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It’s panel picker time

Filed in: vent, Mon, Jun 13 2011 01:58 PT

A couple months ago, my friend Andy Budd put his finger on the core problem with the modern SXSW. It’s unfathomably large. I mean, really, who’s going to attend much of a conference when it’s split across seemingly every meeting room in downtown Austin? Can anyone ensure quality for the conferencing dollar with 1800 speakers in tow?

Of course they can’t. And the secret we don’t want to talk about is that it doesn’t really matter. Twenty-five thousand conferencegoers cannot be wrong. Everyone who has attended more than one SXSW knows that each year, it grows outside its container. And each year, it’s outside that container where most of the action is anyway.

Still, when the sun is out, we need a place to go, if only to check our phone to see whether that taxi driver who tried to give us Ron Paul campaign materials is going to return the laptop case we left behind, or keep it as payment for puking in his cab. At SXSW, these waiting areas are called “sessions”. And these sessions are driven, at least in part, by feedback from the SXSW panel picker, which will kick off the battle for our hearts, minds and Twitter streams on June 20th.

For those would-be panelists who are willing to listen, I’d suggest that if you think someone else is going to propose your panel, and you think it’s going to be roughly as good as yours, either try to join forces, or get out of the way. There were over 2500 proposed talks last year, and it was plainly too many for the crowd to come to any reasonable consensus around. Having seen how this system works, I find myself strongly in favor of returning to a curated conference with no public voting system, but sensing I’m in the minority here, I’d generally prefer ways to trim down the noise.

Speaking of which: most of what I will ever see of your panel picker proposal will be the title. I may end up looking at a hundred actual pitches, for which I recommend some thinking and discussion in advance, but that doesn’t mean you need to post the verbal equivalent of Speakers’ Corner. I’ve noticed a few patterns that I would like to mark as cliché, and I’m offering examples of accepted panels from SXSWi 2010, so we may avoid the mistakes of the past.

Cut the Shit

The easiest way to draw someone’s attention when all you have is one line is to curse or use graphic imagery. But any writer worth a good goddamn knows profanity is just a crutch. Witness this batch of winners:

  • Avoiding the 11th Hour Shitstorm
  • Bend Over? Surprise! Agencies Are Screwing You
  • Bordering Incest: Turning Your Company into a Family
  • Career Transparency: Why Personal Branding Is Bullshit
  • F***ing Old Spice Guy: Race, Sex, Micro-celebrity
  • How Social Media Fu@k’d up my Marriage
  • Recruiters Are Full of Shit, I Am One
  • Social Media and Comedy: Fuck Yeah!
  • Social Media or Sado-Masochism? Cyberbullying and Celeb 2.0
  • Tired of @#%ing Social Media Experts? (Led by two SM experts. Predictably.)

If you weren’t keeping track, in that list alone were seven FCC words, and one reference each to sadomasochism, incest and anal rape. And these are the proposals that got in. Stay classy, panelists!

I like a good F-bomb. Probably more than I wish I did. (Stupid 2 Live Crew.) But seriously, people. Using profanity in your title to get attention is nothing more than verbal prostitution. Don’t degrade yourself, or SXSW, by making this a race to the bottom.

Another thing about these aggressive titles is that, looking back at the most out-there sessions of SXSWi 2009 (which I attended) and 2010 (which I didn’t), disappointment reigns. Unless your name is Mike Monteiro, you cannot pull off a session built around an epithet. Actually, let me double down on this: watch Mike’s “Fuck You, Pay Me” talk. He makes this work not by beating his audience over the head with it. What he did, which I think is brilliant, is that he got the audience to join him in the joke. The point is, Mike has mastered profanity, and you have not. More importantly, he’s also talented enough that he could propose “Mike Monteiro Explains Client Billing through Experimental Jazz”, and I’d at least consider it, if it’s a late-afternoon slot. He’s proven his value. What have you done?

SM Addicts

Let’s revisit the last title in that bunch:

  • Tired of @#%ing Social Media Experts?


…ahem. There were 2563 proposals for SXSWi last year. Of them, one hundred seventy-three had the words “social media” in the title. Another 165 had “social” in another form. All told, more than one out of every 8 panel proposals was somehow social.

