SXSW 2017

Rebuilding SXSW


Now, just hold on a minute. I’m not trying to say that SXSW is broken or somehow inefficient. Stop yelling at me.
Look: SXSW has been around for about 30 years at this point. And it’s grown exponentially in that time. I started going to peripheral music events around 2010 and began attending the Interactive portion in an official capacity for Art+Logic in 2013. As a company, we’ve attended, exhibited at the trade show, and organized panel discussions on technology topics. And every single year since we’ve had a presence, the conference has expanded. More people, more crowds, more lines, more presenters, more panels, more sponsors, and more chaos.
Until this year. The feeling was different. A bit more reserved. A bit more focused. Attention paid where perhaps it was ignored before. And I think that is great. Attendance, at the Interactive portion at least, was objectively smaller. Official numbers for 2017 probably won’t be for a few more months, maybe a year, but the unofficial buzz pegs attendance at around 80,000 this year, as opposed to close to or over 100,000 in recent memory. In 2015 and 2016, restaurants and businesses for multiple blocks surrounding the Austin Convention Center were taken over for days by big-name tech companies. This year, that practice stretched only to within a block of the ACC.
As festivals like this expand over time, they tend to sprawl, both in terms of area and concept. SXSW has been no exception. Topics have ranged from mundane, esoteric development concepts, to mainstream tech trend predictions. There have always been a smattering of panels and presentations regarding underrepresented demographics in the tech industry, but the programming felt a bit desperate. Not that those panels and discussions themselves were desperate or lacking in any way, but rather it felt like SXSW was stretching itself fundamentally to include them. This year was different. It was focused, thoughtful. In the past it has seemed (and granted, this is an outsider’s perspective, and I do not know the heart of the SXSW programmers–I’m sure they are good people doing the best they can) the only panelists available for the bigger talks were mostly white dudes, and there were more industry specific panels for women, POC, and the LGBTQIA community. This year, those identities were more fully represented across the board, and also more specifically focused within industries.
The Convention was also tracked more effectively. The trade show floor was organized such that industries were grouped together. The panels were staged such that certain interests were represented together in particular venues. So while you could find female, POC, and LGBTQIA panelists spread across the board, you could also stay on, say, the 3rd floor of the JW Marriott and see a lot of different female-focused tech industry panels.
And I think all of this is a good thing. We have to strive not only to represent these identities across the conference, but also provide safe spaces for them to gather and exchange ideas. Fair warning: I’m a straight, cis, white dude, so my opinion should be taken with a big handful of salt grains, but overall, the reorganization and contraction seemed both intentional and focused. I’m not suggesting we all start patting each other on the back, but the conference felt less chaotic, less chock-a-block and scattershot than it has in recent years past. It felt self-aware. Conscious. And I hope this isn’t just a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias on my part. I hope it is a trend that continues.
SXSW has continually broken new ground, and I hope that this self-awareness I’m perceiving is real, and will continue. That the next innovative step SXSW tackles in the tech industry is radical inclusiveness. The normalization of typically underrepresented identities in what has become an overwhelmingly white male field of endeavor. And the only way to do that is to do it on purpose. It won’t happen on its own. It won’t happen without good people and strong voices. It won’t happen without those of us who are traditionally included by default demanding it. And I really believe it will make everything so much better.

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