It’s hard to keep a consistent scorecard for South by Southwest because everyone’s South by is so different and personal. You make a schedule and adhere to it as much or as little as you care to and then the adventure begins. The unpredictability of what you’ll experience and how different it will be from everyone else is a major feature, not a bug. So rating it on any kind of scale is to grade it through a lens of one’s own stamina, openness and, frankly, a willingness to stand in line and battle impatience like an anxious kid at Disney World who’s staying up for the fireworks.
Which is to say that this list of things that worked and didn’t work at South by Southwest 2017 is subjective. But it is based not just on my own seven or so days on the ground at SXSW (I passed the baton after Wednesday, March 15), conversations with other conference-goers and the gist I got from other writing, Tweets and crowd reactions around SXSW.
What worked for 2017
Politics at SXSW
There’s no avoiding the politics in the air and rather than keep the tech content at SXSW apolitical this year, SXSW instead leaned into local, state, national and international political debates, a strategy that seemed to work well and reflect the broader culture. Joe Biden, who was at SXSW to talk about cancer, not politics, nevertheless drew a warm, packed crowd and he was named Speaker of the Event at the SXSW Innovation Awards. I heard good buzz from attendees about talks they heard from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Van Jones and Jessica Shortall. And while some SXSW attendees said they came to get away from politics, many others seemed fully engaged. Trump Under Tech panels I went to on Wednesday, during that seeming gray area between SXSW Music and most of the tech/Interactive content, drew more than 50 per session, sometimes more. People clearly wanted to hear about and discuss politics and SXSW provided plenty of that content.
Except for a prolonged period of rain on Saturday, March 11, that created a little bit of scheduling trouble, weather at SXSW 2017 was generally pretty great, even a little cooler than is typical this time of year. Attendees got to spend lots of time outside if that was their wont and by the weekend of Music, temperatures were pretty warm. Thanks for cooperating, Mother Nature.
Last year, I expressed concerns that moving SXSW Gaming to the Austin Convention Center and scheduling it during the second SXSW weekend might keep away families and drop attendance. That didn’t happen; in fact, Gaming seemed to thrive in its second year with the Convention Center as its home, so much so that the event required a paid wristband for those older than 12. Our correspondent Will Harrison reported that there was plenty to see at SXSW Gaming this year, whether you’re into console and PC games, tabletop or esports. The SXSW Gaming Awards were only able to fill about half of the Hilton Downtown Austin Grand Ballroom Saturday night, but Twitch was live-streaming the ceremony for those who couldn’t make it.
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An abundance of content
This was the first year in a very long time that I didn’t go panel-by-panel through the SXSW schedule carefully crafting a failsafe Google Calendar schedule that I would consult all week. Instead, I focused on keynotes and featured speakers along with my colleagues and figured I’d tackle things day by day and be more open to check out things I was hearing about versus overscheduling. That strategy worked out pretty well; three of my favorite things this year, includng a giant cardboard box on people’s heads, the “Optic Obscura” art installation and a “Mummy” VR experience, were things I hadn’t planned to see at all before SXSW started. That went for Tech Under Trump panels and all the panels you could see about VR, space exploration, machine learning, not to mention all the unofficial mini conferences with their own sets of panels outside SXSW. If you were bored, you weren’t looking around enough.
The fleeting moments when you caught a glimpse of the future
I wasn’t as impressed with the virtual reality stuff I saw this year (”The Mummy Zero-Gravity VR Experience” was interesting, but not something you’re going to install in your living room ever), and the Expo Hall floor was less inspiring to me than I was hoping. But every now and then, such as with a set of vibrating speakers that sounded amazing in the Hall, or with some of the winners from the Innovation Awards, I got that little buzz in the back of my skull that tells me I’m catching a glimpse of where our technology is going. There were also lots of robots at SXSW; not just the kind that live in your Amazon-branded speaker, but physical ones that were fascinating and creepy.
