SXSW 2011, Looking Back.

About this time two years ago, Full Stop was but a twinkle in our collective eye, United Pixelworkers was inconceivable, and attending a multi-day conference half-way across the country wasn’t even part of the conversation. Much has changed since then, so at the last minute Full Stop decided to commission Jay Fanelli and I to represent the company — and the fictitious union of web professionals we birthed — at SXSW.

SXSW is one huge conference party.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: SXSW Interactive may have been a conference once upon a time (so we hear), but with too many people, too many mediocre speakers, and too little substance, it’s devolved into a non-stop meet-and-greet for web geeks — not that there’s anything wrong with that. We spend 51 weeks a year driving ourselves to get better. This is our chance to relax and reap the rewards of all that hard work. ((The Internet agrees: Andy Budd, Jason Santa Maria, Ethan Marcotte, Todd Dominey, Paul Armstrong))

Highs and lows.

In addition to meeting and talking with people we’ve admired for years — some of whom were inspirational in our decision to start Full Stop — we had the pleasure of spending a big chunk of quality time with a few guys who transformed SXSW from a kaleidoscope of useful but ephemeral conversations into an indelibly fond memory. Reagan Ray, Dave Rupert, Gerren Lamson, Chris Meeks — the web industry is privileged to have amazing people like you. Special thanks also to Naz Hamid and Mike Davidson for going above and beyond in making us feel welcome. As for the rest of you clowns, no disrespect intended. Our experience was 99.9 percent positive. As relatively unknown purveyors of web design ((Unscientific research suggests a few people knew Full Stop but nearly everyone knew United Pixelworkers)), we were amazed by the consistently friendly and accessible manner of presenters and attendees alike. Nobody was too busy to stop for a minute to say hello or answer a question.

Travel, lodging, food.

It turns out that Pittsburgh to Austin is a bit of a haul. It ends up being about a half-day of flying each way with several connections in between. We arrived Thursday, early afternoon (definitely a good idea) with no major problems, thankfully. Apparently not everyone was so lucky. We departed Monday early afternoon (maybe not such a good idea). Next year, we may try to hang around until at least Tuesday morning.

We heard a lot about the unbelievably good food in Austin. Sadly, as food lovers, that wasn’t really our experience. It’s possible we missed the best places or caught them at the wrong time, but overall the food was just alright. No complaints, really, it just fell short of expectations. ((A partial list: Wahoo’s (2x), Stubb’s, Frank (2x), Home Slice, Iron Cactus, Whataburger, Amy’s Ice Cream.))

Our hotel was in town but a few miles away from the convention center. With a car, it wasn’t a terrible place to be. We definitely envied those who could walk to their room, though, or those who found a quiet, cozy house to bunker down.

The conference.

Per principle one above (SXSW is a party not a conference), we approached the schedule with a casual attitude. If something jumped off the page, we found time to attend. Several panels we would have liked to have seen were double-booked, another casualty of a conference organized by people who either don’t understand the web industry or have too much on their crowded plates.

As far as speakers are concerned, Kevin Hoffman kills it every time; Austin was no exception. My personal highlight was the Coudal, Gruber, and Lopp panel, which is perhaps indicative of the nature of SXSW. It was an informal session on writing that left only 15 minutes per speaker. Any of them could have (and likely has) given a significantly stronger presentation with the floor to himself.

Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Panel packed the 5,000 seat room. It wasn’t a bad show, but it suffered from the same problem that confounded Wilson Miner’s panel on web designers who can’t code earlier in the day: as these are nuanced and controversial debates, they’ve been largely hashed out already over the Internet. Anyone who’s been paying attention was likely aware of the conclusions that had been drawn. In the case of the Miner panel, by the end it substantially echoed our own position 13 months earlier. Web designers certainly benefit from an expert knowledge of HTML and CSS but can be just as effective with only a reasonable familiarity.

We were excited to participate in the side projects core conversation with Noah Stokes and Phil Coffman. It’s an interesting format, and the caliber of participant seemed exceptionally high. Whether you like the direction SXSW is headed might be encoded in how you feel about the core conversation format — informal, group-oriented, interesting but underwhelming.

Oh, and Battle Decks was miserable. Improvisational humor is difficult enough for professional comedians. Mix in people whose primary qualification is being funny on Twitter and slides that aspire to be the star of the show ((Seriously. It’s like having a cooking competition where the contestants are handed finished meals then instructed to “make it better” with whatever they have lying around.)) and you have a recipe for disaster.

Was it worth it?

Yes. Maybe. If you’re looking to learn and grow as a web designer, web developer, writer, content strategist, or anything else having to do with making websites, you’re probably better off attending another conference with a greater emphasis on exceptional speakers bringing their A-games.

If, however, you’ve been doing this for a few years and want to meet the people who do it better than anyone else, there is no better place on earth to go than Austin in the middle of SXSW. As Jay commented incredulously on more than one occasion, a bomb dropped in downtown Austin would set Internet design back decades. Maybe it’s an accident that SXSW became the place web designers and developers congregate. As long as that continues to be true, we’ll find a way to be there.

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