My Experiences at SXSW Interactive 2011

Every person’s experience at SXSW is unique. Here’s what I saw, did, and thought. I’ll go through event by event until I reach the end, where I’ll draw some conclusions.

Technology in Education Meetup

This was an interesting way to start off the conference for me, talking with other people interested in education and how it can be used on the web.

Anna DebenhamThe first person I ran into at the meetup was Anna Debenham from the UK.

I knew about her because of her work with the magazine Scrunchup, and because she’s involved in web education on her side of the pond.

It was good to talk with her, although she was a bit taken aback that someone recognized her and called her by name the moment she walked in the door.

I also met an interesting woman who is organizing a startup called educlone. They create online tests for instructors offering lots of nice feedback features and customization options. This might be useful to InterACT.

Marissa Meyer

Marissa MeyerGoogle’s Marissa Meyer gave a keynote. She talked about mapping and some of Google’s mapping products and experiments and future plans.

Her talk was fascinating, but I was most impressed by the question and answer part of the presentation.

All sorts of questions were tossed at her and she fielded every one with smooth expertise, even when they weren’t actually related to the official work she does for Google.

She clarified Google’s process of experimentation and play when she explained how some things get tried and abandoned while others go on to become promoted products.

Dewey Winburne and AIR-Interactive Awards

Hugh ForrestThat evening I went to Driskill Hotel for the Accessible Internet Rally (AIR) Awards program put on by Knowbility.

Knowbility runs this contest each year, and ties the award ceremony to the SXSW schedule. People in the contest get Knowbility accessibility training, then make accessible websites for selected folks. I was in this a couple of times and it’s a great experience.

I ran into Hugh Forrest there, who was on hand to say a few words. I asked him about numbers, and he told me SXSW grew by 30% again this year. There were about 14,000 people registered at the Interactive conference. I’m going to talk more about numbers (and logistics) in my conclusions.

You Don’t Have to Move to Live Better

Majora CarterMajora Carter says, “No matter what condition your hometown is in, the possibility for more happiness, equality, efficiency, and prosperity can be realized when “problems” are looked at in the context of Home(town) Security and what that means to communities everywhere.”

She’s proved her point in a number of places around the country, most notably the South Bronx where she got her start as an activist.

She’s inspirational, but she’s also really practical. She talked about how to get started finding grants and making jobs part of any local improvement project a community can dream up and undertake.

If you are looking for a person who wants to make the world a better place and is willing to literally dig in the dirt and haul the garbage to make it happen, this is the woman.

Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation

CSS 3 PanelThis was a panel featuring Elika Etemad, Molly Holzschlag, Sylvain Galineau, and Tab Atkins.

They talked about the process of developing CSS specs within the W3C. They explained how things get pushed to the top of the priority list in terms of what gets worked on.

They urged people to take part in the discussions and submit bugs and requests to the W3C. That helps set priorities as well as let the W3C know how things are working. Unless regular schmoes like you and me are reading the W3C public discussions, submitting bugs, and generally keeping an eye on things, the process slows down for lack of attention. They really want participation.

Clay Shirky

Clay ShirkeyI didn’t intend to listen to Clay Shirky, but I ran into Glenda (The Goodwitch) Sims, and that’s where she was headed, so I went with her.

I’m glad I did, because he is extremely insightful and can analyze events from a very high level. He talked about trends in communication and how they built up to a tipping point in several well-publicized international incidents recently.

I don’t know what the title of this speech was, but it would be worth searching around to see if his slides are online, or catching the SXSW podcast later. He is one seriously smart fellow.

Seth Priebatsch

I didn’t get a photo of Seth because I was in an overflow room. He’s a very young guy who has a creative take on what can be done in the world in the next 10 years. He says,  “The last decade was the decade of social. The coming one will be the decade of games.”

He’s really talking about game theory and game culture, and how it can be used to motivate behavior and solve problems. I think we’ll be seeing and hearing and participating in a lot of new technology, new websites, new apps, all building around this idea.

Secret Revealed: How to be Successful (with Accessibility)

Shawn HenryThis panel featured Shawn Henry and Denise Sturdevant.

It wasn’t exactly a panel, it was more of a demonstration of how to approach a company or website owner and get buy-in to the importance of accessibility.

The first thing they said was that accessibility wasn’t about a checklist, it was about people. They showed videos of people using the web in various ways.

Denise demonstrated a good and a bad accessibility site using JAWS. (Later, in the Knowbility booth at the trade show, Denise did demos of the accessiblity features of the iPad.) Shawn mentioned that a really effective way to hook someone with a bad site is to show them how easy it is to do business on a competitor’s good site.

Guy Kawasaki

Guy KawasakiI caught most but not all of this one. Kawasaki is a charming man and a great speaker.

No, he’s an enchanting speaker.

He talked about  how to enchant people on the web and offered some excellent advice.

