingy about letting individuals learn things. If it’s not directly related to the task at hand, it is often difficult for the worker to learn anything. More progressive companies try to combat that problem by sending people to conferences. But doing that misses a vital part of training: having the time to learn a skill on your own. Two years ago I took a programming class. Great class, enjoyed it a lot. Afterwards, I had practically no time to experiment with what I was learning. I never was able to budget the time for this (for various reasons) So I never learned it. Therein lies the folly of wasting your free time to go to conferences.
  9. Self-promotion. SXSW are often pros at self-promotion. I can tolerate it up to a point. But marketing is often more about style over substance. Often success is measured simply by monetization. Money, money, money: who cares? More specifically, many people have agendas. Don’t get me wrong. Agendas are good, not bad. But so often the panels focus on self-promotion and not on the substance (or the values) behind the message. They focus on look-how-I-implemented-this-idea and look-how-popular-it-got-and-how-pretty-it-looks.  There’s value in that; don’t get me wrong. Techniques to increase web traffic interest me to a point, but I’m more interesting in finding substance and meaning, not propagating it.
  10. It’s no longer about art. I enjoy the academic/artsy topics much more than the business topics. But every year the business topics predominate. Ironically some people from the bigger companies have the most academic approaches. I’ve seen presentations from people at Microsoft, Intel; interestingly, those have been the most academic/theoretical of them all.
  11. Age Discrimination. When I first attended SXSW in 2002, I felt ancient (I was 36). Now at 43, I am aware of my increasing irrelevance.
  12. Podcasts are cheaper than conference fees. Technical conferences have become great about sharing audio recordings of talks. But ironically, by doing this, it makes each panel less vital to attend. The advantage of podcasts is that if the subject doesn’t interest you, you just stop the recording and go to the next talk. This is not as easy to do at the actual event.
  13. The conference depends on the variety of programs. For better or worse, SXSW opened up the panel picking to a vote, which is good and bad. Bad in that it does boil down to a popularity contest. That makes it easier for bloggers to solicit votes and rewards in-your-face topics (even if the panels themselves are uninteresting).
  14. Lack of practical information. I once attended a panel on CSS, and the speaker turned it into a jokefest, imparting little useful information. (He was an accomplished web designer though). At the end I asked a serious question about standards, and he made a joke out of it. (The panel itself was more of an one man performance than an attempt to provide information). I remember thinking, what a #$##$# idiot. I almost never have a chance to hang out with web designers, and neither did about 50% of the people in the audience. We all cared about web design, but only about a quarter did full time work in the area. CSS was not something we much time to learn about. So then why was this prima donna mocking my attempt to make his session useful and practical? (Don’t get me wrong; he was funny and charming, just not useful).  Occasionally I learn some practical information (and most of it comes in the form of newer tools out there, and upcoming standards). Also, I learn  valuable process information.  But most sessions lack valuable how-to information. Ironically most of the education seems to be about legal issues and aesthetic issues, not technical ones.
  15. Not relevant to ME. Lots of information about web design and community management, but not a lot of information about publishing tools, editorial process, noncommercial arts projects. It’s great to be around great interesting people. But are they the kind of people whom I would pay money and time to go hang around for a few days?
  16. Why Not Go Bike Riding? I had a revelation last September in Ireland. I had a great time riding my bike. Surely, I could find biking opportunities (or exploring opportunities) while in Texas! Not only did it improve my body, it also cleansed my mind and helped me to think about things. In my normal life, so many trivial details clutter up. For example, at the moment, my top priority is finishing a literary essay which I promised for some online publication. But at the same time I am 1)coordinating time to take care of a sick family member, 2)doing online dating, 3)dealing with an ongoing credit card dispute, 4)transitioning to contract work, 5)handling mandatory backend stuff, 6)dealing with minor technical glitches, 7)making tough financial decisions and 8)dealing with housework. As a result, this top priority item has become an item I’ve hardly had time to work on. It is maddening! If I require the occasional escape from daily pressures, why not do something more personal (and less expensive?).

