Update: I originally wrote this post in March 2011. I'm updating it to reflect 2013. Since a blog doesn't quite track revisions like GitHub or a wiki, I'll preserve outdated recommendations at the very bottom. If you're in a rush, skip to the part below the video. But true to my recommendation about your SXSW experience, I suggest you take this all in at a reasonable pace. 

This is my how-to-survive/thrive/enjoy/win SXSW post. But first, here is my SXSW Origin Story.

Yesterday I found the initial email from a friend introducing me to SXSW and urging me to go. I received the email on September 2, 2004. The friend is Kevin Smokler, and he's a big reason I love the event and the reason I know about it. Kevin and I met at BookExpo in Chicago during the summer of 2004. It was a dinner organized by Bella Stander who is awesome.

Kevin and Baratunde at SXSW 2006 (Photo by Flickr by neilio)

Kevin and I stayed in touch, and I hired him for a "virtual book tour" phone-based consulting session focused on marketing my first book. Over the course of exchanging emails, Kevin, as another self-described "conference whore," suggested we swap conference recommendations. On his list was something called "South by Southwest Interactive" which he described thusly:

The mardi gras of the online world. Anyone who's doing anything interesting online is there. I've spoken there the last 2 years. You so should go. I'll introduce you to everyone.

I couldn't make it to SXSW 2005, but when 2006 rolled around, I sent Kevin a followup asking if he still thought this was a place I needed to be. He did and reminded me that he would "introduce me to everyone."

So I went, and Kevin indeed introduced me to everyone, extending his group dinner plans, letting me tag along to cool parties and funky storytelling events, breaking bread with brad and more. During that first SXSW danah boyd played a similar role. They were my SXSW big brother and big sister, and through them I met amazing humans like lynne d johnson and George Kelly and too many to name right here.

I exited the conference/convention/pilgrimage/BBQ pit with a recommitment to these digital arts and an extended family of beautiful, world-changing geeks. Every time I return, it's a family reunion. Every time I return, I get a little less stressed about having the latest app, getting into the hottest party or attending the buzziest (yes, buzziest) session. I want you to try to keep that spirit in mind as you review my very short list of items for your consideration at SXSW Interactive.



*Items with a star are things I'm hosting or speaking at. Might as well let you know, but do what you want and need to do. This is mildly promotional for me but mostly meant to be informative in general and simplify my job of telling people where I'll be. 


*SXSW #WhiskeyFriday with Cultivated Wit and the MIT Media Lab. Friday 4-6:30pm. tenOak

It's true #whiskeyfriday started when I was at The Onion. But we're taking it to the next level now! Cultivated Wit is my company, and we're throwing an informal whiskey Friday gathering with our friends at the MIT Media Lab. Register here. Pay for your own whiskey. 


Blacks In Tech stuff is happening all over the place! Negroes are taking over. 


*What’s So Funny About Innovation 5-6pm. Ballroom A. Convention Center

Paul Valerio from Method and I will have a conversation about the value and lessons from comedy when applied to broader innovation. I promise this will be hella interesting. From fast iteration to testing publicly, there's a lot comedians and innovative businessfolk have in common.


20x2Saturday eve (Time TBD)  @ Elysium (705 Red River)

SXSW Interactive classic must-attend. 20 people have been chosen ahead of time to answer a seemingly simple, single question. They each have two minutes to answer in whatever media format they choose. It's inspiring and amazing. I cannot overstate the awesomeness and SXSWness of this. (disclosure: I am biased toward awesome things).

Fray Cafe. Sunday 7-10pm. Red Eyed Fly

Fray is the spirit of SXSW as far as I'm concerned. It's a live, unscripted storytelling event. You get five minutes. You tell a story. It has to be true. That's it. I've shared at several and will do so again this year. Not about gadgets. About people. You'll laugh. You'll cry. It will be better than Cats. (disclosure: I never saw Cats).

Comedy Hackathon - Lightning Round. Monday 5-7p at the Fast Company Grill / Cedar Door (201 Brazos)

Join Cultivated Wit in a lightning round Comedy Hackathon, where teams work together to brainstorm and pitch the funniest apps possible. No comedy experience necessary, but it couldn't hurt. Based on the larger Comedy Hack Day (next one is April 6-7 in San Francisco at Twitter), we've partnered with Fast Company to host a code-less version at their SXSW Grill. With beer. Nothing can go wrong.


Parties. Various and sundry.

I will not recommend particular parties. There's an obsession at SXSW with being at the best, coolest, buzziest (yes, buzziest) party. The best party is wherever you are with other people. Waiting in line to get your badge? Party. Waiting in line to eat some BBQ at Ironworks? Party. Grabbed three random people and took them to the hotel bar nearest? Party. There are official and unofficial and all kinds of parties. Many can be awesome. Many can fall far short of hype. Don't get hung up on access to a specific party. Roll with it. Enjoy the people around you. Relax. Relate. Release. Repeat.

There's obviously a lot more you can do, and I'm not here to schedule your entire experience. I will, however, post a few keywords of people, places, things, ideas that, should you run across them, I suggest you reduce your speed to a slow gait and take in the experience a bit more.

