SXSW Online Did Not Suck (Like Most Zoom Conferences Do)
In its highly experimental 2021 edition, South by Southwest shows how Zoom conferences can be done
It must have been around July 2020 when I decided I was officially done with virtual conferences.
They were a noble effort, a way of cleaning up the mess Covid-19 was making, as it caused the cancellation of one major event after another, whether it was conferences about mobile phones or annual corporate tech summits or video game expos. Some events tried to salvage their carefully booked agenda by switching to an all-Zoom format, substituting livestreaming for live appearances, and the results were very, very mixed.
Apple is the only company I can think of that really pulled off the switch elegantly with a series of videos instead of an in-person WWDC keynote. But as polished and crafted as Apple’s effort was, it felt sterile and even more hermetic to Apple’s culture than normal. Gone were the applause and the instant reaction from an audience of people hanging on every word from Tim Cook’s mouth. The virtual WWDC felt like slick marketing in ways that Apple is sometimes able to transcend in its better live showings.
But most of the conferences I dipped into for the rest of 2020, either those that were opened to the public for free or a few that I was invited to as a member of the press, nearly all failed to live up to the excitement you’d get from attending an in-person event during pre-Covid times. It wasn’t just that in-person networking — the serendipity of seeing someone you know across a conference hall or meeting someone new through a shared business connection — was missing. It was that conference-by-video is inherently airless, lacking the human connection of shared space and energy. You could say that about a lot of what we’ve been through in the past year, but conferences specifically benefit from crowd reactions, from the attention required to view a presentation in person (as opposed to downing fistfuls of Cheetos while watching Bridgerton on a nearby TV while you half-focus on a panel), and from being able to walk up to someone after a panel and ask follow-up questions or exchange contact info.
I’ve eaten my share of Cheetos while Netflix-watching conference Zooms, but I vastly prefer being there in person.
This might go triple or quadruple for South by Southwest, the Austin tech/music/film conference I’ve been covering in some form or other since the halcyon CD-ROM days of the late 1990s. I have been critical of SXSW when it made missteps or was overtaken by outside forces. But overall, I love SXSW as both a conference and an experience. For years, it was the time when the whole tech and entertainment world came to me and played in my town for 10 days of idea-stuffed panels, gigantic brand activations like HBO’s Westworld extravaganza, and enough movie screenings and live music to satisfy my going-out needs for months.
Last year’s cancellation of the event, which for many in my industry was the first big signal that Covid-19 was only going to get worse and change our entire year, left a vacuum of connections and ideas, and we’ll never know what might have come from that gathering that never was. The cancellation of the conference was devastating for Austin and for the SXSW organization; layoffs and reorganization followed.
SXSW recognized early that even with vaccines on the way and mask-wearing the norm, an in-person event in spring 2021 was still not feasible at the scale that SXSW works, where about 400,000 people attend the conference and/or the hundreds of unofficial events that piggyback on its success.
Perhaps there will never be another SXSW Online (at least that’s what everyone hopes), but this year’s attempt at capturing the flavor of SXSW with completely remote and virtual programming was the best of what happens when it goes experimental and tries new things without worrying too much about what other big events are doing.
What did SXSW Online do right that other conferences could learn from? Here are a few lessons on what worked and what didn’t.
Well-known speakers and celebrities still make headlines
Since about 2007–2008, SXSW has become increasingly star-studded, especially as tech and entertainment have melded into a streaming-media universe.
Even as a scaled-down virtual conference, SXSW 2021 didn’t lack star power or aim low for its speaker list. Oprah Winfrey hosted a panel with Dr. Bruce Perry as part of SXSWedu, an educational conference that takes place before the main SXSW event begins. That’s a hell of an opening act. For the main SXSW Online conference, speakers included Stacey Abrams; author Charles Yu; Pete Buttigieg; George W. Bush; filmmakers James Cameron, Barry Jenkins, and Ava DuVernay; Mark Cuban; Melinda Gates; Samantha Bee and Amber Ruffin; Cynthia Erivo; Matthew McConaughey; Taraji P. Henson; author Michael Lewis; and in his first-ever keynote, Willie Nelson.
