SXSW as an API for industry collaboration


That’s about the only way I can describe how I feel after 6 days of SXSW Interactive. To be clear, this exhaustion doesn’t stem from the parties (I only attended a few…and was at home at midnight all weekend) or the 4,592,103 official panels they had this year (I only attended two, one of which is the one where I was speaking). It doesn’t even stem from dodging 15,000+ people this year that attended SXSWi. Instead, my exhaustion stems from being busy, extremely busy for 6 straight days with events that surround SXSWi rather than come from it.

As someone who’s been coming to SXSWi since 1997, I’ve seen the event follow a fairly common pattern of community development:

  • A small, dedicated community comes together around a shared interest, typically driven by a lack of options for connection to folks who “get them”
  • Size of the community swells. At first this is a boon to the community – people have more of what they love. Over time, however, logistics, quality, and interactions all get watered down
  • The original folks start getting grumpy and talking about how things were in their day. Newbies don’t understand what all the fuss is about (since they’re not seeing the original coolness) and/or they’re not sure why the old timers are so grumpy (because they are happy enough with what they see today)
  • The community either reinvents itself in the face of this new reality, or it tends to shrivel and die

Last year was big, unwieldy, and generally not as much fun as years past have been. People were crowded absolutely everywhere. 9,000+ people were crammed into the Austin Convention Center, and the number of parties in a very small part of downtown just made things incredibly annoying. The crowd seemed to consist mainly of folks looking for the new bandwagon to jump on, and the content was… let’s say “thin”.

But this  year something happened that has, or at least could, change the future of SXSWi and perhaps even the industry. That’s right, I said it: the industry.

This year, SXSWi crossed the chasm and morphed into a platform. The event has taken on the characteristics of an API, where the event is the foundation that others build their content off of. By spreading out the activities across multiple campuses, attendees had to more specifically design their experience rather than just going with the flow and showing up “where my friends were checking in on Foursquare”. (It takes time to get from campus A to campus B) Companies and groups seem to have take the opportunity to slip in cool events that were unofficial, yet wouldn’t have existed if not for SXSWi. Even local Austin photographer, Trey Ratcliff pulled together an amazing photowalk that was only possible because of the type of person SXSWi brought into town in the first place.

I spent a huge chunk of the event this year in 1:1 meetings with people who I’d meet during the conference and wanted to spend more time with, or people I’d arranged meetings with beforehand. One of my friends told me tonight that he spent time with several of his company’s biggest clients who happened to be in town for SXSWi and that those meetings alone paid for the cost of his attendance. And he works for one of the world’s largest brands, not a garage-based startup. I talked to countless people who skipped the panels but found their brains full of new info at the end of each day. This has always happened at SXSWi, of course, but I’ve never seen the number of people skipping out on the official content or flat out hacking the conference and showing up without a badge to all kinds of unofficial events.

I’m confident that this API style growth was not at all intended or targeted by the SXSWi team, but they have a real opportunity on their hands to help bring the industry into one place every year and truly change how business gets done in our industry. To make this happen, SXSW needs to focus as much on content selection for panels as they do on core logistics. They need to add their voice to how attendees can get around town, not just around their campus. They need to consider how best to encourage groups to do events unconnected to SXSW. There’ll be a desire to try to own everything, to drive anyone interested in SXSWi-related activity to buy a badge so the conference can make more money. They need to squash that desire and remember that any good API succeeds as much, if not more when the entire ecosystem flourishes.

SXSWi is dead. Long live SXSWi…!

UPDATE: If you’re interested in hearing more about SXSWi 2011, here’s a few links –


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