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How to endure SXSW--and live to tell about it

CNET has been at South by Southwest for years, and we have the advice you need to make it out alive. Be realistic, make sure to eat, and for pete's sake, keep your iPhone charged.

One way to survive SXSW is to take the time to do unexpected things, like playing foursquare with Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

First things first. Take a deep breath. And now repeat the process.

OK, you're off to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest Interactive, a five-day bacchanalia of panels, keynotes, parties, barbeque feasts, beer-soaked networking, and maybe even a little sleep. Just remember, if you want to be taken seriously there, don't call it South by Southwest. It's "South-by," or, in written form, "SXSW."

If you've never been before, it's OK to be stressed about what you've gotten yourself into. I've been six times, and I'm totally overwhelmed. And how can you not be with hundreds upon hundreds of sessions on the schedule, thousands of people to try to meet, tons of startups to check out--see a video below on the startup experience at SXSW--and just 24 hours in a day.

But CNET is here to help, with our first-ever SXSW Survival Guide, a primer on how to make it to the Texas capital and back alive, and have a productive, fun time in the process.

Be realistic
The first, and easiest, mistake to make at SXSW is trying to do too much. You look at the schedule, and you check off 60 different panels you want to attend, yet you also want to make it back for free drinks outside the Austin Convention Center each afternoon, or hook up with friends at Maggie Mae's. It's really hard to be everywhere at once.

The best thing you can do, any SXSW veteran will tell you, is be realistic. Check off those 60 panels, but don't kick yourself when you barely make any of them. As great as that Joss Whedon interview looks, or as much as you want to hear about the Power of Fear in Networked Publics, you can't do it all. No one can.

Don't blow it all off, though. Some of the panels will be amazing. And if you can, make it to Bruce Sterling's annual Tuesday afternoon rant.

But the best parts about SXSW are the things you never in a million years planned for: The conversation you had in line waiting to get into a party. The panel you wandered into by accident. The spur-of-the-moment drinkup at the Ginger Man you rushed over to at the last second because you saw Scott Beale tweet about it. Anything involving Gary Vaynerchuk.

As 14-year SXSW veteran Molly Steenson put it, the fun part is "paying attention to what's in front of you and what's serendipitous.... Don't spend all your time trying to find your friends on Foursquare. Meet the people in front of you. That's the best part."

I know I just told you not to worry too much about your schedule. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare one. The question is, how do you do that, and how do you keep track of it.

When you do your on-site registration (and be sure to allow a fair bit of time for that, especially if you're not doing it early in the morning or late in the day) you'll get both a big, thick conference guide, and a small pocket-size at-a-glance schedule. Those are both helpful.

But if you've got a smartphone--and would you really be coming to SXSW if you don't?--I highly recommend you download the official SXSW app. Though it's not all that well designed, and kind of confusing to use, it does sync with SX Social, where you can set up a public profile, organize your schedule, manage your hotel booking, and more. Then, with the app installed, you can pull out your iPhone or Android device and see your schedule wherever you are, whether or not you remembered to bring your pocket guide. Plus, you can add new things to your schedule on the go.

Twitter, mobile social apps, and your phone
By now you've probably heard how Twitter first burst onto the scene during SXSW 2007. It's not a myth--it really happened. And why? Because where better for a highly social service like Twitter to explode virally than at a gathering of the largest, most plugged-in digerati around. And that's also why other now-famous apps like Foursquare, Gowalla, GroupMe, and others blew up at SXSW.

Now playing: Watch this: SXSW: A boon or bust for startups?

The trick is figuring out how to get what you need from these various apps, as well as the new crop that will no doubt be the talk of the town this week, like social discovery apps Highlight, Glancee, and others. One thing to remember: Tracking the #SXSW hashtag on Twitter can be an exercise in insanity, as thousands of tweets flow by each minute. You'll need a secondary system to figure out what's going on.

And I shouldn't need to remind you, but do what you can to make sure your phone is charged up. Think how frustrated you're going to be if the battery dies in the middle of the evening, just when you need it most, and there's no place to plug in.

If you've heard that SXSW is basically a collection of big parties, you've heard right. There's everything from the endless collection of shindigs open to all Interactive attendees--you'll get a packet listing them at registration--to the invite-only VIP events that you'll hear people muttering about and tweeting about. One way or another, you'll quickly grok that the partying starts around 5 each afternoon and doesn't end until the wee hours.

But here's the rub: It's almost impossible to get into any of them. Not because they're too exclusive, but because there's too many people. What it means is, regardless of whether you're on the list or not, you'll probably have to wait in line to get in.

My advice? Go and stand in the line. Spend that time talking to your friends and the people around you, and those who arrive in taxis and are walking around. When you finally make it to the front of the line, move on to the next party. Because if you get in, you'll wait in another long line for free drinks, and you won't be able to hear anyone anyway.

Still, RSVP for everything you get an invite to. That way, you can choose later on. But if you don't RSVP, you won't have that choice. Don't worry, it's not rude: Everyone's doing it.

Bring an umbrella
I know, it's Texas in the spring. It's supposed to be sunny and warm, and you were planning on bopping around Austin in a T-shirt. The problem is that Mother Nature doesn't seem inclined to play along this year. A quick check of the weather report indicates the high probability of rain on Friday and Saturday, and possibly on Sunday.

And that's OK: It'll clear up on Monday, and Austin can be beautiful in a rainstorm, especially if you're inside. Either way, prepare for wet weather. As SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest told me, the best way to keep it from raining is to make sure to bring an umbrella.

Without spending too much time on this, let me just say that eating is hard at SXSW. It's not that there's not food everywhere, because there is. But who's got the time?

Still, find a way so that you don't low blood sugar right when you need your energy. There's good food all over downtown, though much of it is a couple of blocks from the convention center. You'll probably hear about the Iron Works, a decent BBQ joint just southeast of there. It's crowded at lunch, but is often the quickest place to re-energize. I also appreciate one or two dinners each year at Mekong River, a good, cheap Vietnamese and Thai place a couple of blocks away. They have vegetables. Something you won't see a lot of while you're in town.

Sleep, and don't forget the time change
A lot of people approach SXSW with the "I'll sleep when I'm dead" attitude. And that's fine. Until they crash hard about midway through. At least the conference organizers are merciful and don't schedule most sessions until 11 a.m. each day.

Still, I advise getting a couple of good nights of sleep during the event. Maybe one at the beginning, and one to refresh you for one last push before you leave. It's hard, because your friends will be staying out and urging you to come along. Go! But at least once, tell them, Sorry guys, I'll catch you tomorrow.

And don't forget that the time changes on Sunday morning. Just when you don't want to lose yet another hour of sleep, you will. But think of the payoff: Longer days from then until early November. It's a price worth paying, even if it makes you want to kill yourself when you wake up on Sunday.

In the end, you'll do just fine, and you would probably have figured this all out on your own. But I hope this advice was helpful. Now I just need to find a way to follow it myself.