“The Kumbh Mela of the US” – SXSW 2013

An official note arrived this evening from SXSW. The SXSW Interaction and other notable SXSW avataars for 2013 finally comes to an end. Downtown Austin is a bit more quieter, traffic more orderly.

Five days of SXSW Interaction, six days of the SXSW Music (the oldest of all the events) and ten days of concurrently running  SXSW Film – clubbed together under the big umbrella of South by South West. For my lot – the UX folks, the first five days presented a mind boggling array of talks, panel discussions, keynotes, short presentation, mentor reviews, book readings, meet-ups, a fair and several product demos and umpteen lounges thats easy to lose count of – just as it is easy to lose count of the number of venues where this is held at – apart from the Austin Convention Centre.

The number of paying attendees at SXSW Interaction 2013 is pegged at 30,621 – a staggering 3 fold rise from the 9,000 who attended in 2008 or approx 20,000 who attended, with me, in 2011.

According to CNN’s Omar Gallaga 2011 was ”the year that SXSW Interactive grew up”. This meteoric rise may be attributed to a virtually unknown service called Twitter gaining popularity in SXSW 2007 or Facebook experiencing a similar snowballing effect after Mark Z’s appearance as one of the 2008 Keynote speakers. I remember 2011 as a wonderful year – full of a little more time to network and interact, more focused themes and the ease with which one could get in and out of talks and keynotes. Louis Black, Festival Organizer suggests that this ”has probably been the biggest of its kind in the world” since 2007 and there is no reason for any doubt.

“Over the last two years, the mix of hungry entrepreneurs, social-media mavens and SXSW’s traditional attendees — techies, designers and those interested in the societal impact of technology — have shared an uneasy peace as SXSW Interactive has exploded in popularity.” Omar Gallaga

SXSW Interactive 2013 was, for me, the year of lines or queues. There were queues to get into keynotes and panels, lines for food, for restrooms, lines for the shuttles and even lines to get out of the venues. In a twitter reply to a comment I had put up, Steve Portigal remarked that during his session there were most likely as many people outside the room, as there were inside. As my friend Simrit, Art Director at LA’s ‘ideation’ agency Phenomenon put it – “its the Kumbh Mela of the US”

The reference being to the ‘mass’ Hindu pilgrimage that often sees a few million faithfuls congregate on the banks of some of India’s longest rivers – held sacred by legends and religious texts. Whereas the numbers don’t exactly compare (estimated 80 million attended the Kumbh in Feb 2013) the spirit seems to be similar. One, looking for religious nirvana the other for a digital and somewhat more consumer variety – that breakthrough idea or product that will take the  founders out of the shackles of startups and failures – the never ending cycles of small success and small failures – freedom from the also-ran league to becoming a household name with multi-million dollar valuations. And I met many newly converted digital faithfuls – from Doctors who had travelled from the East Coast, NGOs and Event organizers from American Mid-West to Brits from Hull and Norwich.

So did I spot any who attained their digital Niravana?

The trends are hard to tell – they often play out over longer periods of time. But we are rushed – we want instant news – Mashable put up its stars and leaderboards – as I am sure many others did. However like almost every other attendee, I was too busy hopping from one queue to the other and too busy looking at my SXSW app on the phone or my printed mini-guidebook – locating the next ballroom or meeting room, or simply a restroom. Maybe I will take stock now and look back – now that SXSW is over, in almost every avataar for this year. However, looking back I am surprised that despite those numbers, SXSW organisers and volunteers put on a brave commendable act – and never let things degenerate to something that was beyond control or comprehension. And of course, the crowds obliged.

Join me in the next part – Earth Inc and Reusable Rockets, where I look at some of the interesting presentations and ideas from SXSW 2013. In the meantime, I leave you with a personal favourite from the SXSW Film Posters competition – you’ll find many more on their official flickr page.

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