Sarcasm-free suggestions for SXSWi

DISCLAIMER: I am an unabashed fan of the SXSW folks. I have many close friends who are or have been deeply involved with the company, and I get ridiculously proud of them every year at this time. Through three massive conferences, they provide a forum for thousands of members of the creative class to learn, network, strut their stuff and have fun. They make my town the center of the universe for two weeks a year (which, admittedly, is a mixed bag, but which is also, frankly, kinda thrilling). They do a ton of work and do 99.99% of it beautifully. The problems that exist with SXSWi (and I’m just talking about interactive here, not music or film) are largely the result of growth, and the growth is due in part to a lack of competition, and the lack of competition is largely due to the fact that SXSW sets an incredibly high standard. 

HOWEVER, I am also a customer. In spite of my friendships, I pay full freight to attend. So, I’ve earned the right to bitch—excuse me—I mean, I’ve earned the right to offer constructive criticism. So here are some ideas, big and small, some of which are synergistic and some of which conflict with one another. Kinda like SXSWi itself.  

Mobile app—Make it possible while browsing the schedule to read the full title of a panel without tapping. Please. There are too many listings that look like, “The Big Nothing: Social…” So I have to tap to read the full title, scroll to read the description, then press back to return to the schedule. Dozens of times. 

Web site—Make it possible to read the full description of a panel by rolling over the panel’s link. Please! Right now it takes two clicks—that’s just not cool. It’s kinda inexcusable.

Split the conference in two. Or three—The conference, to say the least, is very crowded. The move to multiple venues this year hasn’t seemed to help much because it seems like attendance has increased accordingly. And the field is now too broad for one conference. The more SXSWi expands to include more facets of the field, the less relevant it gets for the individual—or this individual, anyway. So, have a conference in Portland and/or San Francisco, too. And if you go to one, you can’t register for the other (or both of the others).

Or, keep the whole thing in Austin, but divide it up and run it in three consecutive sections: Tech, Biz, Craft. Or something. SXSWiT, SXSWiB, SXSWiC. Or, run the three tracks simultaneously, but limit admittance to panels to those who have registered for that track.

I know, I know—it’s great to be able to attend panels across multiple disciplines. But right now there are too many choices. Every attendee must choose from dozens of choices in every time slot. Sure, panels are listed in categories, but the categorization is not always helpful or accurate, and, in many cases, it’s confusing.  

Banish or more clearly disclaim panels that are really just sales pitches—I got stuck in one of these this year and heard quite a few other people bitching about them, too. For every panel I went to, I had to pass up several others that sounded just as interesting. So it’s a drag to discover the one you managed to arrive at and shoehorn yourself into is essentially just an ad for someone’s app. There’s got to be a better way to distinguish—or even segregate—people who are trying to make a difference from people who are just on the make. Both have their places, but it should be easier to distinguish them.

Make sessions more, well, interactive—Right now, most panels consist of one or a few people talking at many people, with a few minutes for audience questions at the end. And often the subject of the panel is, “How we were successful at this one particular thing at this one particular time in this one particular way.” A singular success doesn’t necessarily yield a replicable solution, especially in interactive, but that’s the implication. The fact is, in this business, at times all of us are gurus and at other times all of us are neophytes. But the panel dais creates an artificial divide of know-everythings and know-nothings. With the demand for panel content the way it is, within a few years, EVERYONE will be a current or former panelist. I’d love to see more sessions devoted to peer-driven mentorship/creative exploration/problem-solving/career building, rather than panels devoted to innumerable versions of “the one true way.”

Ask companies to limit the number of attendees they send in a given year—Of course, SXSW could try to impose this limit unilaterally, but then companies would just find ways to cheat.

Create some kind of reserved seating system for panels—Right now, the only way to guarantee getting into a panel is getting there ridiculously early, and even then you may find yourself standing up, with a SXSW volunteer politely bird dogging you throughout to make sure you don’t block the aisle. It’s just nuts. Why can’t I sign up to attend panels ahead of time, with my actual admittance/attendance confirmed by bar code? If I fail to show up for two or more of my reservations, I lose all of them. At the very least, this would help people avoid showing up for panels they have no hope of getting into.

OK, enough. Congratulations again to the SXSW crew. The event may have some problems, but to paraphrase the Wire’s Chris Partlow, “They’re what you call good problems.”