Next week, the South by Southwest — known now mostly by the moniker “SXSW” — kicks off. The pedants might correct me on that one: SXSW is actually three separate, though overlapping, events: the interactive conference portion, a music festival and a film festival. But even that’s not quite right: SXSW can be further subdivided. SXSW Interactive, for example, has 17 different “themes,” from health to government, spread across more than 70 different locations spread across nearly four square miles.
But that doesn’t get at all the divisions. SXSW is only thinly defined by the actual conference and festivals themselves. Only 40,000 or so badges are given out, yet the flood of people who make it to Austin is measured in the hundreds of thousands. There is no ticket required to sip Shiners and skip from private event to private event. (If fact, we’d love it if you dropped by ours.)
I wanted to take a closer look at the different subcommunities that will be gathering in Austin, grabbing 20,000 or so tweets with the #SXSW hashtag last month and running it through an analysis that looked at 12,000 connections between #SXSW tweeters. The analysis spit back yet another number: 562. That was the number of separate communities that seem to exist around the single hashtag. While one was enormous (focused on the official SXSW handle and some high-profile individuals), the rest of the groups were smaller than 50 people. Most were smaller than 10. (The spiderish image that accompanies this post shows what that network looks like. Click to see it in detail. It works best at 6,400 percent zoom.)
Those who have hung out at SXSW won’t be surprised: you rarely see groups of more than 10 clumped around the bars on Sixth Street, and those clumps tend to move together, from sessions to beers to dinner to beers. Sometimes they’ll meet other, similar clumps. But that’s the extent of it. If SXSW has a weakness, it’s that the variety of opportunities is now so great that it’s easy to break down into ever-smaller groups, diminishing the magic that made SXSW special in the first place: the sense of serendipitous encounters with a genius in some distant — but not entirely unrelated — discipline.
There’s plenty of advice out there for first-time SXSW-goers, and it’s all good. But I’d like to offer some advice to the grizzled veterans of Austin: use your experience and position of authority to break up some of those clumps. If you’re the type to go to presentations, take half a day, find the bus and go to a theme that has zero to do with your day job. Find a presenter in that other building and buy her a beer. Go to one party alone. Drag one of those new friends to your shindig. Buy a tequila shot for a stranger.
The growth of SXSW has been wonderful: it’s pulling a delightful and increasingly diverse crowd, which should (in theory) amp up the opportunities for serendipity. But, at the same time, the structure of the meeting makes random encounters more difficult. I’m not under the illusion that a couple of party crashers or a half-bottle of tequila can instantly change the culture, but it’s a start. After all, a little tequila never hurt anyone.