An industry challenge: build "MicroSXSW" to bring back fun times at SXSW

CarWoo's co-founders and PR team

Tonight after work I went to Starbucks with the CarWoo team. They are building a better way to buy a car. Got funded to the tune of $6 million. Are one of Paul Graham’s favorite Y Combinator companies. He’s been telling people he thinks they have potential to go public. Why? Because they are “crushing it” as they help car buyers have a better experience. I liked them so much I spent 40 minutes talking with the co-founders about their new service and how they are changing the world.

But that’s not what this post is about.

No, during that coffee break (it’s a startup, after all, and they went back to work) we talked about SXSW. I took a picture because this is what I wish SXSW was: intimate, fun, conversations about the tech industry. That’s what SXSW used to be.

Instead, this year, SXSW became something different. It got too crowded. I remember waiting in lines for more than an hour just to get into an over-crowded, loud, party where you could barely move around.

Diggnation Party Line at SXSW

Next year is looking even worse. Already it’s the number one event on Plancast (my favorite place to find geeky events) by far. I’m hearing that hotel rooms — if you can find them — are running $800 a night or more.

So, this is an industry challenge.

Do we turn SXSW into something that really becomes a parody of itself, or do we try to save it?

Me? I want to get more of those intimate experiences we used to have. I remember when the entire Web Standards Project fit at one picnic table. I remember having a fun conversation with a small group, all huddled around Craig Newmark in the rain at a BBQ place across the street. I remember being able to get into parties without being a VIP and last year the VIPs even had to wait in line at nearly every party. Heck, I remember when Scott Beale Tweeted in 2007 that he was sitting all alone in an empty pub and I joined him and had a leisurely beer at a picnic table with him and a few other friends. Those days are seemingly gone.

Can we bring them back?

I’ve been studying this problem for a long time. Back when I worked at Microsoft Linda Stone invited me to a party. She pissed off my wife because she insisted on keeping the party size small. I didn’t grok that at the time, but by keeping the dinner party to 10 people she made an experience that was magical and that I’ll remember the rest of my life.

Now, we can’t do that at SXSW. Why? Too much opportunity cost. If we did a dinner like that everyone would be looking at their watches and realizing that they could be out meeting cooler people and collecting business cards. Heck, I was at one dinner one night and watched as people were looking at Twitter and Foursquare and seeing people peel off for better events elsewhere. “Gary Vaynerchuk is pouring wine,” one partier advertised. I’ll be honest. I ended up going to that eventually too.

I arrived just as Gary was pouring his last bottle of wine. But it felt empty. Why? Because I barely got to say 15 words to Gary. That isn’t the same experience as getting to hang out in Sonoma with Gary and a handful of other people (another experience I’ll remember the rest of my life).

In my studying of group dynamics I’ve noticed that the ultimate dinner party is four people. Why? Five makes it easy to “split” the conversation. Two people can feel OK peeling off and having their own conversation. But if you limit it to four, I notice that conversations are more intimate and people look at their phones a lot less often.

The trick is, how do we encourage people to stick into a group of four long enough to have the magical experience that I had tonight where you get to really know someone and have some deep conversations. The kinds that change careers. Friendships. Families.

It seems weird for me to say this, but I’m tired of going to big massive parties where you collect a lot of business cards but don’t have any good conversations to show for it. I now have enough business cards. I don’t need more. I bet many of you are in the same place. In fact, this year we’ve seen companies like Pip.io and Path come along and try to serve smaller “micro” groups. Path limits you from sharing photos with more than 50 friends. I’ve come to like that constraint, somewhat. It’s just that I wish I could share with many small groups.

So, how about this as a proposal:

Kill the big parties. Instead, follow Zappos’ lead. This year they hosted a bus. It could only hold about 30 people (it had its own bar, after all). But the time I spent on that bus is still my favorite experience at SXSW. Why? Because it forced a small handful of people to sit together and talk. Even if it was just for 15 minutes it was nice to have an intimate experience with a small number of other people.

To me the Zappos bus was the prototype of the “MicroSXSW experience.” Here’s some video of that:

Here, look at how Zappos seats people at work:

The Casual department

There are fewer than 10 people in one department. This photo is of the Casual-wear department. Why not put dozens of people into one department? Because humans don’t do their best work in large groups.

Today I met a remarkable entrepreneur. He made a magical iPhone app with one other guy: WordLens, that translates Spanish to English in real time on your iPhone. I interviewed him today too. Two guys changed the world. Micro style. Or, look at Instagram. They only have four people and their iPhone app just passed a million users. Micro style. (I interviewed one of the co-founders recently there too).

Noticing a trend yet? You should. Micro teams change the world.

I remember that in 1996 ICQ released to 40 people. Within two years they had about 100 million users. That was before Twitter. Micro style. Three kids and a parent with a little bit of money. Changed the world.

