Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happy 18th Birthday SXSWi, Now Grow Up!

"I'm going to drop a lot of f%#$ing F-bombs, and if you don't f*#$ing like it, you can f@%!ing leave." Thus began an official session at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). My reaction to this speaker matched my feelings about the entire SXSWi 2012 experience: It's time to grow up.

SXSWi turned 18 this year. SXSW originated as a music festival in 1987 and added SXSW Multimedia to mix in 1994. Although SXSWi now is legally an adult, you would be hard pressed to tell that strolling through hotel lobbies, 6th Street or the Austin Convention Center last week. SXSWi seemed less a conference for interactive and social media professionals than spring break for folks trying very hard to appear the exact opposite of what they really are--executives who work and consult with Fortune 500 companies. I had to remind myself that the guy in line next to me sporting a three-day growth of facial hair, knit cap, indie band T-shirt and overstuffed backpack wasn't a student but a professional who charges $500 an hour to tell CMOs how to build social engagement.

I think it's time SXSWi acts its age. Interactive and social media have moved to the center of corporate strategies, and professionals in this space no longer are lone evangelists fighting against marginalization within corporate structure. Ad spending in social media is up, the size of the social business industry exceeds $100 billion and social media budgets at more advanced enterprises are into the seven figures. As Altimeter's Jeremiah Owyang points out, social media folks are now earning the title of vice president when "two years ago, the average title was manager and director" (or guru and ninja).

We've arrived, but at SXSWi, we don't want to act like it. People are far more likely to tell you about the hot party they attended rather than the hot panel they observed. There was considerably more buzz about Jay-Z's performance than keynotes by Amber Case and Ray Kurzweil. Attendees couldn't wait to show off the great schwag they got, not the great insights they heard. And I was actually embarrassed watching interactive professionals dashing after branded T-shirts tossed from passing buses. My peer, Josh Salmons, hit the nail on the head when he observed, "SXSW is like Mardi Gras for nerds."

Other digital and social conferences are not like this. I have attended great events in the last two years such as the ANA Digital and Social Conference and the Social Media Insiders Summit. People at these conferences have fun, dress down and spend their nights partying, but education, insights and business come first. Maybe Austin brings out the "weird" in people, or maybe business execs feel pressured to fit in next to the rockers, folkies, actors and filmmakers in town for the other portions of SXSW.

Am I a grumpy old man? Perhaps, but I have worked for 15 long years building credibility for digital and social strategies in a world that often viewed them as fluffy and inconsequential distractions, removed from essential business processes. I think it is time for SXSWi to reflect the maturity, professionalism and impact of today's business-driving social and digital strategies.

Do you agree or disagree?  To paraphrase the foulmouthed SXSWi speaker, "if you don't f*#$ing like it, you can f@%!ing leave..." a comment below.


Anonymous said...

Agree 100%.

Rayanne said...

I just returned from SXSWi, as well and I didn't have any where near this type of experience
I attended a dozen sessions, stayed away from the big parties and considered my time there part of my job, I was there to learn and absorb...

I avoided loitering in hotel lobbies and stayed off the streets as much as possible, except to get to my next session or meet a potential client.

I would agree that it is time to for certain aspects of SXSWi to grow up... but I also think where we are in technology requires the mindset that "I will never grow up- I have too much to learn" - for grown-ups know it all, right?

I am eager to return next year and I will do the same as I did this year - know that I am there to learn and improve my work process or tech understanding AND I will avoid the crazy Mashable and the like parties...

You get what you put into it, I suppose...