This is my message to all social media folks: yes, we get it. You want to be on a panel at SXSW. But you also all want to talk about what to the rest of the world looks like boring, contrived bullshit that serves only to prop you up individually, and it’s gotten old. The only thing worse about the situation is that the panel picker rewards people with large networks, who then vote up their proposals, whether or not they may attend as a result. A distributed acceptance of service, if you will.

I like you. Many of you. Okay, some. And if you want to talk about the social aspect of things, great. But please, offer value to someone other than you and your navel-gazing friends.

For SXSW 2012, I’m going to vote down every panel in the panel picker with the word social in it, and I encourage you all to do the same. It’s 2011. We can take for granted that all but the most bare-metal tech talks have some aspect of humanity to them. Try harder.

You’ll be the death of me

Which brings me to my next category of useless titles: those who are trying too hard. A sampling:

  • Are Internet Consumers Killing Online Creativity?
  • Banks: Innovate or Die!
  • Death of the Demo; Rise of Branded Tutorial
  • Death of the Relational Database
  • Death of the Textbook, Emergence of Games
  • Iterate or Die: How Media Businesses Must Adapt
  • Kill Your Call Center! Bring Your Support Home

Yeesh. Always with the dying. How much Cure is in your vinyl collection?

Death isn’t sexy. Java’s been dead for 12 years, if not more. So why did Oracle buy a $7.4 billion corpse? The fact is that all of these cases are more about things transitioning from the New Hotness to an established technology, or from an established technology to a legacy technology. The Death card symbolizes change. Try talking to me about how things are changing instead of putting another few rounds into this particular equine.

Think about the future

  • The Future Enernet: a Conversation with Bob Metcalfe
  • Future Fitness: The Power of Personal Data
  • Future of Collective Intelligence: Location! Location! Location!
  • The Future of Content is Personal
  • The Future of Innovation in Banking
  • The Future of Microformats
  • Future of Mobile Gaming/Entertainment
  • The Future of Nonprofits: Thrive and Innovate in the Digital Age
  • The Future of Philanthropy: Social Giving Takes Off
  • The Future of Storytelling: DEXTER Fans Play Killer
  • The Future of Touch User Interface Design

So there are the dozen “Future” sessions. Add to that the 42 “How to…” sessions, and you have a pretty good idea at what words are just filler. Yes, we want to know the future of what you are interested in. Yes, we want to know how to do what you do. That is why we are at SXSW. (Well, that and Tacodeli. But mostly, knowledge!)

Buy my panel… suckers!

Finally, there are the sessions that tell us, the voters and badgeholders, that we’re idiots.
  • Freelancers Are Slutty, But So Are You
  • Grow Some Balls: Build Business Relationships from Nothing
  • How to Not Be a Douchebag at SXSW (sic)
  • Your Meetings Suck and It’s Your Fault
  • Your Web Developer Thinks You’re an Idiot

It’s not like you have to flatter people in your proposal, but most of this stuff reads to me like a Fiona Apple Oscar speech. This whole world is bullshit! Yeah. Useful. Thanks. Sessions that cater to those with low self-esteem do seem to be crowd-pleasers at SXSWi, strangely enough, but it’s another reason to dig in and ask for a meaningful description of the situation and where you, the panelists, find yourselves. Don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong. You don’t know me, or 99% of the others in the room, and the involuntary Twitter backchannels that are spawned will apprise you of this fact with extreme prejudice. Better to build up than to tear down.

So, we’ve covered what not to say in the title. What’s left? I can answer that with yet another session title from SXSWi 2010:

  • Who Are You and Why Should I Care?

The voters of the panel picker need to represent the values of the conference they want to attend. I think that’s been lacking, and the result is that fewer, not more, voices are being heard. When people set foot in Austin, they vote with their feet, and what they look for has nothing to do with punchy titles and everything to do with reputation. In stock market terms, that’s called a flight to quality. We want our Zeldmans and Veens and Bowmans and Santa Marias. Maybe the best thing we can do to have the SXSW of the future represent us is to return to the days where the choices were fewer, but they were generally sure to provoke, if not to enlighten. I have an idea for how to make those qualitative choices a little more reliable, but that’s for another late night.

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