So, I think I’ve made the case for what we need to do at SXSW. Make it possible to have these “Micro SXSW” experiences.

In fact, make it fun! Let’s see what we can do together as we brainstorm.

I’m looking for ways to make it impossible to interact with more than three people at a time and how to hold that group together as long as possible. It doesn’t sound scalable, does it?

Revolving Door Party at SXSW 2010 from Ed Hunsinger on Vimeo.

But, how about a Revolving Door Party? It wasn’t possible to fit more than three other people into one of those at the same time. Magical. Why did the most fun thing at SXSW only happen after all the normal people went to sleep (Foursquare alerted me to this after I had pulled the covers over my head — I thought it was interesting enough to get dressed and go downstairs and, indeed, it was).

In 2008 I held a “MicroSXSW” event at the Salt Lick:

How about if we do rolling parties that way?

Or, even better, how about if you get 10 cards with three spots on them when you arrive at SXSW and you pick people to have a “MicroSXSW” with? Fill them all in and get entered into a prize. Heck, let’s get Foursquare to let you all “check in” to such a “MicroSXSW” for a special badge. Getting a badge for attending a huge party? Lame. Getting a badge for having a great conversation with three other people? Awesomeness! Heck, I’d love it if you recorded your thoughts or interviewed each other. The folks going to SXSW are the top Web builders in the world. Imagine all the knowledge we could share with the world that way. Imagine that big companies rewarded the best “MicroSXSW” with prizes.

Can you come up with better ideas for how to bring these great experiences to more people? Let’s brainstorm.

By the way, Rackspace on Thursday, is deciding what to do with its SXSW budget. I hope we figure out a way to support a MicroSXSW movement. You can help with your ideas.

Otherwise we’ll all be stuck in line at the Mashable and Digg party having no fun. If that happens another year it’ll probably be the last time I go. I have enough business cards. I’m chasing MicroSXSW experiences now. You in?

Comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about this same topic recently and I couldn’t agree more. It’s no longer about how big your… party is. But it’s about how awesome your conversations are. I’d love to see some more products in the social space come out in the near future that help to facilitate these conversations but I also think it’s doable at a big event like SXSW.

    Why not do some interesting events around people that don’t generally go together. Possibly put your name and profile into a virtual hat and out pops 2-4 other people that have nothing to do with your skill set but maybe match up with other qualities.

    In addition, a party invite could be given out only to groups of 3-5. Everyone has to show up together, get drinks together, etc. When you force people in to awkward, personal and fun conversations magical things can happen. That’s where true innovation thrives.

      1. Mister Scoble You just gave me an awesome idea! Thanks so much for that!
        Of course you may not know what the idea is now ;-)
        But you will !

        Hopefully…

  2. I’ve only been to SXSW once, but I’ve never gone back because of its scale. I probably knew 100 people attending that year, but did I ever run into anybody? Of course not, because they were, what, like 1% of the attendees.

    I was also pretty disappointed by the quality of the sessions, which were full of name-brand people, but surprisingly short on wisdom (no doubt a problem of panels).

    Unless someone pays me to do so, I pretty much never attend events that have more than a few hundred attendees. The signal to noise ratio gets really poor, really quickly.

  3. Hey Robert,

    Thanks for your post. I am interested in SXSW as I have never been and plan on going. Just booked my flight via Hipmunk, but now I am worried about the hotels!

    I saw on Plancast that you are holding pre-SXSW events and think that is an incredible idea to get a small network of Bay Area people together so we network and make sure we make the trip that much more worthwhile.

    This post is intriguing to me because it is coming from one of the most connected people in the technology industry, so if you feel like it’s exploding to the point of no return, I can’t imagine what it is like for people who are less connected. Also, it is all relative, as people have different goals. Some want to speed date to get as many contacts as possible. I personally want to have a few meaningful meetings and experiences, rather than a 100 superficial meetings just to collect a business card and send a follow up email the next day, connect on LinkedIn, etc, etc, etc.

    It’s about quality, and I think the only way to do this is due your due diligence before the event. It will probably take more work before the event to make the actual 5 days more worthwhile. Hope to participate in the pre-SXSW events.

    1. On a totally unrelated note, thanks for using Hipmunk.com to book your SXSW flight! We don’t have hotels ready yet :) but soon we’ll be taking the agony out of that search, too. Safe travels & hope you can make it to our possible/probably Hipmunk party…

  4. A few immediate thoughts:

    – parties without alcohol will likely attract a different crowd

    – networking can happen at other times than the evening – perhaps sponsor a series of breakfast or lunch events (or help organize groups of people to go get lunch or dinner?)

