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.

Patricio Robles

Published 17 March, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (4)



You've got to love the irony of that post coming from an orange haired marketer / community manager (according to her own profile), with 8500 twitter followers.  Did she expect to have all the geeks to herself?

SXSW is whatever you want it to be, as many of the commenters pointed out.  I consider it to be the internet in real life.  If you are a web celeb and don't want attention, don't go to the parties and update your freaking gowalla / 4sq location when you get there.  If you don't want to hear about broad topics, go to panels with specific topics.  End of story.

I'm sorry her netbook got stolen though.  That sucks.

over 8 years ago

Brian D. Shelton

Brian D. Shelton, eCommerce Manager at Gilchrist & Soames

It's all about people... and perspective.

Jolie's post serves as a sad reminder of how far we've fallen away from valuing people and relationships. Her argument for "more technology and fewer people" is downright sad, because the way I see it, you could have the greatest technology in the world, but if there are no people (to use it, talk about it, etc.) it is completely meaningless.

Beyond that, I am not surprised she didn't enjoy the conference given that she went in with a certain expectation. She had her own idea (perspective) about what SXSW should be, and when it didn't meet her picture-perfect ideal, she had a hard time coping, resorting to a name-calling infused temper tantrum.

She's obviously got passion, maybe she should start her own conference - it could cater to the "tech crowd" (not the people, but the actual technology). I hear the iPad delivers a great keynote. At least that's what the apps tell me.

Shakespeare once said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  Sage words...

over 8 years ago


Fario Santo

I find the comment from Jolie O’Dell, from ReadWriteWeb ironic as the RWW blog is simply polluted with Twitter related content - their second favourite subject being Facebook followed by anything that begins in 'i'

over 8 years ago

Brian D. Shelton

Brian D. Shelton, eCommerce Manager at Gilchrist & Soames

Patricio, I wholeheartedly agree with you about conferences being about value, and to be honest I didn't take away from Jolie's piece that her complaint was simply about "gawkers, stalkers and posers." If that was the core of her argument, I wouldn't have disputed her post at all - those things are annoying at best, dangerous at worst and absolutely detract from the value of any event. But, her point seemed to be directed only at the fact that she thought it was too people-focused. After posting my first response, I checked out her blog (and commented on her About page) that her remarks seemed counter to her general feelings about social media. She seems to be very cool and very sharp, so her post may have been more about the frustration of having her computer stolen and the "gawkers, stalkers and posers" you mentioned, and less about the balance between tech and social. My thought - it was an impulse post. :-) I think you have nailed what she was trying to get across. And I agree. Oh, and with regard to the Shakespeare quote - your response asserts that lipstick on a pig is a bad thing. *smile*

over 8 years ago

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