As the Interactive portion of SXSW winds down and the music crowd takes over just as the rain appears, it’s time to consider what SXSW accomplished this year for publishing types—and whether it’s worth attending going forward.
As Richard Nash, a newbie this year, marveled, “If there’s a tech show that is friendly to culture, this is it.” As a newbie last year, I couldn’t believe that “creative” and “geeky” coexisted so easily in so many speakers, panels, and attendees. Half a dozen sessions were mindblowing enough that I can recall specifics a year later.
This year, not so much.
True, there were some terrific panels—including, I’m relieved to say, two well-attended publishing-related ones: New Publishing and Web Content, moderated by Jeffrey Zeldman, with Lisa Holton, Erin Kissane, Mandy Brown and Paul Ford; and A Brave New Future for Book Publishing, with moderator Kevin Smokler and panelists Kassia Kroszer, Debbie Stier, Matthew Cavnar, and Pablo Defendini. There was also a stunning brave new world panel called Imagineering the Fully Digitized and Connected Future that presented a day in the life, 2015-style.
But on balance—and this sentiment was shared by others—a certain pizazz was missing. Was it that the crowds were bigger, so that some sessions got closed out early? Was it that, as one person put it, the panels started resembling cliques, made up of like-minded friends who didn’t have a whole lot of creative tension to share? Or was it that, when the audience (this correspondent included) is so busy writing and monitoring tweets on the current panel, as well as those going on concurrently, it was hard to absorb the points being made—and even harder to not to feel that other, better sessions were being missed? Is sxsw setting itself up to foster a sense of deprivation—why am I here listening to this, when I could have, should have, been there, listening to that?
Which is not to say that the sxsw spirit—and mission—isn’t heads and shoulders above that at most conferences. The attendees are interesting and varied: In no particular order, I met two Finns who developed crowdsourcing software for movie making; a correspondent for L.A. Weekly; a folklorist from Memphis; and an older woman who works in HR at a not-for-profit in New York and was attending the many sessions aimed at nonprofits (a surprisingly big component of the festival).
Should publishers make their way here in 2011? Yes, because sxsw offers a chance to see options for the future—amazing gaming, interactive software, inventive marketing, creative content development and deployment. But as Will Schwalbe, a veteran attendee (he’s been going for three years) said, “If publishers come to sxsw to create their own sessions track, they’ll learn nothing. If they come to attend panels on subjects about which they know nothing, they’ll learn an enormous amount.”