    – the party bus idea is a good one – I recall fondly the Karaoke Bus from years ago

    – a simple trick – the more well lit the space, the less likely it is to attract a crowd focused on drinking/partying

    – I used to run my MeshWalk series of conferences which were held in motion – the format encouraged people to talk in small groups (it is very hard to talk to more than a few people while you are all walking) perhaps Rackspace can sponsor “parties” which take place WITHOUT actually having a venue? i.e. a big walking party (perhaps between other events which would peel people off) but with the sponsor (i.e. Rackspace) picking up the tab for a few things along the way – coffee, tea, late night tacos ? (walking would also require this to be an alcohol free party)

    – one of the biggest issues at SXSW, especially as the crowds grow, is the need to get back to your hotel to drop off bags etc – if Rackspace sponsored a secure bag check that would be a huge win for attendees stuck at farther out hotels

    – given the high probability of rain at SXSW the walking idea may have some issues – but handing out branded umbrellas would both make it each to find the group and be deeply appreciated….

    I may go back to SXSW this year, though the cost of hotels is a worry…

    1. Getting alcohol at SXSW is NOT a problem! :-) In fact, one hotel room party (which was defacto limited to 20 people or so) had plenty of alcohol. What was the first thing they told me when I arrived? “No Twittering, no Foursquaring.” Why? Because they wanted to start a MicroSXSW movement.

    2. I LOVE the idea of a bag check! They should plant it right next to the charging stations OR have a 24/7 room in the Hilton…I only carried around my comp w/ me one day last SxSW b/c it was too heavy to tote around so I would’ve def taken advantage of this!

  5. yup – plenty of sources for booze – my thought is that if the microsxsw events don’t have it that naturally will help both keep the crowds down a bit and rotate people in and out of the party (as even light drinkers go elsewhere)

    of course I’m a very very very light drinker… :)

    1. Sit with Louis Gray. He doesn’t drink at all. By the way, last year I stayed sober the whole time except for the last night. I’ll do the same this year. I got more out of it than previous years where I was drunk.

        1. And then the two of you can have a “my kids are cuter than your kids” battle. :)

          I don’t go to SXSW, but I have gone to several Oracle OpenWorlds. These large conferences attract several audiences, and I’d be willing to bet that the people who are commenting on this post are one of the smaller audiences. The majority of the people go to these conferences for The Event. This was driven home to me one year when Larry Ellison gave his mid-week keynote at Oracle OpenWorld. At one point he turned it over to someone else to talk about a subject in more detail. Once Larry left the stage, people began streaming out of the hall.

          Yet people who attend events for the event’s sake presumably get their money’s worth. The danger, of course, is that SXSW may proceed from maturity and end up like another Comdex, or any other conference that has outlived its usefulness.

  6. but seriously. this year at SXSW i got one of the farthest away hotels. and not one with a shuttle route to it. it will take about an hour on the austin public bus to get to. but it was 1) cheaper than all the rest and 2) allowed me to reserve a two suite room so that i can throw my OWN party.

    SXSW every year is more of a time for me to reconnect with old friends and connect with friends i haven’t met yet. i hate (yes hate. a staby, gut wrenching hate) the pretentious conference “look at people’s nametag first to see if they can offer me anything” atmosphere. SXSW typically hasn’t been as bad at this as some conferences i’ve attended in the past… however.. it’s slowly creeping to the… well.. conference creeper status. and that’s not ok. if next year gets creepier… it may be my last SXSW for a while.

    1. That idea sounds awesome. The nametag thing is because there’s an opportunity cost to having so many people in one event. The pressure is on to meet the cool people (whoever they are) and not spend time with people you don’t think can offer you anything. It’s lame behavior, yes, but is exactly what I’m getting tired of too. Let’s see if we can fix it!

  7. I am likely staying at home and getting some work done. I love SXSW. For 3 years now. But last year, I found my best moments were the private dinners. I can have those dinners throughout the year in NYC or Chicago or Austin. I’ll focus on those.

    SXSW has it’s place, but if I am only going for the dinners, I’ll get that without dropping $3k.

    If I was going, I would invest in the micro. Invest in the people. Not the crowds.

    great take Robert.

  8. Yes. You are right. I avoid all lines and work to create intimate situations as much as possible while there.

    The trick is to keep the serendipity alive.

    1. Serendipity will happen because of Twitter and Foursquare anyway. And, also, it’s hard to ignore some of the larger events or, even, bumping into people in the streets.

  9. I went to SXSW for years before I ever had a badge. I went to network – in the hallways, at the parties – anywhere I could. It’s getting huge now, so it is getting different. I still want that private breakfast with a friend from the UK that I ONLY see at SXSW. I want to talk to the customer from China that I can only see at SXSW. I want to say my hellos to my friends that have a huge following – and my friends that don’t want followed at all. A MicroSXSW theme might be just the ticket.

    1. hellooooooo ;-) Great breakfasts aside, I far prefer the small group thing. One thing I focused on last year was the meal times – in small groups, far better. Yes, I went to some of the parties, but often it was in small groups again and we created our own conversation, one reason I think parties HAVE to have quiet areas. But I prefer smaller groups, more chance for good conversation and to learn.