What didn’t work
Chaos reigned in SXSW lines
The biggest complaint I heard from attendees, one that seemed to apply to Music and Film as well as tech attendees, was that lines were more disorganized than in previous years and that this year’s big change to a Primary/Secondary access system created lots of confusion and bad vibes. Add to that a new policy to cut back on allowing full panels to accept more people in as audience members are leaving and a rule against standing in the back of panel rooms meant volunteers had to do a lot more seating enforcement for 2017. This is part of a bigger move toward converging the Film/Music/Interactive legs of SXSW, but in execution it wasn’t communicated to attendees what exactly these changes meant for the day-to-day experience. In its March 15 daily email to those attending, SXSW itself acknowledged the problems: “As the Interactive and Film tracks start wrapping up, we’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that we understand that new regulations, new badge access, and our patented SXSW lines have all resulted in some less than satisfactory attendee experiences for some of you. We don’t like that, we don’t want that, and we are always striving to improve. We hope you’ll have patience with us as we grow into these changes. We do listen to feedback and will continue to make SXSW an inclusive, forward-thinking, and unique event,” the email said in part.
Not livestreaming events at SXSW
This was a curious decision I kept asking about leading up to SXSW and never got a great answer about why South by Southwest decided not to live stream its major talks and keynotes for 2017. You can make all kinds of guesses about whether streaming stuff online keeps people from buying a badge and attending, but even for a major event such as the Joe Biden talk, SXSW decided not to open the talk to the outside world live; instead, it posted a full video to YouTube later. As of this writing, there are videos of the major keynotes available free on YouTube and previews of other major panels that will begin posting in full in April, according to SXSW. For the record, SXSW did livestream the SXSW Gaming Awards as it has in years past with Twitch,. but why that SXSW event and not others? This one’s still a mystery to me.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”
I’m not made of steel and while I think I’m holding up pretty well for 41, I simply can’t hang with a conference that lasts nine full days, especially one as packed and exhausting as SXSW can be. The idea that SXSW Interactive (or whatever we’re calling the tech portion after 2017) now stretches to seven full days, with SXSW Gaming taking up three, means no rest and no respite for someone who wants to experience it all. SXSW staff remind me, whenever I bring this up, that South by Southwest is a marathon, not a sprint. But how many marathon runners do any of us know? Two? Three? And it should be noted that SXSW staffers are super exhausted by this long run, too. They’re all hibernating right now in oxygen tents right now, I suspect. Will compressing the conference to something more manageable be on the table as Tech/Film/Music continue to converge? Your guess is as good as mine.
SXSW’s ICE-referencing artist contract
Even with so much programming they put together through the year, SXSW is often not in control of where the conversation goes once the event is motion, and that’s what happened this year when an artist contract from SXSW turned into a PR disaster that continued to be discussed even after SXSW announced it would review and amend the wording. No matter where you stand on the contract, the wording, and how SXSW handled the problem, it was definitely bad news and not a good look going into a big event to heavily focused on politics and international music.
Abby the bot
I’m not here to badmouth Abby, the virtual assistant/bot that SXSW incorporated into its “SXSW Go” app this year. In fact, I didn’t really get the chance to play around with it too much as I had a lot of my schedule set and wasn’t searching the app for suggestions this year.
But given the very few Tweets I saw about Abby (even when I went searching for them), it seems to me that a lot of attendees didn’t catch wind that the bot exists. Most of what I heard about Abby came from those in the bot industry or from SXSW itself, not from users who might be delighted or annoyed by Abby. It could have been a good conversation-starter at SXSW, but this may have just been a case of a lack of awareness. Maybe Abby will return next year and give us the guidance we need for an even better SXSW.
Abby the #SXSW bot is my current best friend. I am such a sucker for bots.— Alison اليسن (@tikidaisy) March 13, 2017
The challenge and goal for designing Abby the #SXSW bot is for attendees to go an entire day without using any other app function.— Steph Cain (@yourfriendsteph) March 11, 2017
@omarg been useless - I've tried using multiple times for different things and it has no value for me.— winter prosapio (@wprosapio) March 12, 2017
What were your highlights/lowlights of SXSW 2017? Let us know in the comments!
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