Reports of SXSW Death Greatly Exaggerated

SXSW is not dead and people who keep writing that it has died don’t get it.  SXSW has evolved from child to awkward teenager and in the next couple of years will emerge, hopefully, a well adjust adult.

I’ve attended SXSW since 2002, attending first for the movie festival with a friend and then discovering lots of intellectual technology discussions happening at the same time.  This year the entire interactive conference fit in one small wing of the convention center.

In 2004 Jonathan Abrams, the founder of Friendster gave a keynote.  That’s right Friendster, that is how long SXSW has been going on.  2005 brought us Malcolm Gladwell and 2006 Jimmy Wales.  See a trend?

By 2007 SXSW graduated to the next level.  The panel picker was introduced, Twitter exploded on the scene and became the vernacular of every geek.  Parties and meetups dominated the scene as the conference migrated slowly away from the convention center and into the bars and lofts on 6th.

By 2010 the days of Geeks Love Bowling and enlightening technical debate had come to an end.  In its place swarmed celebs, corporate executives and major sponsors.  But that is OK, right?

Despite it feeling like the transition happened overnight it didn’t.  Evolution is not without pain, but evolution is not death, it is growth.  The event is the greatest networking event on the planet right now.  It is spring break for adults and while we may never see a breakout company like Twitter emerge again, that moment in 2007 created the SXSW we know and love today.

Must Eat Places at SXSW

I have been to Austin for 10 SXSW events and countless other times to visit Dell when I was at AOL.  I consider myself a veteran of SXSW and while I am taking the year off going, I thought I’d share some advise on where to eat in Austin.


  1. The Driskill, home to the Texas Waffle is the most consistent breakfast place within walking distance.
  2. Magnolia Cafe South is also a solid place for breakfast.  Lots of the technorati hang out there.


  1. Franklin’s BBQ is a must, but you have to get there around 10A.  Bring friends because you’ll be waiting, but it is worth the wait.
  2. Casino El Camino is my favorite place on 6th for food.  Don’t let the outside or inside scare you, go to the back window, order a burger and then take it to their courtyard in the back.
  3. Juan in a Million is a bit of a trek from the convention center but this place is an institution.  I usually stop on the way from the airport since it is in between the airport and downtown.


  1. Going to Salt Lick only counts if you go to the one in Driftwood.  I’ve never been to the Round Rock, but the airport does not count.  Salt Lick takes advantage of being the only open pit fire BBQ joint around.
  2. Serranos is really good Mexican up near the capital.  The setting is cool too in front of an amphitheater.
  3. Uchi for sushi is great especially given the location.  You are guaranteed to always run into someone famous during the SXSW week.  A couple of years ago I was seated next to Matthew McConaughey.


  1. Gourdough’s for crazy, awesome donuts.  Its a food truck usually parked south of the lake.
  2. This one most visitors miss because it is a local place, but the Broken Spoke is straight out of a movie.  Many seasons of Friday Night Lights were filmed there.  Just go there, order a few pitchers of beer and dance to the live music.
  3. Do an early morning walk up to the Capital.  You can walk right in and see both chambers.
  4. Franks, for hot dogs after hours is always a sure way to ease into your inevitable hangover.

The Best and Worst of SXSW 2012


“Just when you are out, they pull you back in.”  And so goes my experience at SXSW this year.  After saying I was going to give SXSW one last chance, the conference totally redeemed itself.  I think a big part of my change in tune was knowing how commercialized the conference became in 2010, which was a disappointment back then.

Best Interactive Panel
The best panel this year was about the work NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs was doing to monitor near Earth orbit objects like asteroids and comets. Amazing data science work goes into predicting when these objects may hit us and which ones need to be classified as truly dangerous. They also spent time debunking that the Earth will not end in 2012 as the Mayan calendar predicts.

Best Movie Panel
I did not get to as many movie panels as I’d like but my favorite was the Seth MacFarlane talk where he analyzed and compared Family Guy clips as well as introduced the world to his new movie “Ted.” Mark Wahlberg also made a surprise appearance.