  10. I’m with jakrose, three previous years were solid, but last year the crowd ballooned significantly. It wasn’t the same. I’m taking my budget I set aside for SXSW to FOWA. It might be smaller, but it will also be more focused.

    How much of the insanity do you guys blame on Twitter? We’ve all been guilty of overloading our twitter feeds with SXSW related tweets during that week in March. Perhaps we should have kept it a secret…

    1. Yeah, but even without Twitter there would have been growth. It is a problem, though, and it also is becoming a much more expensive event to attend, which will change the audience makeup. I can’t do anything about that, but I do seek out better experiences so will work on improving the part of the event that I can do something about.

  11. what I wish for is all the content of SXSW, but with the intimate feel of gnomedex. In a perfect world of course.

  12. How about the next time you’re in Florida, you come over Tampa way and I will get a couple awesome local minds together and the four of us will have dinner and talk all night. We’ll call it SXSE!

  13. I had a great time last year. My only regret was that I had to leave the RackSpace/Infochimps Big Data party to go to the RWW/NPR/PBS party. I found myself able to have lots of good conversations with a lot of people,new and old.

    1. This year I didn’t go to too many of the larger parties and tried to find smaller gatherings. I had a good time chatting with you Marshall in the lobby of the Hilton. I also had a great time at the Activity Streams meetup which was nicely enough hosted by RWW. I even got to ride the shuttle over there and meet several other RWW writers.This was a small and intimate get together where I met so many great people that I got to spend some quality time talking to.

      Some other micro-gathering highlights included also being on the Zappos bus as Robert mentioned, going to a small flash gathering started by Chris Pirillo at a bar with about 10 people, and going to the Social Media Club house which only had about a dozen people there.

      I totally agree with Robert that these smaller gatherings are such a great way to meet people and get to know them much better than the quick superficial connections at larger parties where can hardly talk to people because their eyes veer from yours to the crowd and they can’t hear you anyways because of all the noise.

      I think this effort is a good one and I look forward to seeking out these smaller gatherings again next year.

  14. i’m game. i love causing change. :) also, you’re more than welcome to my party.. we’ll just make up a foursquare/gowalla checkin that is somewhere else. :P

  15. Great post+thoughts. Last year was my first year @ SXSW, but definitely sensed/challenged by “where to be.” I lucked out and paths continued to cross (serendipitously) with cool group (of 4-5) introduced to early on, through mutual friend.

    In anticipation of similar challenge of mass people at an upcoming tradeshow, some friends and I have been organizing (preliminary) local industry meetups. Smaller, and get a chance to know people before being thrown into the 3-5 days of craziness.

    Doesn’t solve the challenge at SXSW, in Austin, though.

    Wonder if there’s someway to play off the idea of a “Third Wheel” party? See a lot of value in mixing up the crowd, but doing totally randomly/forced (picking names) can be awkward (as much as I’d like to support that method, coming from a teambuilding/educator background :)). In a third wheel party, the couple invites a single person. In a SXSW version, veteran(s) bring a newer person to a dinner/event. Ideally, someone who the group does not already really know, and likely represents a different industry or perspective… ?

  16. Count me in. We could do something the week before SXSWi? Cap the attendees to say 500… hell we can call it the 500 Conference. :) Here’s the real question…. if I build it will you come?

  17. A few weeks ago, I joined “Laura wants people to hang out with during SXSW” in Plancast http://plancast.com/p/24fb & right now its me, Laura(who I have not met yet), and another dude named Adam. Plancast could use a feature that does just what you suggest Robert, maybe add some some back end app to scrape twitter followers or something build your cards, automatically create a #tag & Foursquare location.

  18. I have been thinking about this same concept recently, as I recently acquired a 1200 Sq Ft warehouse in central Austin. Currently we are converting it to an artist cooperative, but the space is easily cleared out. We already had plans to save the warehouse for rental during SXSW. This space will be available March 9, 2011 to March 20, 2011. We do not currently have concrete plans, but this space is 5-10 minutes from downtown, and would not be hard to get to. If anyone is wanting to organize a micro-meeting like this, feel free to reply to this, and we can coordinate. We also have office space that is available for setting everything up.

  19. You should do invite only dinner every two hours, max 4-6 people from 5pm-11pm, each night of SxSW & use Cody Keith’s warehouse space if it meets the needs. By making it invite only, you can also ensure a good mixture of professional backgrounds at the table.

    No one says no to an ‘invite only’ in SxSW, especially, with the promise there will be good conversation and they’re guaranteed to meet people they aren’t already connected with.

    I think it would be easy to pull-off, I dare you and if this works for your MicroSxSW challenge, then I expect to be first at the table ;)

  20. Fantastic post Robert! 2011 will be my third year at SXSW and I am actually dreading the big parties and trying to “keep up” with what’s hot right “at that moment.” My most memorable events are those smaller, intimate ones where you have a handful of people – some you already know, some you may not know very well and others you have never met before. But the one thing with those events is that you walk away knowing everyone and actually having a conversation with everyone. Isn’t that what these events are all about? building long-lasting connections that you can continue both offline and online??

