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SXSWi is one of the most popular tech and conferences in the United States. Many of the tech industry's movers and shakers make their way to Austin, Texas for the conference every year along with entrepreneurs, journalists and interested observers. But has SXSWi, thanks in large part to popularity amongst non-techies and the Twitterati, been ruined?
One tech journalist, Jolie O’Dell, who writes for the popular blog ReadWriteWeb, thinks so.
In a post on her personal blog, she doesn't mince words:
I haven’t even seen that many startups here this year, and even fewer developers. And non-technical people aren’t here to learn; they’re here for self-congratulation and mutual masturbation. People I’ve never heard of are referring to themselves as Twitter celebrities and generally making me ill. The real “celebrities” are dodging and evading these shallow douchebags, showing up at and slipping away from one official party after another to convene in a more refined, unofficial setting – only to find swarms of douchebags showing up an hour or so after the location is made known.
Some of those who left comments on her post were expressed similar disappointment, and I've seen similar sentiments elsewhere, which does beg the question: is it possible that SXSWi is on the decline?
On one hand, it's disappointing to hear that SXSWi is reminding more than a few people of a Hollywood party that's light on tech and heavy on gawkers and Twitter 'celebrities'. And it's even more disappointing to hear that some attendees are feeling "harassed, maligned, groped, ogled and threatened". On the other hand, it's easy for those who have been going to SXSWi for years to reminisce about the past. But conferences evolve. Whether that evolution is for the better is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. As someone who hasn't attended SXSWi, I certainly can't speak to the vibe on the ground, or the conference's evolution, but I think it would be unfair to say that nothing interesting came out of SXSWi this year (see our coverage here for interesting SXSWi-related discussions). Furthermore, I would point out that the really important stuff taking place in the world of tech has never taken place at conferences.
The key point that I think should be made here is that the dynamic we're now seeing with SXSWi isn't limited to tech conferences. From nightclubs to social networks, popularity always comes at a price. Frequently, it's the 'early adopters' who pay a price, as what they came to know and love -- and help build -- becomes something different. Unfortunately, there's usually little ability to turn back once something takes off.
Which means that the important thing for SXSWi organizers is not to figure out how to go back to an SXSWi that's smaller and more intimate (that's not likely), but how to retain some of the key elements that helped SXSWi become so popular in the first place. In my opinion, most of the problems that arise with popularity are not inherently due to growth itself, but rather to a disregard for core values. When values change, all bets are off. But by staying true to core values, businesses (and events) can grow without jumping the shark.
Photo credit: jbracken via Flickr.