Best BBQ
You can’t go to Austin and not have BBQ. This year Stubb’s takes the award.

Best Music
How could it be anything but Jay-Z?

Best Poster at SXSW
The guys at Adult Swim came up with a great looking poster that they gave out at the Turner tent.


Worst Weather
Never in 9 years have I seen weather worse than I did Friday and Saturday in Austin. The half mile walk I had from my hotel to the convention center was brutal, especially on Friday.


Worst Registration Process
The registration line for SXSW on Friday was 90 to 120 minutes long. For a technology conference you would think we could have some forward thinking ideas about how to make registration faster, but here we are 6 years later still filling out green index cards to pick up our badges.

Worst Hotel Situation
Unless you were sponsoring, speaking or knew someone at SXSW you were not getting a hotel room within a few block radius of the convention center. Sure you could have picked up a room at the Hampton Inn one week before the conference for $1700 a night, but most people were resigned to long walks or cab rides. One set of friends decided to stay in San Antonio and drive in each day figuring the party scene at Riverwalk was going to be just as good.

Best Redemption of a SXSW Conference
After leaving woefully disappointed in 2010 at the complete sell out of the conference organizers to the sponsors, SXSW totally redeemed itself in 2012. Yes, the sponsors were still there, but knowing this going in made the event that much better. The best part of these sponsored events, not having to pay for food or drinks the entire weekend. Thank you to all the sponsors out there!

And with that, SXSW goes back on my list as a must attend event. I can’t wait to get back to Austin in 2013, though my hotel room is getting reserved as early as possible this year.

Giving SXSW One More Chance

It is that time of year again, the annual pilgrimage down to Austin, Texas to SouthBySouthwest (SXSW).  This will be my 9th SXSW out of the last 10 years and it may be the last one I go to.  Many posts have been written about how SXSW has “jumped the shark” and in 2010, I felt that it definitely had.

When I started going to SXSW in 2003 it was a different conference than any others that I had been to.  The conference was much smaller and led by developers and designers.  The panels were voted on by the community and they tended to be led by thought leaders.

As the decade moved along things slowly changed, some for the better.  The conference got bigger, we saw great product launches there like Twitter and FourSquare.  But something else happened, no longer were panels solely chosen by the community, and by 2010, it felt like most of the panels were allowed to speak thanks to their company’s sponsorship.  I saw this first hand with the panel I was on with Naveen Selvadurai and Josh Babetski.  Our panel was not picked until AOL brought it to SXSW’s attention that we were major sponsors that year.  Magically our panel was added to the program.

So why am I going this year?  I wanted to see if anything has changed.  It does not look like it on the surface, but I remain hopeful.  I am excited to see a lot of friends, our publishers and service providers all in one place.  Of course the parties and the city of Austin are another great part of SXSW.  Later this weekend I’ll put together the panels, parties, movies and bands I am looking forward to seeing.

Back from SXSW

The weekend in Austin was truly fantastic My favorite moments from this year at SXSW:

  • Kevin dyeing his hair blue for International Day of Awesomeness
  • Leah Culver from Pownce saying that secure authentication is unnecessary and slow during the Developer Friendly Web APIs talk on Sunday was comical. Not having SSL auth devalues your site, but more importantly your users, especially sites that screen scrape address books etc.
  • Seeing 300 geeks bowl was truly amazing. The Mapquest team bowled 5 foot bouncers down the lane while other teams bowled in full costume.
  • Learning that teens realize that websites need advertisements to make money was refreshing; but having them view ads that they could care less about is wasteful for all of the web industry. For example, a 16 year old viewing an ad for Miller Lite on in between videos is pointless for both Miller and NBA Interactive.
  • Doing an interview with the Download Squad on Open AIM was really great; Grant and team do a fantastic job.
  • RockBand was definitely the game of choice at SXSW, as everyone was rocking out on the trade show floor.
  • Seeing Kal Penn, John Cho, and Neil Patrick Harris talking about Harold and Kumar was hysterical

Will I go back next year? Is there any doubt, SXSWi is truly one of the best weekends of the year, now I just need to find a way to stay for the music.