    My first year at SXSW was awesome. Being a newbie, I made some amazing connections and spent a lot of my time in the Bloggers lounge where even more connections were made. Last year, the feeling was different. It was crowded – too crowded. Everyone was trying to connect with the popular, cool kids – who just a year ago were just my friends. Now I couldn’t even talk to them anymore because there was a line of about 20 in front of me. That sucks.

    I am going back again this year hoping to make some solid connections while there and I totally agree with you that it will only be achievable through smaller gatherings.

    Thanks for making us all step back and think about what’s most important.

    -Christine
    @cmajor

  21. This sort of revelation is beginning to take hold with regards a local social media discussion group here in Richmond. I can only hope that mini-breakout groups along the lines of a MicroSXSW doesn’t become a negative event after a few months of closed/semi-closed events and hurt feelings by those who couldn’t attend.

  22. This is something WAY TOO overlooked and I’m in full agreement. Would you rather meet 100 people you barely remember or hang out and REALLY get to know 5? I’d take 5 every time.

  23. The intimacy is what I loved about the last ConvergeSouth conference. The small dinners hosted by keynote speakers were a great touch, and something I’ll remember for a long time. I’m definitely going back next year.

  24. Interesting as I was debating whether to spend the money for SxSW again this year. My biggest reason for not going is the fact it is just too big. The best part of SxSW for me lat year was actually sitting in Joe’s down the street and having small group or one on one discussions with the people I wanted to hang with.

    And of course, we all love the fact hotel prices have been jacked up so high the normal person can not afford to even stay in Austin for the event.

    I hope your wish comes true. I look forward to smaller events where we can actually have a discussion where we can hear each other.

  25. Robert you nailed it again. We had the same discussion here a Meshin a few months ago. We discussed partnerships with some of the big events, sponsorships and such. We finally decided smaller and simpler was he way o go. So we have already reserved space for about 20 people at a restaurant. Limos to pick them up and return them. We want to be able to have conversations, network and just get to know each other. Oh and not get pitched the entire time either.

  26. Great post, and one near and dear to my heart. As a local, I’ve seen the spectacular growth of South-By and greeted it with very mixed emotions. I love that it has become so successful and I count myself very lucky that so many of the smartest and most interesting people in our industries come to my back yard. But I miss the early days, where you could bump into a stranger, only to realize that they were the person who shared that trick, new language or technique years back that saved you hours. I’ve bought many beers in my attempt to repay. Sadly those days are gone. That’s why I haven’t bought a ticket for SXSWi this year. I’ll attend the events with the same goal as always – awesome conversations that I wouldn’t get anywhere else and new unexpected friendships.

    I love the idea of a micro SXSW, but I’d like to point out that there are many of those already and they happen year round. I’m a bit biased here as I’m the ringleader for Refresh Austin, which strives to connect out community in much the same way that SXSW has done on a larger scale. Oh, and Rackspace was cool enough to sponsor our Holiday party (woot, thanks!) Several of us have been kicking around small events during South-By to bring people together over something other than just free alcohol. Buy your own beer and get great conversations for free.

    If you decide to set something up on a smaller scale or a massive amount of small scale events, I’m sure there are many of us who’d be interested in pitching in.

    Again, great post. This is an issue that needs the larger bullhorn that you wield.

  27. Good topic. This is a tough nut to crack because you need to balance making everyone happy and not coming off as an elitist that can’t manage a scalable party.

    Here are a few ideas for post-panel entertainment that might be able to serve the masses AND maintain the perception that these events are open to everyone without the feeling of inaccessibility that bug people, AND serve your brand’s objective of visibility.

    -Create a public, outdoor, projection mapping display. It’s unique, it’s photo-worthy (not just pictures of drunk people), and it removes the quasi-exclusivity feeling that many parties create. It’s less about networking, but it certainly gets attention for your brand.

    -Host an off-schedule, booze-free edition of Critical Mass bike rides. Austin has a massive bike culture. You can have quite an intimate experience with locals and visitors by slowly cruising down the less busy streets of Austin. Again, this doesn’t restrict people because of any reason other than them not wanting to participating (assuming they don’t have a disability).

    -60 minutes, 60 speakers, 60 drinks. Yes I’m actually suggesting a power hour. Probably a bad idea, but maybe you all can refine it. The concept is simple, an hour is blocked off where several prominent individuals are in attendance for an after-hours “show and tell.” Several hundred or thousand raffle tickets are sold (proceeds to a charity) and 60 winners get to present for 1 minute each to a large audience that must remain (relatively) silent and receptive for an hour. Each minute can be devoted to whatever the winner chooses, but hopefully it would relatable to this particular audience. Audience members would be composed again of charity-donating rafflers. (Also can host satellite viewing parties for this event for those that can’t make it)

    -Rent out the Salt Lick (people who have been to Austin should know what this is) Set up a musical chairs style event where every 5-10 minutes, everyone has to slide down a progression of tables. It’s family style dining so there will always be food and there will always be enough people. And the shuttle busses to get there are another opportunity to chat.

