SXSWi party lines best evidence of event's massive growth

Though it was known that this year's SXSWi would be bigger than before, the lines outside the parties are the most visceral proof of just how much bigger.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
The line outside the massive 16bit party in Austin, Texas, on Saturday night demonstrated how much bigger SXSWi is than it was last year. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

AUSTIN, Texas--As my colleague Caroline McCarthy pointed out earlier this morning, the parties at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) this year are so overcrowded that waiting in line outside has become commonplace.

On Friday night, I tried to get into that evening's biggest party, the so-called Mix at Six. Along the way, several friends and I kept running into people heading away from it who were reporting that there was a long line outside. And indeed, when we got there, it looked like there was an hour-long wait just to get in.

Last night, I was on my way to a dinner when we drove past the venue where Google was hosting its party. The line went around the corner. Later, after my dinner, I went with some friends to the evening's biggest shindig, the 16bit party, where I figured the line might be more manageable because it was a huge venue capable of holding many, many more people than the other venues were. Wrong. That line, too, was at least an hour long.

As McCarthy wrote, many people began using impromptu Twittering to organize their own alternative get-togethers. Uber-blogger Robert Scoble told me that he'd gotten into the 16bit party without waiting, but only because he got there half an hour early.

For my part, I refused to wait all that long to get into 16bit, and though I thoroughly enjoyed running into a number of friends in the line, several of us decided to blow it off and go back to our hotel where we could get drinks--albeit ones we'd have to pay for--without waiting.

'Make' magazine blogger Phil Torrone and Lifehacker blogger Gina Trapani find that it's not so bad to wait in line outside huge SXSWi parties. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

What does this all mean?

Well, last year, I went to one of SXSWi's biggest parties at the same venue where the 16bit party was held last night, and there was little or no waiting. The same for previous years' Mix at Sixes.

My conclusion? That the crowds at this year's SXSWi are so big that none of the shindigs can handle them without long lines.

I wrote before I got to Austin that I was worried that SXSWi had lost its edge. I actually don't think that's true, and I think there's plenty of great people here and terrific content on offer. But the massive crowds at each of the official parties is evidence that the event has outgrown its traditional structure.

That's why, of course, McCarthy's discovery of the impromptu parties is exactly how people are dealing with this dynamic. Thanks to Twitter and the fact that everyone simply seems to be running into each other on the street as one group walks away from a long line and another encounters them on their way to the line, word is spreading quickly and easily about other gatherings that are unofficial and much less impacted.

So what should SXSWi do about it? I have no idea. Have more parties at the same time so that the giant crowds that are sure to hit this town next year can be more evenly spaced out? Give up on the official parties altogether?

I know that, for me, the parties I went to during my first SXSWi, in 2006, were a very big part of why I had such a good time. I found myself chatting easily with some of the best-known people in Internet circles and made many lasting contacts.

The same was true last year.

This year, however, it is simply impossible to imagine getting into any of the big parties to make those kinds of connections, and that's only certain to be even worse in the future.

So why should you care? That's a very good question. I guess it boils down to the fact that a lot of what has made SXSWi such a vibrant event is the networking and re-connecting that went on at the parties. And if people are going to be giving up on those soirees because they don't want to wait an hour in line just to wait even longer to get a drink, well, those connections are going to be harder to come by. And not to put too fine a point on it, but it's quite possible that that could mean that some terrific piece of Web-based software that might have been born at one of these shindigs won't be.

At least at the official parties. I predict that the unofficial parties will rule SXSWi 2009 and that by 2010 the entire structure of the evening gatherings will change. Twitter will even further govern the social structure of the event and the Googles, Facebooks, Yahoos, Diggs, and others that have gotten great publicity value out of paying for free drinks for a few thousand people will have to find another way to do so.

And actually, this isn't bad. It just means that the do-it-yourself spirit that defines the Web 2.0 era will own the party scene at SXSWi that has come to be dominated by the big corporate names I mentioned above. And if that's not something to celebrate, I don't know what is.

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