When it came time to announce a business-led initiative against the death penalty, billionaire Richard Branson chose this year’s SXSW Online to launch the Responsible Business Initiative.
VR and virtual spaces
Yeah, I guess? One of the more interesting and out-there parts of SXSW Online was “SXSW Online XR,” which combined a couple different virtual reality technologies to create a walk-around virtual experience, some live performances, 360-degree videos, and film/VR experience screenings.
I typically love the idea of VR technologies that require a headset to operate more than I love the actual part where I put on a headset and try to get everything working just right. This was the case during a press preview, where I tried for half an hour to figure out exactly how to use the app I’d preinstalled (VRChat) to connect with my hosts and do a guided walk-through of a virtual representation of The Contemporary Austin art museum. I’m lucky to have an Oculus headset to even participate, but once I was walking among other humans-in-VR participants and made it out to a colorful VR representation of South Congress Avenue, I was already itching to get out of cyberspace. An attempt at go-karting on the street left me frustrated with controls I couldn’t work, and all the swinging around was making me nauseous. I’m not the ideal target for this tech; I only lasted about 30 minutes in VR and never returned to it the rest of the conference.
Most people don’t have VR headsets, and even if they did, I still wonder if VR interaction will ever be a decent substitute for real-life face time. When SXSW happens in person, its VR demonstrations are usually led by people who guide you through the presentation, help put the preconfigured headset on you, and are standing by in case of any problems. Absent that, SXSW Online XR left us all to our own devices, literally.
That said, if there was ever a year to incorporate a lot of remote VR into SXSW, this was the year.
When I first heard that many of the panels at SXSW would be prerecorded video, not livestreams, I was taken aback. Where was the spontaneity? Where was the sense of This Is Happening Right Now Whether the World Is Ready or Not?
It turns out, prerecorded afforded a lot of SXSW content a big advantage: It could be packaged better, trimmed down from a typical hour to something much shorter, say 25 to 40 minutes, and stuffed with video clips and other content that would be impossible to predict in a live conversation.
A panel about the Apple TV+ hit Ted Lasso is a good example of that. A discussion with film editors on the show was smartly cut together with footage explaining the panelists’ points. A live conversation would have been able to achieve that only if it was tightly scripted or outlined with clips and topics chosen in advance, and even then it likely wouldn’t have gone so smoothly.
Prerecorded did make for a few missed opportunities. A panel with Desus Nice and Kid Mero of the Showtime talk show Desus & Mero was recorded long before the news the night before the panel presentation that Mero had contracted Covid-19.
But that was a fair trade-off for such a good presentation as the Willie Nelson keynote, which likely plucked the best moments out of a much lengthier set of interviews.
While the Stacey Abrams interview suffered a half-hour technical delay, the decision to go prerecorded largely avoided all the technical issues you’d have if you were trying to livestream hundreds of panels over the course of a week.
Another smart move? Allowing nearly all of this content to live online for attendees at least through mid-April. Zoom/video fatigue is real, and rather than expecting attendees to consume so much content so quickly, it’s generous to let SXSW Online attendees approach it all at their own pace.
This is the only area where, unavoidably, a SXSW Online couldn’t possibly replicate what happens when you throw so many people together in one downtown city area. Although SXSW Online did offer ways for people to chat together during panel broadcasts, connect and message each other through their SXSW accounts, and see each other in virtual reality, I got all of two messages during the entire week (one of them from a marketing company) and met no new contacts. It’s not what I was there for, but even in an off-year I could count on coming away from a typical South by Southwest with 30 or 40 business cards and dozens of email addresses or website links to follow up on.
Other conferences could try to group attendees farther in advance by topics of interest or at least create meetup spaces and promote them. On SXSW’s Meet Ups page, there’s still a placeholder that says, “Stay tuned for more information coming in the 2021 season.”
Overall, South by Southwest pulled off a win with its online conference in a year when the event is trying to hold things together long enough to return to semi-normalcy for 2022. In my view, the online experiment worked, but I’ll be even more thrilled to see actual people in real life next March.