Egad! Has SXSWi lost its edge?

Heading to South by Southwest Interactive festival, CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman worries that conference is a few steps from being as mainstream as CES.

These days, Twitter is a worldwide phenomenon, a household name, and has even spawned a verb, "to Tweet."

But before the second week of March of last year, when thousands of geeks began arriving in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Interactive festival (SXSWi), few people had even heard of the nascent microblogging service. Within days, however, Twitter had taken the conference by storm . The story of how Twitter took over SXSWi, and how it spread to the outside world because of the many influential early-adopters in attendance, is well known.

"People see what happened with Twitter last year," said Hugh Forrest, the SXSWi conference director, "and want to be the Twitter of 2008."

Whether it's because of Twitter's SXSWi emergence or all things cybergroovy becoming part of pop culture, one thing is certain: SXSWi has gone mainstream. Does that mean it's also lost its edge?

Mark Zuckerberg SXSWi

Let's start with the mainstream question: There's little question SXSWi has hit the big time. In fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be keynoting, a certain coup for the 11-year-old event. It's not a Bill Gates keynote, a la CES, but he's certainly a borderline household name.

"He is the most 'it' person we've had," said Forrest. "As with a lot of things that happen at SXSWi, I think it is the right match with the right person at the right time. Facebook wants to reinforce their message with the cutting-edge crowd that attends the Interactive festival."

Hmm...Not to take anything away from Zuckerberg, but Facebook is not really cutting edge anymore. Not with many tens of millions of users, cover stories in national magazines, and a market valuation of $15 billion.

So the answer to the "edge" question depends on who the newcomers are. If most of the first-timers are legitimate interactive media and technology movers and shakers, people who are well-wired and who simply had never managed to make it to SXSW before, then the growth may well be a boon for the conference's street cred as a central location in the larger geek and interactive media conversation.

"Hangers-on and sycophants"
But if the newcomers are corporate suits looking to cash in, SXSWi could go the way of R.E.M. after its 1988 album, Green and, dare I say, blogs after The New York Times started blogging in earnest.

"If there are a lot of industry hangers-on and sycophants--investors, shameless self-promoters, or wannabes," said Andy Baio, the founder of Upcoming.org, "it'll make it harder to randomly find interesting people at parties and in the hallways. (But) if you already have a strong social network, it shouldn't impact you."

SXSWi mashes it up with Microsoft's Silverlight. SXSWi

Make no mistake about it--despite a calendar of panels, sessions, and keynote speeches that dwarfs any SXSWi has had in the past, the real engine behind the event is the social scene. Parties abound, with several scheduled each night. For many attendees, these soirees are the most important place to make connections, meet new and old friends, and find out about cool new technologies. This year alone, parties are being hosted by Gawker Media, Facebook, Google, Flickr, Moo, and Digg, to name a few. (The festival also has a tie-in with Microsoft's new Silverlight Web technology .)

But with huge crowds showing up at each successive shindig, SXSWi can stop feeling like an annual reunion of friends.

"Two years ago, I stood in the hallway (and) saw nobody I knew," said Molly Steenson, a Ph.D. student in architecture at Princeton University who will be making her 11th visit to SXSW, "and started yelling, 'Others! Others!' (a Lost reference about unfamiliar people showing up in the middle of a well-established group of people) at the top of my lungs when I did make eye contact with an equally freaked out friend."

Yet Steenson also argues that the growth may well be a good thing. "Last year was particularly good because there were so many people who had never come before," Steenson said, adding that she had been pleased to see old friends finally make it to SXSWi.

"More and more to absorb"
For a first-timer like Carly Eiseman, coming to Austin for the conference is a chance to finally take part in something she sees as "an American cultural institution for independent art." While she acknowledged that SXSWi has likely changed a lot over the years, she isn't worried that she's missed the event's best days.

"With these things, it's never too late," said Eiseman, editor of the travel blog TheLobby.com. "It's just a matter of what you expect from it. I sort of expect it as a kind of place where I'm going to absorb so much, and each year, there's more and more to absorb. What you get out of things, whether they're small or large, is a personal experience. And I don't think that changes."

One thing that has many people excited about this year's event was that Forrest and his team of organizers were overwhelmed with submissions for panels and sessions. Rather than have to sort through and make all the choices themselves, they relied in large part on what is known as the "panel picker." This system allowed members of the SXSWi community--even newcomers--to vote on the panels they wanted to see selected.

In the end, the majority of the conference programming was selected by the community, and there are so many panels and sessions that Forrest and his crew have had to rent far more space at the Austin Convention Center than they have in the past.

With so much going on, one thing that is necessary for SXSWi survival is to keep careful track of everything going on. Making the rounds is a mashup called Sched.org that pulls information from the official SXSW schedule and allows users to easily select the sessions, parties, and keynotes they want to attend. Once finished, Sched.org creates a personalized, Web-based schedule that attendees can share with their friends and colleagues, a feature that helps people figure out what's worth going to.

"I'm using a combination of Upcoming and Sched.org," said Baio of his organizational planning. (He no longer works for Yahoo, which purchased Upcoming.) "Sched.org is a brilliantly designed scheduler for the panels and official events, so I've been using that for scheduling my daytime programming. Upcoming has all the unofficial events and gatherings, and is social, so I can see where my friends will be."

Of course, event organizers are making use of many different services to get word about their gatherings. When I got my invitation to the Digg party, it said to be sure to RSVP on Upcoming. (Is Digg still edgy? I'll have to go to the party to find out.) But Beth Murphy, Digg's director of marketing, said the company has been tech-agnostic in its promotion strategy.

"We are promoting the Digg SXSW party on Facebook, Pownce, Twitter, traditional e-mail, and Upcoming," Murphy told me by e-mail. "In addition to Upcoming, we've asked for an RSVP on Facebook and Pownce."

In all likelihood, there will be many hundreds, if not thousands of people at the Digg party, which takes place Tuesday night as the last SXSWi gathering. A large number will be longtime SXSWi attendees.

Still, first-timer Eiseman is expecting to get value out of the conference.

"You have to check it out at least once," Eiseman, who had only recently arranged housing for the conference, said. "But if you talk to me at the end of it, I'll probably (be able) to tell you where I'll be staying next year."

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).

 

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