He’s promoting a book with Enchanting or Enchantment in the title. Look for it.

Chris Poole

Chris PooleChris Poole, on the other hand, is not charming or enchanting. He’s your typical geek, but he’s a geek who’s on to something.

He talked about why 4chan is offering something valuable in terms of freedom and creativity with its anonymous culture.

Poole says the anonymity allows for risk-free creativity expression, for experimentation, and for freedom of expression.

4chan a simple image-based bulletin board, which has grown from a niche site targeting anime fans to one of the most influential communities on the ‘Net.

I guess I’m just an old poot, but 4chan seems more adolescent than important. Feel free to disagree.

HTML5? The Web’s Dead, Baby

HTML5 panelThis panel featured Branden Hall, Emily Lewis, Erik Klimczak, Rick Barraza, and Thomas Lewis. It came about because of an article in Wired about the Web being dead.

Each participant talked about that a bit, then there was some discussion about HTML5 and what it was useful for.

The room was packed, and based on the questions from the audience, people really wanted to know more about what they could do right now with HTML5.

Someone in the audience even asked for a recommended book about HTML5 where a person could learn, which gave Emily a chance to pimp the HTML5 cookbook from O’Reilly that she’s working on with Christopher Schmitt–that got a laugh.

CSS / CSS 3 Meetup

CSS MeetupThis meetup was organized by Denise Jacobs, and turned out to be really interesting because Elika Etemad (pictured) from the W3C and David Baron from Mozilla were there.

The discussion was technical and deep and the questions put to the two superstars I mentioned were intelligent. The circle of discussion I was in was so fascinating, I never made it around the room to see what other people were talking about.

Denise gave a away some books, which was nice. The bartender sat at her computer when when wasn’t serving drinks, which I thought was really funny. In Austin, the bartenders are either struggling musicians or geeks.

CSS 3: Beyond the Basics

CSS 3 panelThis panel featured Christopher Schmitt, Estelle Weyl, Greg Rewis and Stephanie Sullivan Rewis.

We all watched Greg and Stephanie get married on Twitter, and they are just unbearably cute together.


This was a 3 hour workshop. The 3 hour workshop format is an experiment at SXSW this year. I loved it. It went deep into the code and there was time to find out about some exciting new CSS 3 properties.

The discussion covered multiple backgrounds, transforms, gradients, @media queries and more. Estelle did some really amazing demos with gradients.  Stephanie tossed off the idea that we should be designing for mobile first, which I thought was the most revolutionary statement of SXSW for front end developers. They were all so enthusiastic about what they had to show us, they could have gone on forever. I think I could have listened forever, too.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that they gave away an $800 package of Adobe software, shots of tequila for good questions, and books and tee shirts to lots of people.

Other Stuff I Did

I managed to find some folks from InterACT, from the Knowbility community, and from the blogging world who shared meals and conversation with me. This is really the key to what makes SXSW a success – the interpersonal connections in real life. I have photos of some of those events in my SXSW 2011 Flickr set.

One very lovely woman who was a stranger to me bought my lunch one day at a kiosk on the 4th floor and told me to pass it on and play nicely with others. Now that’s inspiring and you don’t even need to know code.


In terms of what’s hot and what’s important and why SXSW remains relevant, here’s my take. I think the hottest thing to come out of the events this year is the game theory discussion/activism/philosophy brought up by Seth Priebatsch. I also think people are still hungry for the nitty gritty technical know-how, especially new technology like HTML5 and CSS 3.

I heard a lot of complaints about the fact that the crowds are so big and the conference is so huge it’s almost unmanageable to connect with anyone. I asked people what the solution was. Most didn’t like the idea of limited registration, a la TED Talks. On the other hand, most agreed that separating out the Interactive, Film and Music days so there was no overlap in attendance would help. I agree with the idea of removing the overlapping days to reduce the crowd. I don’t know how doable that is for the City of Austin or the Convention Center management, but I think it should be explored.

Other people suggested that there was too much content: too many panels, too much going on. They like the idea of limiting it to fewer high quality offerings. I think there was interest in most of what was offered by at least a certain percentage of the huge crowd, and that with so many people attending it helps to increase the range of conversation.

To me, most of the value of SXSW comes from the conversations and meeting outside the meeting halls – the lunches, the dinners, the drinks, the trade show chats. Even with the multitude of communication, check-in, and social tools we have now, it was still hard to find the people you wanted to talk with. I don’t know what can be done about that if the crowd is going to be so big, but I hope a solution will appear. It will probably be an app.

Having 10 campuses this year was a problem for me. There were supposed to be shuttles, but I never saw one. I asked how to find them at the info desk and the answer didn’t lead me to a shuttle. It did lead me to a very long walk, however. If the shuttle idea continues, there needs to be a city-bus-like schedule showing times and locations so that the usefulness of the shuttles improves.

Leave a Reply