Reasons to Go.

  1. Even though the price has increased, it provides reasonable access to lots of speakers and sessions. Occasionally, one or two of them are useful.
  2. Loneliness/Making Connections. Since I’m moving back to contract work, I need to make a special effort to widen my social network with face-to-face contact. Also, it’s a good way to keep in touch with people I met from previous years.
  3. What You Don’t Know. These sorts of conferences help you see things which are missing on your radar. Two or three times at every SXSW, I hear something startling and interesting, causing me to change how I do things. The trouble is, I can’t anticipate what startling information I will discover (if any).
  4. Finding out why people are embracing fads. I hear about a lot of cool web stuff with polite indifference. Facebook, hulu, etc. It’s often interesting to hear why some people are/were enthusiastic about facebook even though to me it seems like nothing special. Sometimes my first impressions about something can be way off base.
  5. Just showing up. Woody Allen once said that 95% of life is just showing up. If I want to maintain visibility in the blogosphere or whatever-osphere, I need to be around other people. Conversely, I probably learn about other bloggers/artists/etc. (That begs the question about why I don’t run into such people in Houston, but that’s another story).
  6. Business opportunities. One advantage of going to SXSW is finding out what ideas are being tried and which projects not to bother with. It helps to know about the competition.
  7. New Media Focus. One problem content creators have is not understanding the implications of new media on their own endeavors. For example, what about emerging copyright law? Business models? Advertising trends? If today you tried to implement  an ad-monetizing strategy that was popular in 2005, you would find little success.
  8. Tradition. After a while, the media geek celebrities who noticed that funny looking guy in the hallway will at some point find it unavoidable to converse with me.  It’s just a matter of time.
  9. Texas Contacts. I eventually will shift professions in the next 5 or 10 years. It’s always helpful to make contacts with people in different but related fields.

So here are my thoughts for now. Since I have written this post, I have changed my mind three more times. I need to commit by January 15. What should I do?

Update (January 15): Well, I’ve decided to go after all.  I will post afterwards about whether I thought it was worth it (in comparison to doing my own thing from home.  The reasons that persuaded me:  opportunities to tell acquaintances about my ebook projects, opportunity to perform a story at Fray, Core Conversations (an informal round table discussion), the need for a break from things (a big factor actually), and the chance to focus my training in the right direction.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu 1/7/2009, 10:42 pm

    Go for it! How else are you gonna make enough new contacts to drum up new business?

  • Preston 1/14/2009, 4:12 pm

    Based on your update, I guess it’s too late to suggest the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference as an alternative. ( http://www.toccon.com/toc2009 ) It would be more expensive, but at least something different. That, and I’ve never been there so I could live vicariously through your trip. 🙂

  • Robert Nagle 1/14/2009, 5:14 pm

    Tools of Change is very expensive, but two of my Teleread associates are going. So I’ll be there in spirit as well.

  • Karen Kreps 1/17/2009, 10:02 pm

    You really nailed SXSWi and described the pros and cons exactly as I would have, had I made the effort. I’ve attended every SXSW Interactive (15 so far, I think) and for most of the recent ones I’ve shared your ambivalence. Usually, on days one and two, I’m glad I decided to go and by Day Four, I’m resolving not to do it again. This year, I managed to get a Gold Pass (Interactive and Film) since I will be hosting one of the “Core Conversations.” It will occur on Sunday, time TBA, on the topic of “Sex Ed Online: How Teens Self Savvy.” Hope you’ll drop by for it. I’m glad there will be another mature Web veteran there.

  • Topher 1/18/2009, 5:16 am

    Have you considered instead going to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, TX? Lots of great bands, totally cool people, and lots of tasty BBQ…sounds better than a pro forma conference you are flip-flopping on attending. Sounds like it would be better for your soul.

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