    -Lastly… Don’t go to the Mashable or Digg party. Find people you like and go have a beer with them.

  28. If you want to limit the number of parties in a conversation, do it in a Skype video conference. It would be interesting to have a topic based random conversation system — with filters to eliminate people sitting on multi-million dollar inheritances, young women being held against their will in [remote place of your choice], etc.

    Locally, I host monthly meetings in a local pub, largely drawn from friends and business associates but always open to new people with an interest in all things Internet. Usually between four and eight people show up. The discussion is billed as being Internet related, but in fact it veers widely from topic to topic, which sometimes results in surprising insights. Over the three or so years I’ve been doing it, it has never failed to be an interesting conversation, and some valuable new ideas and connections have resulted.

    It’s easy to organize something like this. If you want to have more meaningful conversations, all you have to do is start them. I’ve never really seen the appeal of lining up for crowdsourced talks at big conferences. I prefer an ongoing flow of minor insights that assemble into a whole over some “expert” who merely assembles those insights into some packaged prognostication.

  29. My first year at SXSW was 2008 and my favorite moments were definitely unplanned. Even then, the “big” parties were too big and the best times were had either very late at night or very off the beaten path.

    Scoble, I think you just need to make your own moments instead of hoping they’ll be provided for you. And as for drinking, I can attest that being sober A) lets you remember it all and B) confirms that the big ass parties aren’t where it’s at.

  30. “By the way, Rackspace on Thursday, is deciding what to do with its SXSW budget.”

    Rackspace is our Bizspark partner. They gave us one call in which we asked for tech support using OpenStack on our own server cluster. We didn’t really get any and dumped it and developed our own VPS allocation system on top of Xen instead with mobile and web allocation GUIs.

    They’re our freaking Bizspark partner.

    We know Rackspace about as well as we know a bump on the road. We’re finally putting our server rack into Calpop this coming month and we’ve been at competitor Godaddy the whole time while we waited for our VPS systems to be completed because Rackspace was SO very cold.

    Warm experience Rackspace is not.

    We have a whole rack full of HP storageworks and DL380 servers, but if we didn’t and I needed VPS clustering, I would go to Media Temple or another LA firm in a second over Rackspace.

    1. I’m really bummed by hearing this. One reason I put my phone number on my blog ( it’s +1-425-205-1921 ) and my email address (it’s scobleizer@gmail.com ) so that I can help unglue situations like this. Even the best companies occassionally let balls hit the floor. It pisses me off when a customer is in pain and I have attention of top folks across the company and can get you the help you need. By the way, we also have a team watching twitter@rackspace.com, not to mention our other support options at http://rackspace.com (chat and phone). But I sure would love a chance to get you the help you need.

      1. It’s too late. We already built our own Openstack-like system with mobile and everything. We are just waiting on bits and pieces that we outsourced before we put it live.

        I don’t have any hard feelings towards Rackspace. They don’t make any money off of developing and distributing open source software like openstack.org anyway. We prefer Java/PHP over Python anyway.

        I was trying to say that if they have expendable income that they can put towards SXSW or whatever, that they should use it to make a better effort to make OpenStack and their other peripheral technologies better to use.

        So one of the biggest issues is that Bazaar version control is pretty heinous. It would really pay off to port it over to GIT or SVN or just have it up at code.google.com
        Like I said we already made a proprietary interface to launch and manage Xen instances from mobiles and the web browser, so it’s a moot point for our project.

      2. I was at PF Chang’s yesterday in Santa Monica and got a fortune cookie that said I would get an offer of assistance soon and that I should accept, but had forgotten about it.

        So on second thought, we have enough servers to run an additional OpenStack system in our server rack. We could actually use the OpenStack brand name to get more people to sign up than our own proprietary system alone.

        So our account executive at Rackspace is Gabriele Isaac. Please have him contact us if he can help mitigate some of the numerous problems we had with Rackspace’s code base.

        Again, we are running rack full of HP storageworks and DL380 servers and installing them at Calpop in LA.

  31. I guess I’m missing something here, but for years, almost every how-to blog post leading up to #SXSWi usually includes something like “the big parties are a loud mess; instead go enjoy small get-togethers with friends both old and new.” Um, yeah. I don’t need technology to tell me how to meet new people or not be an ego-driven douche. Of COURSE simply collecting 8000 business cards is a waste of time; always has been.

    “South by” is a giant blender of interesting people, but if you show up to it without a plan and no way to coordinate meetups and no short list of people that you really want to connect with while in Austin….well, it will probably suck. There’s plenty of room for serendipity as long as you pull together an organizational structure first.

