South by Southwest, the annual interactive, film and music festival held in Austin, Texas, is a complete overload of the senses. Nearly 20,000 people flock to the conference every March in hoping of showing their movie, becoming the next hot web start-up, or breaking their band in an already over saturated scene. If you’re not there to hawk your shit, you’re there to learn and hopefully bring something back to the company that was nice enough to send you in the first place. South by Southwest presents the unique opportunity to attend panels, lectures and discussions on every imaginable topic all crammed into five non-stop days.
I was at South by Southwest Interactive this year. It was exciting and overwhelming, a clusterfuck for the senses—a giant party disguised as a conference for techies and hipsters dying to be seen and heard. It was my first time at the festival and in Austin and it’s hard to say if I’ll be back next year. Here is the story.
The main reason I wanted to go to SXSWi was for the content. The conference is jammed packed with smart and talented people and the sessions provide a unique opportunity to learn and develop skills. My general opinion was that there was almost too much to choose from. It was hard to make the perfect schedule and hit all of the topics I was interested in. I had to weigh sexy titles versus who was on the panels versus where the sessions were being held throughout the city. Overall, the content presented at SXSWi was more of a validation than an eye-opening experience. I wasn’t blown away or fascinated by what was presented. I was aware, hip to, and even practicing many of the tips, tricks and advice being dispensed. It felt good to know that all of the so-called experts were nothing more than their fancy job titles. Everyone is doing good work. Everyone is smart. Information is out there for everyone. It comes down to execution and knowing yourself. Here are a few sessions I attended:
Effective Social Media Presence in Higher Ed
This was a “core conversation” which I guess meant that the moderators throw out a question then everyone else stands up one at a time and talks about how awesome their school is. The key point: every school is different. Know your audience and be creative.
Why Happiness is the New Currency
Do we like products that make us happy mean more to us? That was the main topic addressed by the founders of Path, Formspring and Kiip. The panel featured a lot of patting on the back of each other, but they all agreed that positive experiences with technology, programs, apps, etc makes for a better brand and engagement with it. Feels a little obvious, no?
Y Rappers R Better Rappers Than U
What happens when you get bunch of white people in a room to talk about brand marketing in terms of hip-hop? A lot of white people giving awkward answers on a topic they think they know too well. Again, some very obvious principals discussed here, just with a new spin.
Is Our Photo-Madness Creating Mediocrity or Magic?
This was a very sexy sounding panel and a common theme for sessions. Throw out a very provocative title on a current hot topic to gain interest, then immediately answer the question and diverge into other self-interested topics. Of course the found of Instagram thinks more photos is magic. Of course the photojournalist loves the iPhone camera technology that allows him to shoot in the field. The main takeaway was again, already known: edit yourself. Take as many photos as you want, but be judicious with what you share and post.
Are We Killing Social With Social?
Yes, say my biased internal monologue. This panel started off strong by outlining the ways we may be ruining our own personal lives with social media, but quickly devolved into the panelists making inside jokes and veering off topic. What it comes down to: everything in moderation, you don’t have to be on every social network and try to disconnect every once in a while for mental health.
Snackable Content: Working in a Bite-Sized Future
Our attention spans are smaller than ever. No one reads. Mobile is bigger than ever. So how do we get our messaging out to those we target? The idea of quickly digestible “snackable” content Is not a new idea, but this panel really drove home the point home. Eveyrthing from Facebook and Twitter posts to email subjects are considered content. Know what people like and try to re-use and recycle existing content in new forms as much as possible.
Austin is a great food city. BBQ and Mexican rule the landscape, but there’s something for everyone if you take the time to look.
Probably the favorite place I ate. Great beer menu, excellent food, interesting people, solid vibes. The venison pate on the Hill Country board smeared on their homemade bread was diesel.
It was packed throughout the week, but I finally managed to get a seat at the bar on my last day before I headed to the airport. I had the Jackalope Sausage with Poutine Waffle Fries. Killer food.
Austin has a food truck/trailer/stall/cart scene that should be envied by every other city in America. The variety and level of food being put out is awesome. I ate at Wok Around Austin (Asian stir Fry) and Short Bus Subs (baked sandwiches) and if I had more time or a bigger appetite, would have eaten at several more. They’re cheap, convenient, and delicious.
I waited for over an hour at Franklin’s because I had too. It was a necessity. And really, that wasn’t that bad according to locals. This is the spot for BBQ in Austin. Even Anthony Bourdain agrees. I went with the two mean combo—brisket and pork ribs—with a side of potato salad and coleslaw. The smoked meat was phenomenal. Tender and moist and the table sauces were equally tasty. Get in line now and wait for however long it takes (or until they run out). It’s totally worth it.
Amy’s Ice Cream
Great local ice cream. Crucial flavors: Mexican Vanilla, Kahlua, Triffle, Maple Bacon.
Hoek’s Death Metal Pizza
I didn’t eat here, but I loved this place every time I walked by it on Sixth street. Non-stop metal riffs blaring out of the store front with several scary dudes posted up at all hours of the day.
The one thing I’ll probably miss the most about Austin is the Mexican Coke served ice cold in a glass bottle. It just tasted so much better that the regular Coke. Slightly sweeter and less carbonated, it was the perfect soda to quench an Texas-sized thirst.
Another cool local bar with regional beers, satisfying burgers and waffle fries that are a must.
One of the biggest draws to SXSW is the party scene. I just didn’t get it; they just weren’t a priority for me. Every “official” party (read: sponsored with an open bar) had massive lines and waits. Everyone just wanted to be seen and try to get free drinks. For example, the Mashable party had an hour-long wait to get in the door for a pretty lame party at Buffalo Billiards, but one block down at Pete’s Dueling Piano bar, there was no line, no cover, cheap beer and a much more enjoyable time. I did have some fun though…
The Jigga Man’s free Amex Sync show was a highlight of the week for me. I waited in line for tickets at six in the morning, got floor seats and was super close for the show at the Moody Theatre. Hov ran through his hits and did his best with a lack luster crowd. You see the problem with free events, particularly at SXSW is that pretty much everyone just wants to go regardless of what the event is. So, basically the crowd was a bunch of middle aged white dudes who had no clue who Jay-Z was and stood there for the whole concert filming him with their phones to show their kids back home. I had a great time, but the whole filming on the cell phone thing really bugged me. I understand taking one or two pictures to remember the moment and brag on Facebook with, but to just stand there for an hour, filming the set for whatever reason, felt rude and detached. Put your camera down and enjoy the show! Create a memory, not just something you’ll delete off your hard drive in two years.
I was really happy that there was Esther’s Follies comedy club to serve as an alternative to the overcrowded bar scene. I caught two shows and they were both very entertaining—Scott Auckerman’s Comedy Bang Bang Stand-Up Showcase and the UCB Improv All-Stars. I’ve really gotten into comedy over the last few years and I’d almost always rather spend my night laughing than sipping watered-down drinks with too cool for school hipsters at Roial.