Right now, I’m busy packing for a pretty hot date. Not between me and a woman (I’m married, after all), but between me and the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. We met last year, but I really don’t feel like I know SXSW 2013 all that well, especially because, as a show, she’s about as amorphous — even unfocused — as you could imagine. It’s a lot like a blind date.
The roughly 70,000 anticipated attendees (a 5%-to-8% bump from last year) will be a dizzying mix of button-down executives, long-haired rockers, shiny celebrities, nerdy programmers and anxious, hipster startups. Dressing to meet all these people in one place is near impossible. I’ve anxiously stuffed my suitcase with as many options as I could.
It’s not just the clothing. SXSW is big and encompasses technology, music, film, TV and more. I try to focus mostly on interactive to help narrow my patter. You know, I need to have a rap when I talk to all the people I’ll meet — just like a date. But if I have no idea what kind of people I’ll meet, I need a book full of lines or zingers. I need to charm people from every walk of life — all in one place.
And just like a blind date, I have to be prepared for the weird. The key when you see SXSW’s weird side is to not react. Just absorb, and where necessary, engage. One place we’re sure to get our fill of weird, wild and fun is at the Mashable House. Who doesn’t love bonding with a date over her favorite shared memes?
The Chewy Center
People aside, I also need to find the core of what SXSW 2013 is about. For us to have a meaningful relationship, I want to connect with the essence of the event.
According to organizers, key trends at the show will include, 3D printing, DIY, Big Data, Space Exploration, Internet of Things and Wearable Tech. The good news is that many of these are the trends I anticipated for all of 2013. The bad news is, I’m not sure it brings me any closer to knowing why SXSW matters.
A lot of this will make for a fun date. I’m going to, for instance, visit with NASA, and see a full-scale replica of the Webb Telescope. That shot of the two of us should look great on my Facebook page. Wearable Tech will likely be on many of the attendees I meet, which actually might add to the creep factor of my date. I mean, who wants someone else watching them all the time?
It won’t be all fun (most dates aren’t, right?). SXSW has a serious side. In fact, I think it consumes a large portion of the event’s personality: Business. Brands, marketers, big companies are all trying out social and viral marketing ideas, and through panels and displays training others how to do it right.
Some companies are simply at SXSW to build buzz for their services and brands outside the show. This “look at me!” move can be a bit off-putting on a date. I’d like SXSW to focus more on my needs, but at most, I’m arm candy (hey, I can dream) while SXSW attendees try to get me and everyone else to pay attention to them.
There are “shows” to take in — also known as keynotes — but unlike at most trade shows and conferences, SXSW keynotes are rarely newsmakers. This doesn’t mean they’re any less entertaining. Every once in a while, there’s a moment on stage. Either someone does something amazing or says something you really didn’t expect. Even keynote disasters are a win. As date entertainment, these keynotes can be pretty alright.
The panels are so hit-and-miss that they could bring my date to a screeching halt. This is mostly because too many of them are people talking about topics where they have no direct involvement. A Reddit panel where no one from Reddit is participating? Pass. It’s like promising your date a Justin Bieber Concert and then sitting her down in front of a laptop to watch a music video.
There are also lots of hackathons to attend, but as date fodder these can be pretty sleepy affairs. Don’t get me wrong; the beginning, where they set the rules, and the end where you see the final products and they decide the winners or best apps, are pretty exciting. But the middle is a pretty sleepy affair (unless they hire a DJ) with a dozen or more coders sitting at computers coding very, very quietly.
I’m not worried. When the sun sets, my blind date with SXSW will get 10 times better. Lots of big social-media players (including Mashable and other companies) are hosting bashes. For many, these events are the real highlight of SXSW. But if you think it’s all about drinking and dancing, you’re mistaken.
The best dates are always about connection and, at its very soul, that’s what SXSW 2013 is all about: Networking. Meeting new people throughout the day and bonding at parties during the night. Those connections are the ones that will carry on throughout the year. At least until my next blind date with SXSW in 2014.