    As an Austin-area local, I’ll second the notion that renting a large van of some sort at least one day, grabbing some folks and getting the hell out of downtown for awhile is a smart move. Go eat proper Mexican food in north Austin at Fonda San Miguel. Go have a wonderful gourmet feast at Main Street Grill in my town, Round Rock. Go stroll little downtown Bastrop (roughly east of Austin) for a couple of hours (good restaurants there, too.) Drive past Round Rock on Highway 79 to Hutto and inhale comfort food and a bunch of different pies at the Texan Cafe.

    Have a plan. You’re spending a lot of money to come to one of the biggest tech conferences in the world. It’s a big deal.

    1. That’s ’cause I’m usually up north, you Weenie. :)

      So, weigh in. If the SXSWi Great Van Escape headed south-ish from downtown with some buds who wanted to chat, eat and change the world, where should they go?

      1. First we’d head over to Red River Cafe by UT campus. It’s not Magnolia Cafe, but that’s kind of the point. Then onto Mozart’s off Lake Austin Blvd. for some coffee and hanging out on the deck. Next we’d head over to Polvo’s on S. 1st for Mexican food, more coffee at Summermoon or Cafe Caffeine, Middle Eastern dinner and hookah at Tarbouch on Oltorf and Amy’s Ice Cream on South Congress. We’d wrap things up with — what else — coffee at Fair Bean on S. 1st or Irie Bean on S. Lamar, then onto Casa Weenie for wine and spills. The end.

  32. Isn’t what SXSW is now something that you’ve been a big part of creating? The constant hype, build up, streaming content while there, then wrap-up posts afterwards. This is the bed you (collectively) made. It almost sounds like someone who moved to the suburbs, then starts complaining that other people moved there as well. It’s an event. A big event. One that has grown considerably. Maybe if you spent less time giving interviews and hunting down the “important” people, you’d find those small gatherings you are asking for. Last year I had nothing BUT small gatherings with people.

  33. One of my favorite memories from Gnomedex was the Magic Bus in 2008.

    Iterasi brought an actual school bus to Seattle from Portland. During some down time a small group of us gathered to visit a local art gallery. It became one of my highlights in all of my conference going.

    The cool thing is that I only knew one other person (@marcuswhitney) before hoping on the bus. Today, I still consider @uncleweed, @kk, @chris_suspect, @petegrillo, @theunabonger, @scottmaentz and @caseorganic great friends.

    Without that little bus excursion I never would have had adequate time to really get to know these incredible people.

    I agree completely that SXSW has grown way too big, but I still enjoy it. I’m always open to smaller gatherings, that’s where the magic happens (with or without a bus).

    Here’s some pics from the bus journey: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=magic%20bus%20gnomedex&w=all

    1. Hi Dave,
      Gnomedex 08 was so fun. As you did, I met so many people there that I share this special bond with. It’s amazing to think that the whole event spanned what, maybe 2 days? And I feel so close to you, Marcus and all the people I met there. So a gift for you and all the others…here is a photo of the picture we bought that day at the gallery in Seattle. it is mounted proudly in our lobby at @iterasi. http://plixi.com/p/64863663

      Come to Portland some day and visit it – and us!
      Happy Holiday Dave!
      Pete

  34. You know, I spent a lot of time eschewing “big events” last year in favor of small group settings (6-8 people makes for a nice lunch if the seating is right.) I turned around and went back to the hotel lobby in favor of random “micro encounters” when faced with lines and huge crowds. I even missed Gary’s wine party intentionally – because it’s hard enough to deal with agorophobic tendencies there and one too many friends said “come on! Gary!” and I thought “yes, I love Gary. But I don’t want to be in that seething mass of people.”

    The problem is more one of accessibility, I’m afraid. The past two years, I’ve seen you only “in passing” at SXSW and we shouted maybe a few words at each other despite being in the same place for a week. I much preferred sitting on a rooftop in Boulder actually talking with you and would opt for that experience over the other any day. In fact, I wouldn’t have met your wife at a “mega party” – but meeting her in HMB at that tweetup a few years back was one of the highlights of my trip.

    But you know what? I’m fairly sure that everyone would rather get that experience. I’m also sure that I know dozens of people who would’ve killed to be on the Zappos bus. (Something I wish I had made because I love those guys – but I was just too wiped out by the time the opportunity arose.) But if you gave everyone the opportunity to decide if they’d rather be at a huge Mashable party trying to shout over the din or if they’d rather sit down to dinner with Pete Cashmore or Ben Parr? I think the answer would be obvious. But there just isn’t enough time – so a lot of people will take the chance that maybe they’ll get a few minutes to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them if they stand in line for an hour.

