You know that old story about the blind men who come upon an elephant? As each one touches the elephant they come away with different perceptions of what the elephant is like.
The elephant is like a snake, thinks the blind man who grabs the elephant by the trunk. The elephant is like a tree, says the blind man who wraps his arms around the elephant's leg. The elephant is like a rhino...and so it goes.
That's a lot like me trying to tell you whether South By Southwest  is worth it to you to make the trip to America's Live Music Capital. At any one time there may be two, five or even ten competing sessions vying for your attention, and you can obviously only be in one place at a time; you can only grab so much of the elephant. (Athough thanks to Twitter  and hash tags, you can follow the conversation thread from multiple sessions at the same time.)
There are actually three parts to southby, as those in the know like to call it, or SXSW when you're writing it out, blogging it or tweeting it. The film and interactive components ran 3/13 - 3/17, with the music portion starting up the following day. My pass gave me access to the interactive sessions, with topics on social media, Web design, the future of mobile apps, gaming and more.
Tony Hsieh 's keynote on the corporate culture of Zappos (where he's the CEO), was especially interesting; he discussed how Zappos sees itself as a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes. It caused many of us in the audience to wish Zappos would get into several other lines of business, such as starting an airline or a credit card company (take THAT Capital One.)
Brian Brushwood's Social Engineering: Scam Your Way Into Anything or From Anybody, was another quality session and made me wish I was young enough to have to make a fake ID (so I could vote, 'natch.) Another session on how to use video games as a "gateway drug" to get girls more interested in technology was also very rewarding, in part because I have two daughters at home who like to play Little Big Planet with me.
Unfortunately, although these sessions lived up to my expectations, many speakers and panel leaders were better at crafting a compelling session title than running a informative session. In fact, a few panels were downright off target, based on their descriptions. I went to one session on the promise of real world examples of good and bad Web design and ended up in a giant gripe fest about how clients don't appreciate good design. Carthartic, perhaps, but not instructional.
My only other frustration was the focus on big corporations. Many of the sessions I attended (which tended to skew towards social media) were panels populated by giant companies with nearly unlimited (at least to me) budgets. Why weren't there more sessions talking about how small businesses and entrepreneurs could leverage Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn? In my very informal poll, most of the attendees were from small businesses, and we were underrepresented. Perhaps I'll pitch a session on Social Media Strategies for Your Small Business for next year.
However, the best parts of SXSW happen in the margins. It's almost become cliché to say, but you're likely to learn more hanging out in the hallways, or firing up your laptop or netbook in the bloggers' lounge than actually attending the sessions. In fact, I know a few people who I'm not sure ever donned a SXSW badge but certainly seemed to rawk the festival. Yes, Coach Deb , I'm looking at you.
It was certainly a pleasure catching up with friends I've made through blogging and see rarely, like Shama Hyder , Jim Turner  and Rick Calvert . (And way too many others to name here.) No matter how many emails you exchange, DMs you send, and Skype chats you have, there's nothing better than hanging out with someone face-to-face.
I also met some great people. I pulled up a chair next to Gregarious  in the bloggers' lounge and after some quick introductions he showed me an amazing Web and desktop app he's been working on. (My video interview will be posted soon.)
And then there was the moment when I almost tripped over the feet of a guy who was a camper of mine at Camp Bauercrest about twenty years ago. Although we had been chatting on Facebook recently, neither of us knew the other would be at SXSW. He and his business partner came down to meet with some potential partners and learn more about the GPS market as they look to add new services to their current offerings.
And of course there's the parties. And all the free booze. Those with a mean thirst could definitely drink back the cost of their festival pass over the course of the five days. I'm not recommending this, but I have done the math.
Comparing SXSW to some of the other conferences you might find me at--such as BlogWorld Expo  or any of the search engine conferences--I walked away with fewer pages of notes ready to get back to the office and implement a new plan. However, I met a lot of interesting people, got some great ideas on implementing social media strategies, and had a fantastic time.
I know I'll plan to be at SXSW 2010; YMMV.
Rich Brooks