I'm not one of those lucky people who've been going for 6, 9 or even 20 years - this was my third year at South By South-West in Austin, Texas - but I'm glad to report that it's *still* the most stimulating, generous and intensely energizing experience of the whole year. It is more than worth the sleep deprivation, meat sweats, jet-lag and Tequila poisoning and only a day after returning I am already plotting to return.
This year seemed much bigger and more commercial than previously. There were, apparently, about 30-40% more people there than 2010 and it certainly seemed packed walking around the hallways - and perhaps a little more difficult to turn up to a popular talk and expect to get in.
Not that I went to very many talks. In fact I only attended three. No, for me it's mainly about conversations with great people I wouldn't normally get to hang out with, and for meeting old friends, new people, interesting start-ups, clients and other companies like ours who are all trying in different ways to understand the continuing human revolution known as the Internet.
I was initially a little depressed to see the industrial scale marketing douchebaggery that seemed to have gripped the festival. The Internet isn't a marketing channel and wasn't invented to so that we could sell more sh*t no-one needs. But on the other hand, I think SXSW has always been a place to hustle and sell. The epic, vulgarian 'parking lot takeover' by Pepsi Max and the CNN Grill were a chilling glimpse into the abyss - but hey, it's still very far from being a tame marketing conference. There's a super-abundance and diversity of challenging, revolutionary people and ideas to be encountered everywhere in Austin. Chick Foxgrover, CIO of the 4A's rescued me from the black dog by dragging me off to a talk called How Does SciFi Influence Our Future Cities?
Highlights for me included half an hour chatting with Mike Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram. Instagram is still my favourite app and community - it has started to steal a lot of my time away from Twitter. I'm dipping in and out of it up 30 or 40 times a day and I know I am not alone - there's an amazingly strong community forming around Instagram, many of whose members I met and hung out with in Austin this year. Mike was awesome and we chatted about the service's simple, human appeal: the power to make and show each other beautiful images of the stuff that we love. Instagram's power, in my view, lies in the way it supports this primal human need. It's pre-verbal, pre-literal - not a complex stream of opinion, word-play, shortened links and hashtags but rather a feast of simple visual delight. Mike was stoked to hear my Dad was using Instagram: it just makes sense to him in a way that Twitter and Facebook don't - a feed of the world as seen through the eyes of his kids, and his grandchildren. Simplez.
And then on the last night I turned up at one of Made by Many's favourite watering holes, The Lustre Pearl, and sat down next to Eric Ries - the creator of the Lean Startup methodology and the author of the popular entrepreneurship blog Startup Lessons Learned. This was a knee-tremblingly exciting moment, and I may have let @juzmcmuz down (and indeed the whole school) by gasping, "Oh my God, are you Eric Ries?". Hmm, cool! Lean was big at SXSW this year, and I know that both Stuart and Justin want to write about this. There was a sort of Lean Start-up fringe happening on the Saturday for a whole day, and much discussion of 'Lean UX'. What we've been trying to do at Made by Many is to create an integrated, Lean UX and technology practice, so this was super-fascinating stuff. Our margarita-fueled conversation with Eric spanned a broad range of applications of Lean thinking, including guerilla dining initiatives in London and San Francisco (including mention of London's awesome Meatwagon), the potential of Lean product design using 3D printing, and the critical weakness of craft-based thinking and approaches in an increasingly fast, fluid and iterative world.
Another major theme - on a personal level - was Holler Gram, the iPad app we made for SXSW this year. It was supposed to be a bit of fun and we've been amazed by the response: over 14,000 downloads. This totally exceeded any expectations we had (we were thinking maybe a few hundred) and was the source of much merriment - particularly from Alistair Green (@helvector), ECD of Team One in LA. The sight of the glowing message "Let's network bitches" held aloft at the Town Holler/BeerSphere event made me laugh heartily.
Other cool stuff that happened included a hat-trying-on session at The Hat Box with John Winsor, Mel Exon, Pats MacDonald and Gary Bramhall. This was something we first did in 2009 and it's going to look very cool in the Pummelvision we make from our collective Instagram coverage (hopefully later today). Kat Egan's party was great, as were various breakfasts, coffees, lunches, dinners and cocktail sessions with a tribe of awesomeists too numerous to name individually here - as ever, an amazing treat to be able to hang out with my brother for a week. This year we rented houses, and that's definitely the way to go. It was kind of spesh to live with my amazing colleagues for a week - although they may not agree.
SXSW is still magical. Austin is still weird. I can't wait until next year.