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SXSW Tales: Panel Fever

March 11, 2012

I've only been at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX for two days, but I've seen enough panel discussions to know that the festival's system for running this core component of its activities could use an overhaul.

Several mediocre discussions I attended yesterday, including one hilarious clunker where the presenters basically talked to each other rather than the audience and more or less completely failed to address the issues that they were scheduled to talk about in the festival's program book, compel me to write this post.

On the one hand, the SXSW's approach to programming panels is a worthy one. Instead of having some higher power on the festival's executive committee decide whom should speak and about what, the panel selection is quite democratic. Anyone can suggest an idea for a panel and assemble the content matter and their fellow panelists. Then it's up to them to get enough votes behind the idea from friends and the general SXSW community ahead of time in order to get their panel on the actual festival schedule.

However, most people I've spoken to about the SXSW festival who've been coming for years say that most of the panels are a waste of time and that as a festival attendee, and that you're better off taking advantage of one-on-one networking opportunities at parties etc.

As I've discovered on several occasions over the past couple of days, these SXSW aficionados aren't wrong. Sitting through hours of incoherent thoughts and vaguely-answered questions by rambling self-publicists who often don't know how to present themselves or their work compellingly to a crowd in an often over-stuffed hotel conference room where the the air conditioning is cranked too high, is not my idea of a good time.

Now, it's easy to see why so many people want to find a way to present at SXSW. The perks for panelists are not to be sniffed at. They include a free pass to the entire interactive, film or music festival (depending on which category the panel falls into) worth at least $600, lower-cost hotel accommodations in a central location near all the main festival activity, and, perhaps most importantly, the chance to further one's business interests and clout.

But with little formal curation, getting accepted as a panelist at SXSW is ultimately more about branding power and having a big network of friends to vote for your idea than it is about the expertise/profile of your assembled group of panelists and what you all have to say.

Hence SXSW is full of sexy sounding synopses in the program guide, such as "The Power of the Unpopular," "3 R's of Horror: Remakes, Reboots & Rediscoveries" and "Brands That Believe in Sex After Marriage." But I don't think I'm going out on a limb even from my so-far limited experience of this festival, to say that there might not be a whole lot of substance behind this stuff.

If panel discussions at the SXSW festival were like shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, it would be possible for the good stuff to rise to the top because at the Fringe there are enough repeat performances of most shows to enable audiences to see them and spread the word about what works and what doesn't. But panels at SXSW are one-off things, so if you miss a good discussion, well, that's tough, though I guess there are recorded versions of some if not all panels available online and then there's the various social media updates and synopses about what went on in the room.

So what's the solution to this problem? For a start I think there should be fewer panels. The festival is offering hundreds if not thousands of talking head situations. It's completely overwhelming and quantity does not equal quality as this year's proceedings palpably demonstrate.

Beyond that, perhaps there should be a stronger focus on SXSW taking it upon itself to carefully curate panels made up of the brightest people with the best ideas.

And then there could be more of a soapbox tier of speakers which are "elected" by the masses as is not the case to present by their networks and self-branding efforts. Talent scouts from the festival could scout the soapbox presentations to find worthy content for the following year's curated panel lineup, perhaps asking potential presenters to put together proposals that go more deeply into the previous year's discussion or go in new directions.

Food for thought anyway. Righto. I'm off to battle the elements and check out more panel discussions. Even though I have issues with the way they're organized, I'm still excited by the offerings here in Austin and can't wait to get downtown again today.

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