We first attended SxSW Interactive way back in 2005 when it was a little known tech conference taking up just four rooms at the back of the Austin Convention Centre. Along with a handful of friends, we were among the first Brits to experience what has now become one of the biggest events in the technology calendar.
The history (and some would say the success) of Clearleft is intrinsically linked to SxSW. After all it’s where Jeremy and I gave our first public presentation, and where we announced the formation of Clearleft eight years ago.
We’ve been going to SxSW ever since, and I don’t think a year has gone by without at least one of us (and usually more) giving a presentation. In fact I remember one year when four of our talks were in their top 100 list. Not bad for a small agency from Brighton.
SxSW is close to our hearts for a number of other reasons. In those early days we went to the conference to meet our heroes, many of whom have become close friends. It’s also been a platform to share our beliefs about the industry, first web standards, then user experience design, web typography, and now a whole range of topics. We were so touched by our first experience with SxSW that we couldn’t wait to come back to the UK to attend our next event. However it turned out that there were no web conferences in the UK, which is why dConstruct came into being.
For several years, Brits were a novelty at SxSW, so we used to run an official party called The Great British Booze-up. It was a great place for us Brits to mingle with our American (and Australian and European) chums and demonstrate exactly how proficient at drinking we were. For a time it was regarded as one of the best parties at the event, until the big brands started showing up in 2009.
These days thousands of Brits attend the SxSW and we’ve done our bit to help spread the word—not least in my capacity as an official advisor. At our peak in 2009/2010 pretty much the whole of Clearleft would be in attendance. We’d literally shut up shop for the week and decamp to Austin. Dozens of our friends from the UK would do the same, and on some evenings walking down 6th Street was like walking through the trendier parts of East London. Add to this a few hundred friends from around the world and SxSW literally became “Spring Break for Geeks”.
Over the years we’ve seen SxSW Interactive grow from 3,000 people to a whopping 25,000. It’s no longer the gathering of friends it once used to be. The Interactive festival has now taken over the entire city and has become the place where start-ups come to be seen, where VCs come to cut deals and where big brands come to throw money around in a vain attempt to curry favour and be seen as still relevant — which most of them aren’t. It’s also been taken over by social media experts, the SEO wolves in designer sheep’s clothing.
Attendance continues to rise, but the increased commercialisation means the number of people I know who go has been in steady decline. To mirror this, only two people from Clearleft will be attending this year, the fewest we’ve ever fielded.
I’m still very much looking forward to SxSW, if only for a sentimental walk down memory lane. However I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be my last trip. So if you do see me or Rich wandering the hallways, please come up and say hi, If only because it may be your last chance, at least in Austin.