South By Southwest Recap

Earlier this week, I returned from Austin, Texas, where I had attended the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. SXSW started as a music festival, as I understand it, which started up a film festival, which somehow decided it needed an “interactive” festival for web developers, hackers (the DIY/tinkering type, not the security threat/rollerblading type), and more recently, video game designers. I think the idea behind it is probably that being associated with music and film festivals would attract a “hip nerd” set more than a “loser nerd” set, which would be good for interesting personal and professional networking. Indeed, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought it was a Stylish Glasses and Binge Drinking convention.

Today I came across one person’s entire SXSW experience in a single 11×17 infographic. I am too burned out on a week of intense awesomeness followed by unnecessary meetings, so I’ll just blog my own high and low points. Be sure to check the SXSW web site for podcasts and videos of the best panels, still being uploaded.

Most of the panels I went to kind of sucked. It felt like the purpose was less for interesting discussion and more to get people with similar interests in the same place so that they could chat in the 30 minutes between panels. From what I hear from others, though, my guess is just that the video game panels (which I disproportionately attended) mostly sucked, and the web development panels were pretty good. Decent game panels included the one on Alternate Reality Games (I wonder if the MIT mystery hunt would count as an ARG?), the storytelling talks by Warren Spector and Will Wright, the first girls in gaming panel (not the marketing-oriented one by the Frag Dolls, which I missed to catch a plane), and one about World of Warcraft and the blurring boundary between work and play.

I didn’t attend many web development panels because they mostly presumed that you were not just designing, but coding, and I don’t code web pages anymore. The most unfortunate was when the visual took a back seat to development entirely, as in “The Design Aesthetic of the Indie Developer” (a panel featuring John Gruber). It was an excellent panel for anyone looking for something titled “The Work Habits and Business Practices of the Indie Developer (with one brief comment about design aesthetics).” It was not for me. (Incidentally, Dan points me to John’s interesting recap of SXSW.)

A couple of programmers I talked to, meanwhile, thought that this whole event was much more design oriented than other conventions they had been to, so I guess it’s a middle ground when you look at the big picture. Maybe I just didn’t sit in on enough of the good visually oriented panels. One questioned whether “bad” design was a class issue, and even featured Khoi Vinh, the NY Times web site designer, whose work I rather like. It is a clever idea (or at least I’d like to think so, having chatted about it with people in the past) based on some interesting blog posts by the moderator, but it was unfortunately kind of dull and uninformed by the research done on visual design and class associations. The “Web Typography Sucks” panel presumed coding knowledge too, but it was really good and focused on visual design nonetheless. Check out the notes, slides, and useful links here. If I can prod Dan enough, maybe we can do a little makeover around here.

All of that said, I’m very glad I went. It was invaluable as a research trip: I was fascinated to see how we were being marketed to (why did our welcome bags have issues of Wizard and Anime Insider?), and I met lots of self-identified geeks who were quite different in their interests from whom I have chatted with so far. It was also a ton of fun, and I met a lot of cool people (shout outs to people I met through Emily and Tom: Alex, Garrett, Jason Y., John, Justin, Rich, and Cristen, Ben, Jason R., and Justin P., whose web sites I don’t know). I never really left the general area of our hotel, the convention center, and the local equivalent of “the street with the string of bars and clubs on it” (the Philly version being South Street), but there was still plenty to do with all the free parties and such. I would go again without hesitation if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to do so.