Khoi Vinh has an excellent discussion going on the quality of the programming and the growing pains being experienced by SXSW. He starts of with a sentiment I've heard from many attendees now (at least about the interactive portion of the conference):
I’ve never been to a business conference of any kind that’s as usefully friendly as the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.
That said, he points out that SXSW may be getting to big to maintain the quality. It's true that most of the programming rooms were fairly bursting at the seams. The extra rooms provided by a recent addition to the convention center (rooms 8/9/10, which I came to call the dungeon) were too difficult to get to. The choice was standing in line for one of two very slow elevators that held 12 people each (and mislabeled the floors!) or walking to the far corner of the building, taking an escalator, than coming all the way back to the original corner. Neither option made for a cheerful audience for the programming in these rooms.
Khoi Vinh, and several of the commenters, agreed that many of the panelists weren't prepared enough, and that the lectures overall tended to be better. My sense is that the panel is misused at times. In the 25-minute sessions, for example, the panel simply doesn't work. There's not enough time for several people to say anything meaningful. Moderators of these short sessions didn't adapt to the format, either - one started with 10 minutes of telling us what he was going to tell us. Again, that just doesn't work in the "power sessions".
But sometimes, even when the panelists were interesting and prepared, it seemed to be the wrong format. The panelists ended up either talking "at" the audience, or turning to
talk to another panelist, which sometimes had the effect of ignoring
the audience. For the more conversational topics, I'd like to see the table removed and the participants
placed in a half circle. Let them have a real conversation, and let us
listen in. I love listening to a bunch of smart people talk.
Jeff Croft complains about presentations that aren't much more than a list of bullet points. I heartily agree with that - give me some examples! Show me what you're talking about.
Like most conferences, the SXSW programming was hit or miss for me, but I know I came home smarter and more enthusiastic about what I do. And I like to think I learned something from every session I attended, even if it was how not to give a presentation :)