What SXSW Attendees Need The Most

As I'm starting to write this column at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), I'm wrapping up lunch with two marketers from a global brand. One is on her iPhone, and the other is on his BlackBerry. While we've sat here, I received a group text update on GroupMe from someone at this table.

Something is very, very wrong in Austin. How did this become an acceptable approach to social interaction? To understand it, here is how social engagements work at SXSWi:

1) Before the festival, you receive party invites, whether directly from the party's hosts, via your connected SXSW alumni friends, or through one of several digital groups you have joined.

2) You prioritize responding to events based on the class system of whether you're invited as a VIP or hoi polloi. VIPs usually get some mix of line-cutting, free drinks, and access to roped-off areas. I went to one event where the greeter at the door asked, "Are you VIP or regular?" I jokingly responded, "You let regulars in here? That's it. I'm going elsewhere." He didn't think it was funny.

3) Then it’s time to create a schedule. For some people like me, the meetings and social functions usually run from about 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. – a full 16 hours with little downtime. Others may attend sessions during the first eight hours. Either way, it requires a Ph.D. in time management.

4) During the show, constantly ask people what events they're going to. This serves two purposes: showing you've heard about popular social functions, and instilling a sense of jealousy in the person who has the weaker hand. It’s like a deck of cards. The Jay-Z party (ace of spades) beats the Mashable party (four of diamonds), but the Jay-Z ticket could be countered by a combination of VIP access to Foursquare's event and dinner at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas.

5) As each day progresses, people link up through Foursquare, GroupMe, and SMS to change some of their plans on short notice and find their friends. When you're at a party, you constantly check your phone to receive vital messages from group chats like, "No, not the taco bar, the bloody Mary bar" and "That was the 5th best ‘Rolling in the Deep’ cover I heard tonight."

It's the last part that's the killer. SXSW is in many ways the most-social event many folks will go to in their professional lives, due to the sheer number of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with other interesting people. Without much difficulty, I can go through the notes and business cards collected from the trip and find a dozen people who I am confident will add some kind of value to my clients and/or my agency this year. A handful of these new acquaintances will probably become friends. This is all the more surprising given how most real-world interactions that I had with people at SXSW involved simultaneous interactions with mobile devices.

While this might be a problem at other times of year, SXSW exacerbates it in ways that defy comprehension. Attendees are trained to make the most of the festival by living in the past, present, and future simultaneously. There’s the present social interaction with real people, the need to constantly plan the rest of the day while adjusting to other plans that have changed, and the urge to continually publicly share one’s activities as a way to document what happened.

Next year, I expect some quiet acts of rebellion. Imagine a party with a roped-off area that’s not for VIPs but for people who aren’t using any consumer electronics. Imagine moments of digital silence where no one is allowed to do anything but interact with others in the room. Imagine people setting personal rules that when their devices’ batteries run out, they won’t recharge them until the end of the night.

SXSW Interactive remains my favorite conference; there’s nothing remotely like it. I just hope that next year, attendees like me have the strength to stop constantly communicating and sharing digitally. Yes, Austin could use a few more hotel rooms and outlets, but what SXSWi attendees need the most is presence. That’s the goal for SXSW 2013. Attending is easy. Being present will take more work.

10 comments about "What SXSW Attendees Need The Most".
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  1. Daniel Fell from ND&P, March 13, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.

    Wait, people were using business cards at SXSW? That makes me feel better ;-)

  2. Marjorie Dufek from Brown-Forman Corporation, March 13, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.

    I'm reminded of young children who need a nap, but refuse to close their eyes because they might miss somehthing. And of course, we WILL miss something; there are just too many interesting things happening. I'm trying very hard this year to mostly listen, and to let myself absorb and process the ideas. There are enough folks that are tweeting sound bites; I don't need to add to it.

  3. Lisbeth Kramer from Identities, March 13, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.


    While not there and in so many ways wish I was, but this is refreshing, especially coming from an innovator as yourself..."Presence"......connecting in real time, now that would be something wouldn't it? Just so interesting coming from someone like you to see this kind of connect as a void....isn't REAL relationship building still key to business and consumer connect?

    or is mayb PINNING your biz cards on your facebook the next step?

  4. Raycent Edwards from Cache Brand Imaging, March 13, 2012 at 12:40 p.m.

    Cheers and Bravo, David! Love it all, especially--"...but what SXSWi attendees need the most is presence. That’s the goal for SXSW 2013. Attending is easy. Being present will take more work."

  5. Paul Gustafson from BCKSTGR, March 13, 2012 at 12:40 p.m.

    At least this year I saw more business cards being exchanged then the past two years. In years past we either had to "bump" or "scan" to get information and contact information among the other ways to connect.

    I agree that this is a fantastic event and one of the best to really soak it all up at the speed you set for yourself. You can be engaged at the level that meets your persona. But with that said it would be nice if people did put down that phone while talking to you, to just really be in the moment and not where you want to be next.

  6. Heather Wetzler from Talent House, March 13, 2012 at 2:23 p.m.

    We need more Buddhists in the Social Media space - Be Present OHM. Maybe SXSWi needs a good yoga class - but I am sure someone would figure out how to make the YogaMat a HotSpot or charging station.

  7. Dave Hendricks from LiveIntent, March 13, 2012 at 11:15 p.m.

    The SXSW you've expressed sounds like some new level of Dante's Inferno, or perhaps 'No Exit'. Nice Dystopian piece, David.

  8. David Berkowitz from MRY, March 14, 2012 at 1:19 a.m.

    It's been a long final day at SXSW so I'll keep this concise, but thanks all for the comments, and I'll read them in detail shortly when I'm back.

  9. Doug Robinson from FreshDigitalGroup, March 14, 2012 at 6:12 p.m.

    I had a spreadsheet, daily party list that I vetted at 2pm each day, VIP access, and still had FOMO anxiety at least twice a day. You really do need a Ph.D in time management, you can tell the newbies who aren't sure that another party is actually worth leaving for, they know now.
    Can't wait till next year.

  10. Brendan Barnhart from Amplify, July 24, 2012 at 4:36 p.m.

    SXSW is a great event with lots of learning and social integration. Postano, a social media aggregator, has included the "What SXSW Attendees Need the Most" post in one of their own posts about Social Media Displays for Events. Check it out here.

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