I’m writing this from seat 21D of Continental Airlines flight 251, as I fly home from South By Southwest 2011. For anyone who still follows this blog, you’ve probably done the math and realized that it’s been more than a year since I last wrote in this space. This wasn’t an intentional lapse, but perhaps more a lack of motivation to share what I was thinking, tinged by the instant gratification provided by posting to Twitter and Facebook. I’ve considered shutting my blog down entirely in favor of a Tumblr site or something similar, but I ultimately found the thought of removing 10 years of “random thoughts” from the web distasteful, and inaction would ultimately win out. Being that I generally return from SXSW somehow simultaneously renewed and exhausted, I’m hoping to resume regular longer-form posting here. (And yes, I know I’ve said that before.)

Ah, SXSW. I’ve given up trying to provide daily recaps of my exploits in Austin, in part because things move a lot faster in Austin than they did when I first attended in 2005, and in part because there’s a lot about this year’s conference that I’m still working to process. For starters, the interactive portion of SXSW has evolved from a poky little conference for bloggers and Internet types into a full-fledged extravaganza, nearly 20,000 strong. That isn’t a typo – I’ve yet to find a confirmed report (and I expect the official number won’t be published for a while yet), but buzz throughout the week places the total attendance between 18k and 20k. Either figure pushes IA well past the music festival, meaning that the geeks have taken over.

Or maybe not. While the conference still attracts a huge number of creatives, coders, and plucky end users & amateurs, 2011 may go down as the year the marketing started to drown out the message. You could test drive a Chevy, or chill out at the Pepsi Max lot, or…um, I dunno, eat Doritos and get high at the Sony Playstation house. I’m guessing, because I didn’t bother with any of these things. (OK, I suppose I might have mooched a free caffeine fix off the Pepsi people. It’s a long week.) For me, the conference is about content and camaraderie, and much of the marketing just throws off the signal:noise ratio.

(Pardon me while I have a strange interlude…

Normally when I fly, I try to sit in the window, mainly so that I don’t have to worry about having to get up anytime someone needs to stroll around or go to the lavatory. In, out, and on my way. On this particular day, I’d opted to exchange my window seat for an exit row aisle seat that, while granting no extra legroom, ensures that one of my fellow travelers won’t end up in my lap (row 20, the forward exit row, doesn’t recline). What I didn’t count on was the douchebag film attendee in the middle seat constantly leaning to the left, forcing me to lean half into the aisle just to get some personal space. Oh, and did I mention his nose picking, and the fact that he ate a bag of chips, licked each finger clean, then proceeded to touch everything in the setback pocket? Yeaaaaaah. You, sir, are the kind of person that makes me hate flying.

Back to our feature presentation…)

Let’s return to that attendee total for a moment. 20,000. The interactive conference has experienced amazing growth over the last 7 years; when I first attended SXSW, I’d have been shocked if there were 2,000 attendees. The entire conference was contained within a single cul-de-sac of a hallway on the 4th floor of the Austin Convention Center. There were, at most, 4 panels running at a time – and if none of the panels appealed to you, there were always groups gathered in the hallway, charging their laptops and exchanging ideas. At night, there was AN official event, usually sponsored by a local Internet business. It wasn’t impossible to meet, talk to, and collect business cards from the bulk of attendees.

Fast forward to this year: the interactive conference has expanded to encompass all but a handful of rooms at ACC, most of the meeting space at the Hilton across 4th Street, meeting spaces at the Courtyard by Marriott, the Hilton Garden Inn, the Radisson on 1st and Congress, the Sheraton on 11th & Red River, the AT&T Conference Center up by UT, and the Hyatt on the far side of Town Lake. (That doesn’t even factor in the official “meet ups” at the Driscoll, or the unofficial panels being hosted by sponsors.) There were several official, and about half a dozen unofficial (but tacitly endorsed) parties, plus SXSW Comedy events. The sheer number of panels is overwhelming Getting from one panel to another ranges from being a minor hassle to something approaching the Bataan Death March – and the changes of getting locked out of a panel are higher than should have been acceptable. Lines for after-hours events stretch for blocks, and the local bars and restaurants which were once late-night refuges overflow with overdressed hipsters wearing familiar-looking badges. In short, things have changed.

[Scene change - it's now late night Wednesday, and I'm at home, unpacking and doing laundry.]

So in rereading what I wrote while on the plane earlier, I think I may have been focusing a bit too heavily on the negatives…in part because of the constant discomfort I was in for the whole plane ride. After I stopped writing, Film Douchebag asked for some help getting his MacBook Pro to boot. The solution, as it happened, was to make sure the computer actually had power. So maybe he wasn’t a douchebag after all, just an idiot. That doesn’t forgive the nose picking, but…let me try closing this post in a more positive light.

Anyway, changes – they were many and numerous. Thankfully, some things stay the same. Through SXSW, I’ve had the good fortune to develop an amazing group of new friends, and that group grows larger with each passing year*. I got to connect with people I’ve only known through photos and Twitter streams. The important traditions of ‘old skool’ SXSW Interactive remain – Fray Cafe, 20×2 and Smokler’s closing dinner to name a few. And through the marketing, and the endless walks to too-small panel rooms, and the innumerable parties, hopefully somewhere in there the spirit of ‘old skool’ SXSW remains alive too – people exchanging ideas and forming lasting, meaningful relationships. Everything else is window-dressing.

*Many members of that core group were absent this year for various reasons, and they were sorely missed…