Extremely worth your time list:

  • Franklin BBQ. It's probably too much trouble because of the long ass line, but if you want to roll with a group of people and don't mind where you are when with them, it's worth getting out to Franklin early and eating as much meat as possible. 
  • Choose The Opposite. When given a choice between attending a panel titled "The Thing That Is Currently Exactly On Your Mind And At The Heart Of Your Business Perfectly Described" and "Chickens, Hiveminds And The Meaning Of 1960s French Pop Music," choose the opposite of the obvious. Go for the weird every time. It's Austin. Embrace it. If you can read a handful of blog articles on the topic, don't waste your time watching people say the words out loud. Go hang with the hivemind chicken crew.
  • Skip at least one panel or talk you think you should attend, grab a person or two, and go to an area bar or coffee shop or restaurant and enjoy the people's company.
  • Shoes. Wear comfortable ones. You will walk a lot. Cute vs Walkable. Prioritize.
  • Power Strip. Bring one. Carry it around. You'll make new friends (I stole this tip from Kenyatta Cheese)
  • Airport Flyer bus #100 from the airport. Cabs from AUS to the city are expensive and slow. Take the bus. Meet people on the bus. Arrive downtown with friends. Here's the Foursquare Tip version of this info. Save the planet!
  • Water. Drink it. Lots.
  • South Congress Street. Go there. It's way less stressful, and Home Slice Pizza is over there.
  • Salt Lick. Google it. Try to get there. It's worth the journey. When in Texas...
  • TWiT (This Week In Tech). TWiT offers amazing live coverage of tech events like SXSW Interactive. Tune in from anywhere. 
  • Don't try to be everywhere. Accept your limits and thus be free.  

Remember, SXSW, like Soylent Green, is people.  

And here is a bonus from Alex Blagg, the incredible man behind BajillionHits.biz.

(disclosure: I wrote this post, so it may be biased toward my point of view).


Old stuff I moved from the top of the post.

Things not happening this year but preserved for posterity on this blog.


How To Rawk SXSWFriday 2pm ACC 18ABCD

Great intro panel for newbs to SXSW. Hosted by veterans who bring the real advice and love to share it. If you've never been or had a bad experience in the past, check this out for a fresh and useful perspective.

Update 2013: Looks like this doesn't happen anymore.

Battledecks 2011Friday 3:30pm ACC 18ABCD

People improvise around PowerPoint presentations they've never seen before. Funky, funny, creative and cool. Geek loving FTW.

Update 2013: Looks like this doesn't happen anymore.

*Whiskey Friday with The Onion and IFCFriday 7-9pm. IFC Crossroads House (E 7th & Brazos)


The Onion, bringer of truth in news and the weekly tradition sweeping the world known as #whiskeyfriday, is co-hosting a multi-tiered event with IFC. Macallan will flow. We'll watch that night's episode of Onion News Network on IFC television and I (along with my colleague Matt Kirsch) will give a short talk about the badass digital strategy behind the show. (disclosure: i work for the onion and am an ambassador to Whiskey Friday.)

Blacks In Technology Meetup. Friday 6-8pm @ Carver Museum (no badge) / Saturday 11am @ Driskill(badge)

I won't be able to make the Friday event due to Onion duties (see: #whiskeyfriday above) but I'd recommend others go to at least one unless you are racist against black people and don't think they should use computers!! (disclosure: I am black).

*Comedic Communication: Developing User-centered Humor DesignMonday 12:30pm Ballroom A

This is a panel I'm on with some cool people talking comedy and design. We'll be talking about platforms for comedy and how/should you try to inject comedy into your messaging. Smart, funny stuff.


*Practically Funny: How Alternative Comedy Kings Have Learned To Reach the Masses. Tuesday 3:30pm ACC 18ABCD

This is a panel I'm moderating. Got some heavy comedic hitters (Scott Aukerman, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Hardwick...) talking about how alternative comedy folks use these new digital platforms to extend their awesome and find their audiences. This shall rock. 

Other old advice:

  • Jane McGonigal. One of the best keynotes I've seen in my life. She's talking this year. Find her. Learn.
  • Kenyatta Cheese. Dude innovated so many web/video things before you knew to know they exists. He does a heavy amount of "non-conference" activity involving building community in the halls with a power strip. He has a big afro. Find him. Learn. 
  • SnapGoods. This is a company my friend Ron Williams (BK represent!) started. Imagine a ZipCar service but for every possession. You need it? Someone probably has it and you can borrow it. Save money. Build local connections. They're operating on the ground heavy in Austin. Don't run off to the mall for that adapter. SnapGoods might be able to hook you up.
  • Ironworks. This is a BBQ place outside the Southeast corner of the ACC. It gets crowded at lunch time. You'll get stressed waiting in line wondering if you'll miss that "amazing panel." Dudes and dudettes, panels are not amazing; brisket and beer on a sunny Texas porch is amazing. Prioritize. 
  • Felicia Day. She's giving a keynote. She rocks the entire interwebs. Respect.
  • The Onion. For the first time, we're rolling kind of deep to SXSW. Six of us will be on the ground repping our tech, biz dev, ad ops and digital strategy groups. Find us. Be nice. Let's dominate the world together. 
  • Clay Shirky. He's signing his book there. Tackle him. Extract his brain. Merge it with your own. Become super great.