South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) is what you make it. As the Guardian have written, because the conference is about anything interactive and networked, it's actually about everything. You need a plan of attack: with 20,000 people attending over 1000 sessions, tens of official parties and hundreds of others, having a clear head and focus is all that will sustain. There's even an official survival guide: you don't see that at other trade shows.
Slice it one way and you have a mini-TED, another and you get to hear from all the people famous on the Internet, or maybe a social media marketing conference, or catch up latest programming and sysadmin ninja techniques. Or you just embrace geek spring break, and go from party to party, queuing endlessly for a free beer.
This year SXSWi nearly broke Austin. All hotel rooms filled up before Christmas, and additional 'campuses' where talks were held were a 15 minute bus ride away. Even the Convention Center itself takes ten minutes to walk from one end to another, with some crushes and queues to get on the escalators. Choices had to be made on location as much as the subjects covered.
The talks are diverse: "hacking space exploration", "Terrorism 2.0", "my smartphone just bought my beer", "the refrigerator speaks" and "social health: who wants to 'Like' haemorrhoid cream?"… My plan was clear: go to things I knew very little about, or had a really interesting speaker. Even so, at certain times there were 10 different talks I wanted to see, often several with friends giving presentations. Over the next few days I'll be writing up the ones that captured my imagination.
The evening entertainment was bigger than even this year. Music spilled into Interactive, with bands doing corporate gigs for the geeks to pay for their trip to SXSW Music. The big concerts were by Big Boi (for Foursquare and Pepsi) and Diplo (for Vimeo and Nikon), but if you were paying attention you could walk into lots of amazing things with no queue: highlights for me were Chromeo at the Redlaser party and Gold Panda at a Pitchfork night.
The lasting memory though, is just of the scene itself. SXSWi has been known to be a petri dish and incubator for technology, notably giving Twitter and Foursquare a userbase and traction in recent years. This year it wasn't an app or service that stood out (although competing group messaging apps tried), just the mundane versions of Blade Runner or Minority Report that played out inside and outside the Convention Center. Pepsi took over a whole block, CNN opened a restaurant, GE installed a solar-powered carousel, street teams tried to give out the latest in sugar water technology, power-hungry geeks huddled round plug oases, trees covered in URLs, domain names projected thirty feet high, QR-wallahs trying to get you to scan their code ("I don't casually click, I'm afraid"). The iPad currency: friend us to win an iPad, scan this to win an iPad, have you tried our new iPad app. Even Jobs was not immune, opening a popup iPad 2 store in downtown Austin for SXSW; the queues were almost as long as for free beer. All you could do, let your London instincts kick in, don't make eye contact, don't pick up anything. And that's not the future I want, or the future all this technology should be creating or helping.
But as SXSWi ramped down, and the cool kids filtered in for Music, the decision was simple: I'm going back next year. It's the meeting place for friends old and new, a place to get inspired, a break from the norm, underpinned by the sunshine, amazing food and generous hospitality of Austin. If you're not having fun at Southby, you're not trying hard enough.