SXSW 2012 – the summary

8 minute read

I’ve just returned from my first trip to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

This trip was hot on the heels of a week in New York on the London 2 NYC program and two weeks in Australia opening our new Brisbane office, so I can no longer claim to truly know what time it is, but I wanted to reflect on my learnings from the trip.



If you haven’t heard of it before, SXSW Interactive has rapidly grown from an offshoot of the SXSW Music festival into what is probably the largest gathering of geeks in the world (I use this term truly respectfully as I count myself amongst their number) – I’ve heard the estimated attendance this year was 24 – 25,000 people. Yep, it was busy.

I decided to head out there this year for a few reasons:

  1. To learn – about what’s new in tech, best practice, new concepts and to generally broaden my horizons.
  2. To promote – well, it was a business trip after all, and I’ve got bills to pay.
  3. To see what it’s all about – I have to admit, I was really, really curious.

As a SXSW virgin, I decided to go as part of the UKTI / Chinwag organised UK Mission, rather than completely solo. I’m very glad I did as this gave me access to a host of pre- and mid- event briefings, roundtables and other events and made it much easier to get a handle on what is an event of epic scale. I can’t recommend the Chinwag and UKTI teams highly enough. In addition the other mission members were a really great bunch and I look forward to catching up with many of them back on home shores.



I’ve heard this said a few times by others, and I don’t have previous visits to provide the context but I’m inclined to agree that the conference is now too large. There were so many panels on at once that it was nearly impossible to decide what to see and whilst some were excellent, a few were of dubious quality.

The queues for the keynote speeches were truly epic – not as epic as the 2.5 hour queue for registration on Friday though. I missed a few talks as they were over capacity and in order to get in to see Sean Parker and Al Gore I had to arrive halfway through the previous talk. That and the scale of the event (with talks taking place all over Austin) meant it was difficult to see more than 3 seminars a day.

The number of visitors also meant accommodation was an issue. I booked 5 months ahead and still had to stay 6 miles away, meaning a daily painful commute on a shuttle bus  which only arrived sporadically (and the occasional illicitly obtained taxi). The biblical rainstorms on Friday and Saturday did nothing to improve the transport situation.

The real value in SXSW lay in the networking though, the panels really just provided a backdrop to this. The great thing about a conference like this is everyone is on a similar wavelength and up for conversation. In the panel queues, at the bar, in the 2am shuttle bus home – great connections were available everywhere.


Interesting Seminars

A few of the seminars really stood out for me. Jared Spool’s talk on The Secret Lives of Links was an insightful and thought provoking look into how link structure and wording has a profound effect on usability. Did you know that if a user hits the back button twice in succession whilst browsing your site there’s a 98% likelihood that their site visit will result in a failure to find the content they were looking for?

As a keen photographer the demonstration of the new Lytro lightfield camera technology was phenomenal. Being able to refocus and alter the perspective of an image after it has been taken is a game changer. It’s really going to change the nature of photography once it gets into the mainstream and they can build the cameras quickly enough to meet demand.

As well as going to talks on subjects I regularly follow, I decided to seek out things I wouldn’t normally see and so started asking people for their recommendations. This lead to my highlight of show, which was David Eagleman’s talk on the Secret Lives of The Brain. A fascinating look into how we are controlled by our subconscious and unaware of the majority of our thought processes.


What Was Hot?

SXSW is known as the conference where Twitter and Foursquare broke out so everyone was looking for the hot new thing.

This year the talk was all about location-based services and social discovery tools like Highlight, Glancee and Uberlife, but the sheer scale has now made it pretty impossible to really breakthrough the clutter – another issue the event faces. To get real attention you need a massive budget (like the reputed $2 million Amex paid to get Jay-Z to play their private party).


My SXSW Tips:

If you’re looking to go to SXSW 2013, here are a few tips based on my initial experience.

Book early – Register early and get a hotel within walking distance of the conference centre. Or be prepared spending hours queuing for shuttle buses and taxis.

Talk to everyone – Some of the best contacts you’ll make will be in the most random of places. I ended up talking API’s at 2.30am in the back of a shuttle bus.

Don’t plan too much – Pick a few key things you want to do, then be ready to go with the flow. It’s huge, hectic and a haven for spontaneity and serendipity. Scheduling meetings is done at your own risk.

Get ready to party network – The evening events are a huge part of SXSW, as are the breakfast events, and the lunch events, and the mid-afternoon events. You won’t need to buy much food or drink there. Get ready to jump in, explore and talk to new people about what they’re doing. Try and pace yourself at the bar.