Every year, my counsel to SXSW newbies is: Don’t spend all your time in panels and sessions; make sure you make use of the innumerable hallway conversations that will avail themselves to you and spontaneous flash panels that pop up in hallways and lounges around the convention center. So this year, I’ve decided to put that counsel to the test: I’m badgeless. I’m not attending a single session of the official SXSW conference itself. Instead, I’m checking into brand lounges, blogger lounges, receptions at venues just outside of the Convention Center, and seeing whether the quality of conversation holds up to those in the official sessions.
The verdict: it does.
I’ve listened in or participated in conversations about building apps that moms & “mom bloggers” will actually use and how to understand the mom community better. About the role technology might play in reviving cities in the “rust belt” hard hit by the decline of the manufacturing sector. About the future of location-based services now that Gowalla has bade farewell and FourSquare is the big dog in town. About what the future may hold for Google+. About how SXSW has evolved, and how social media marketing is evolving. All in one morning and early afternoon, and all without attending a single session.
What’s surprised me most, however, is how many others I’ve run into who are doing the same thing — not by accident, but by choice. Many of the people I saw or met back at my first SXSW years ago are eschewing the formal sessions and choosing the more informal dialogue. More of the “grizzled veterans” of social and digital (and by that I just mean people who’ve been in social for a few years) are finding greater value in connecting privately or informally and bouncing ideas around. They’re leaving the formal sessions to the “next generation” of digital denizens. They’re even admitting to some fatigue in hearing some of the session topics.
Does this mean the official SXSW has lost its value? Not at all. First of all, it takes something like SXSW to gather all these people — both veteran and newbie — together in the same place. It’s also reflective of something of a community transition, perhaps, in the SXSW audience — a newer, less experienced group sees this conference as the place to come learn and absorb, while the veterans see it more as a place to connect in person. That’s not “bad” OR “good” — it just is. But one of the ramifications could well be that the formal sessions will keep becoming more diverse or bringing in different schools of thought as the event continues to evolve in the coming years. When it’s not all the “same old” voices but new ones emerging — people who attended their first SXSW not in 2007 or 2009 but in 2012, who came to learn and realized they had something to add to the conversation as well as to learn — that in turn refreshes the official sessions and increases their value to the community as a whole.
So as I keep wandering the periphery of the festival, it will be interesting to see whether the trend of attending without attending continues to play out, and to ponder what that may mean for this event in the long run. But even the peripheral conversations provide value and food for thought; you just have to look a little harder to find them.