    I haven’t had time yet to read the rest of the comments – but I’m kind of really hoping that some brilliant reader of yours has a solution Robert. Because I know my SXSW experience wasn’t the norm last year – and I kind of wish it was. Because I’m with you on the value being found in quiet, intimate settings rather than pressing 10 deep to a “free bar” while trying very hard to connect enough that you don’t feel like it was all a waste of time.

    If I had one word of advice for someone going to SXSW though? It would be to realize that wherever you are, whomever you are with, right at that moment? You shouldn’t ditch it in favor of the next party. Some of those people you’re sitting at dinner/lunch/coffee/bacon with? Are the people you’ll do business with 3 years from now and there’s the possibility that one day you’ll look back and say “I wouldn’t trade that opportunity for the world.”

  35. One of the great traditions of SXSW is attending your second one, so that you can say how great it was before it grew so large from the previous one you attended. Having gone to something like eight in a row, I was overwhelmed the second year and have been ever since. I won’t be going in 2011 — and this time I mean it. I’ve said that for the past five years, but I always fail to carry out that bluff. And it’s not the panels or speakers that brings me back: It’s just the people and the hallway conversations. However, this year I do mean it.

  36. The Tech Meetup in New York City went a similar route. It was started by Scott himself, and most of them happened in a meeting room in the Meetup offices. Then within a year, mostly down to a couple of coups (e.g. del.icio.us) it got too big and moved off to larger venues. But that destroyed the spirit of the initial ones. It’s still a fantastic meetup, but if you knew the old one (those who know, know), it’s the inevitable failing of social scaling. Celebrity is one person talking and thousands listening, that’s no longer social. Unless you can but-in, it’s not a conversation.

  37. Robert,

    You are so on target here! As someone who spends a considerable amount of volunteer time bringing together the community here in Philadelphia through Philly StartUp Leaders and Social Media Club Philly, I know well the value of the conversations that occur in our more intimate events. The connections are stronger and more inspiring. If there is anything I can do to help propel the movement you are describing, I am in! Feel free to let me know how I can help – redstaplerconsulting@gmail.com

  38. Excellent post — and lots of very valid points.

    One of the goals of the SXSW organizing team over the last few years has been to create smaller, more intimate events within an increasingly large event. To this end, SXSW 2011 will feature eight different campuses for panel programming, with each spot devoted to specific themes. So, if / when registrants want a break from the hustle and bustle at the Austin Convention Center, they can skip over to the Hilton, the Hyatt, the Sheraton, the Courtyard, the Radisson, the Hilton Garden or the AT&T Conference Center for a slightly more intimate atmosphere.

    For 2011, we are also adding a dozens of daytime meetups that will make it easier to locate / network / converse with the specific kinds of people you want to connect with at SXSW.

    Ultimately, your experience in Austin is what you make of it. SXSW 2011 will include lots of panels and events with well-known web celebs — and these will tend to garner larger crowds. If that is not what you want, then aim for the hundreds of sessions (and evening activities) with slightly lesser names. These sessions are usually much easier to access and are often much more engaging, beneficial and rewarding.

    See you in Texas in the spring!

  39. Robert, I think that there are three simultaneous approaches that should be taken to solve the size/intimacy issue.

    1) On the side of the organizers, they should acknowledge what the problem is and try to design more moments for smaller (and meaningful) gatherings to happen.

    They should also foster smaller events by all the actors involved.

    2) On the side of sponsors, etc they should try to avoid massive events and recognize that in smaller ones they can have a better contact with their followers and also amongst attendees. By not organizing one big event but several smaller ones they could take one step in this direction

    For 1 and 2 I think that Austin offers a great opportunity because the whole city transforms into the real venue, offering hundreds of bars, concerts, conference rooms, etc for several activities to take place simultaneously.

    3) We -the attendees- and big connectors/influentials (like you) should try to avoid the big-brand/famous-name frenzy on twitter, foursquare etc to avoid big masses being lured as lemmings into huge cliffs-parties.

    I share your feelings on SXSW and felt something similar at Le Web (I was often overwhelmed by 3,000 attendees concentrated in a venue that is deliberately smaller that the city of Austin).

    I took inspiration on your article and wrote about this issue on my blog on conference management: http://www.conferencebasics.com/2010/12/when-the-big-size-of-a-conference-becomes-overwhelming/

  40. If you do an event, please make sure the price is affordable to entrepreneurs. Paying $1.5K+ per person per event is just insane. I think that people organizing these events do not realize it because they always get invited for free.

  41. Robert – you hit the nail on the head. The combination of the huge crowds and the overpriced hotel rooms is seriously impacting my decision whether or not to go in 2011. I am putting together a panel but I honestly can’t bring myself to ask the participants to shell out $400-$500 a night for the privilage of speaking at SXSW.

    I like Hugh’s idea of breaking up the venues but I think they need to take it one step further – break up the schedule. Have several mini-SXSW throughout the year. Bring it on the road. Do something different so it doesn’t just become a parody of itself.