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What to expect at SXSWi, part 2: Panels and keynotes

Don't stay out too late! There are loads of panels and discussions that you'll want to check out at the annual geek confab in Austin.

This is part two of a four-part series. Here's part one.

If you've never been to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival--which runs Friday through Tuesday in Austin, Texas--you might get the impression that it's just a bunch of wild parties where people run around drinking margaritas and then snarfing down barbecue and tacos to temper the effect of the tequila so they can be lucid enough to put up the evening's photos on Flickr and Facebook.

Not quite.

There is, actually, an extensive and packed lineup of panels, keynotes, "salons," and "core conversations" at the Austin Convention Center. This stuff can be really hit-or-miss, just like at any conference: sometimes you'll be surprised at the impressive conversation at a small discussion, and sometimes a panel packed with big names will be a total dud. So take any panel recommendations with a grain of salt.

When it comes to big-name speakers this year, SXSWi doesn't have anything quite as high-profile as last year's Mark Zuckerberg keynote--which famously took a turn for the worse. The big draw this year will be Nate Silver, the blogger and statistics expert who accurately predicted Barack Obama's electoral victory. He'll be keynoting on Sunday in an interview with BusinessWeek's Stephen Baker.

Some of the other high-profile addresses will be Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh on Saturday, open-source advocate James Powderly on Monday, and Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson being interviewed by longtime Silicon Valley figure Guy Kawasaki on Tuesday.

Silver is going to be the huge draw, given the still-fresh face in the White House and the fact that Silver is a relative newcomer to the tech circuit. But I'm more excited about Kawasaki's interview with Anderson: the thesis of Anderson's book The Long Tail, an optimistic manifesto about the economics of niche content, was being debated and debunked and un-debunked even before the stock market crashed. His forthcoming book, about giving content away for free, is sure to be immediately controversial, given the recession.

On that note, the panel lineup shows less of a focus on dealing with the recession than I'd have thought. There are "Emerging From a Recession with Emerging Media Intact" and "Is the Planned Life Even Worth Living Anymore?" on Saturday, and "Finance 2.0: Money Management to Save this Generation" on Monday. That said, I'm pretty sure that loads of other panels will, whether intentionally or unintentionally, find that economic difficulty is central to what's talked about. You don't necessarily need to put it in the title.

Many of the panels, you'll notice, are uber-narrow in focus. There are a lot that deal with the intricacies of user experience and design, social media marketing, Web app development, and the occasional R-rated quirkiness ("Lustful Design in Mainstream Science Fiction" or "Sex Lives of the Microfamous"). Sweeping, zeitgeisty panels are few and far between. If you want to get a "big idea" about something, you'll have to dig around and pick a few sessions to complement one another.

For people interested in social networking, there's entirely too much to choose from. Facebook platform director Dave Morin will give a talk on Saturday called "The Search for a More Social Web," and all I can say is that I hope he takes plenty of audience questions. Later that afternoon, there's the annual "Ten Worst Social Media Campaigns" discussion, which has become a SXSWi staple. Throughout the rest of the conference, you can choose from panels about social media and health, social media and racism, traditional media using Twitter--ad nauseam.

Digital-media junkies may want to tune into two potentially interesting panels about personal recommendations, "You May Also Be Interested In" on Monday, and "Help! My iPod Thinks I'm Emo" on Tuesday. There's also one called "The Future of the DVD and Digital Distribution" that I hope will turn into a lively debate.

I'm psyched for one of the last panels on Tuesday, "Using GPS & Location to Enhance Social Networking," featuring an array of panelists from the likes of Twitter, Brightkite, uLocate, and Garmin. Location-based networking remains both hot and up-for-grabs in the industry-- not to mention the fact that was also smart of conference organizers to chuck this one at the end of the last day, because the panelists will undoubtedly reflect on how find-your-friends technologies were used throughout SXSWi itself.

Also: Who isn't looking forward to "The Real Technology of Indiana Jones," a panel on Monday morning about 21st-century developments in archaeology?

A full schedule is available here.