SXSW Preview

I’ll be posting intermittently on idiotprogrammer over the next two weeks. That’s because I’ll be liveblogging about SXSW Interactive for the Houston Chronicle’s Techblog site (Dwight Silverman’s weblog).

Below is the full text of the preview piece I published today: Note: Robert Nagle of Idiotprogrammer will be at SXSW Interactive next week and will guest-blog it for TechBlog. This is his scene-setter. Welcome, Robert!

Next week, I’ll be attending (and reporting on) parts of a famous arts conference, South by Southwest (SXSW) which takes place in Austin every year in March. Actually South by Southwest has three overlapping components: SXSW Music, SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive . Each component is famous in its own right, but participants or fans may not realize that SXSW encompasses more than just the part they are acquainted with. The music fest is famous for helping emerging bands find gigs and possibly record deals (see these anecdotes); the film fest includes lots of independent films along with a series of panels on promotion, distribution and genres; the interactive portion (from which I’ll be liveblogging) covers a wide range of topics having to deal with content creation (blogging, copyright, digital convergence, web entrepreneurship and multimedia). The film portion lasts the longest (although its panels overlap with Interactive); and quite a number of films premiered here get wider distribution (see these interviews with SXSW 2006 filmmakers); the music portion has the greatest number of performances (see this music schedule ) all around town; the Interactive portion is the most offbeat (with an annual kickball game, nightly literary events, and of course parties).People buy badges for film/music/interactive or some combination of the three. In the past I’ve attended the Interactive portion, and afterwards I feel simultaneously exhilirated, inspired and exhausted. Some attend two or even three of the components, a feat requiring Herculean amounts of stamina.

Purchasing badges is not terribly expensive. Badges for Music or for all three (the “Platinum Badge”) are the most expensive (because it includes free admission to all the venues). For those who wait until the last minute, the prices for Music/Film/Interactive badges are (respectively): $575/$300/$300. However, if you buy your badge several months in advance, the price is discounted heavily. For example, I bought my Interactive badge last September for $195. If you consider that the 4 day SXSW Interactive portion includes many technical topics and caters to web programmers, the price is shockingly low (contrast that with Oreilly’s Etech which costs almost $1700). For geeks, one particularly striking thing about SXSW Interactive is the male to female ratio. It may be one of the few geek conferences where the gender ratio resembles that of the real world.

Last year SXSW Music launched a bit torrent consisting of 3 gigabytes of free mp3s from almost all the artists performing that year. I am happy to report that the 2005 torrents are still available and that a similar 2006 bit torrent file exists for this year’s performers. (Update: the 2005 bittorrent files seem to be down at the moment. Will check into that). See also a music weblog called See You In the Pit with links to mp3s and reviews of performers. Once again, Houston music weblogger Robert Duffy will be providing some first-rate live coverage of SXSW Music.

SXSW Interactive has featured great ideas and web technologies before they went mainstream. Over the next two weeks while guestblogging here, I’ll try to touch upon the most interesting things I see and hear. I’ll be liveblogging SXSW here on Techblog starting on Saturday March 10 until the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

Finally, this question may be rhetorical, but why attend conferences in person anymore? Cost-conscious companies are less willing to send workers to out-of-town conferences (or even in-town conferences), and the blogosphere can often spread the same memes just as quickly. Starting in 2003 or so (for example), bloggers attending SXSW Interactive started transcribing panels they attended (the most notable being Heath Row whose lighting-fast typing produced some great transcripts of SXSW 2004 and SXSW 2003). This can have its surreal aspects. At one panel led by linux devotee Doc Searls a few years ago, I noticed he was typing vigorously after speaking his piece; it took me a moment to realize he was blogging about and moderating the panel both at the same time. At that same panel (I think), audience members were asked to raise their hands if they had a weblog. Every hand in the room shot up. For every SXSW Interactive panel, chances are that a minimum of three people have already blogged about it (perhaps even before the panel actually finishes!)

For those who would rather listen to the SXSW panels while driving down Highway 59, itconversations records a lot of first-class conferences on technology. Last year they featured several recordings of previous 2005 SXSW presentations, and this year they will probably feature more. Given the large number of mp3 recorders in people’s hands at the moment, I predict that mp3s of most presentations will hit the Internet fairly soon. I’ll link to them when I can; chances are links to them will also become available on the unofficial SXSW group weblog, SXSW baby).

Coming up next Friday: How to Pretend to be a SXSW Geek.

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer)is a Houston-based writer who writes fiction under several pseudonyms.