If this blog post proves anything it’s that there are still more voices to be heard about SXSW 2011, even 2 weeks later. I’m sure that there have been thousands of posts about the event already (and you have read quite a few of them) so I’m humbled that you’d stumble upon my words and stay awhile. Thanks.

A few weeks ago myself and two other members of the Plank Family (@warrenwilansky, @ameliajshaw, @emerson_lackey) hopped on a plane and headed deep into the heart of Texas to attend South By South West 2011. It was my 4th time attending (I was there in 2002, 2003 and 2009) and the first time for both Emerson and Amelia. Having been to SXSW recently I had an idea of what to expect but A&E only could go by the stories they heard from the rest of the team. While the 3 of us spent the previous 6 months discussing what SXSW was going to be like, as usual, it was different in many ways.

My Highlights

While others attend SXSW for different reasons (the networking, the parties), I have always gone for and spent as much time as possible attending panels. The quality of panels seemed to on par with what I saw in 2009 and there were a lot of moments of inspiration. The 2 most memorial and inspirational panels were:

All These Worlds Are Yours: Visualizing Space Data, an eye-opening demo of the recent live data visualization projects that NASA / JPL are working on.

An Open Internet: The Last, Best Hope for Independent Producers, Senator Al Franken: a rabble rousing challenge to corporate America, not the kind of talk you would expect from a main stream politician.

A big part of Plank’s pre-trip preparation centered on food. Okay, I’ll be honest, the majority of my pre-trip preparation centered on food. As a city with a culinary focus on Tex-Mex and BBQ, I knew that we would be eating well, if not all that healthy. We made it Stubb’s and Torchy’s Tacos as well as a slew of other good to great places in between. Our final dinner of the trip at Eddie V’s Steakhouse was pretty good.

Even the sliders in the Omni Hotel (our home base) were great.

And yes, I did get an iPad2.

My Lowlights

With a rumoured attendance clocking in over 20 000 (and realize we aren’t even talking about the film and music streams) this event is too big. We were busy from day to night and I felt like we only managed to take in 5% of what the event had to offer. That’s a shame.

While I did enjoy the majority of the panels I attended there were a few that were really beginner or were not driven by great speakers. I realized very early on to stop focusing exclusively on panel topics but on the quality of the speakers. Steve had some sage advice, “look for speakers from Google, you can be sure that they will be very smart”.

For the 4th time running, like usual, not enough sleep.

My Verdict

It’s clear that SXSW is still the biggest, premier event on the yearly geek calendar. If you are involved in any aspect of the interactive world, and have never gone, you should. Austin is also a fun town and the event truly does live up to its billing as Geek Spring Break. A&E had a blast.

The problem for me is, even if Bruce Sterling disagrees, I do have fond memories of the years that I attended in the early 2000’s. The event felt big at the time but is a blip compared to what it has turned into. I liked that I got to meet most of the people who attended, see most of the panels and go to almost all of the parties. That just isn’t possible anymore.

I’ll be happy to send anyone from my team who wants to go next year but as for myself, I think I’m done with SXSW for a while.

Anyone want to suggest another similar but more intimate event?