It's unfair how SXSW picks panels

By Andy White , written on September 21, 2013

From The News Desk

It's that time of the year again. Nine months before it's due to begin, the begging, the pleading, the hand-wringing for SXSW panel votes has begun anew. It starts early and seems to go on forever, like hockey season or a Presidential election.

At first blush, the pseudo-democratic process of selecting panels may seem to be the right one. If the people really want to see three conference jockeys on stage pontificating on ‘The Unbearable Burden of Being Millennial, IRL," let them vote for it. In reality, though, only the most popular, most connected have a chance of rising above the drone of self-promotion. This is where the process falls down, becoming nothing more than a seventh grade exercise in popularity extrapolated to global, nightmarish reach, showcasing the worst of social media.

Between the PanelPicker voting period of August 19 – September 6, more than 80,000 tweets "requesting" a panel vote were sent out. With around 8,000 panels to choose from, that’s about eight requests per panel.

In the grand scheme of trends, 80,000 tweets spread over three weeks might not sound unduly excessive. But consider that these requests are coming from a very tightly bound group, and the noise to volume ratio becomes clear. That's 80,000 requests reverberating around the same echo chamber. We all get it; we all see it.

Yes, it’s natural and obvious for attendees to attempt to leverage their social networks. But these “requests” will fall on deaf ears, which just means the noise increases to compensate until only the very loudest get heard. Those who make it their profession to roll from conference to conference naturally get more exposure because of their name value, and the same tired lines get repeated ad infinitum. The endless and cyclical circle is complete.

There exists within me an idealist who says all voices in social should be considered equal. That is what sets social above and beyond other forms of media. If SXSW isn’t acting as a global stage for new ideas and thought from previously unheard voices, then what is? Failing that, we should at least look at the behavior of those who self-profess to be the thought leaders and ambassadors of the entire industry. If there was ever any misconception that social media is on the fast track to becoming the ultimate High School popularity contest, look no further than this annual exercise in mutual back-patting by conference jockeys.

There must be a better way.

Take one step to removing the popularity contest out of social and lead by example. By merely stripping the voting and the cronyism out of the process, SXSW could automatically have a scenario that goes a long way to achieving the great and grand leveler that social should always achieve to be. Use the firehose to identify what the greater community is talking about in the here and now, and then apply that knowledge to picking the submitted panel discussions for the next conference. It’s democratic by way of social and leverages the ultimate hive-mind.

With just that one step, you get a dialogue shaped by the community, by their interests, their questions, and the discussions already happening. Technical feasibility aside, any change is a positive step to overcome the realities of the present: An onslaught of noise from the usual suspects in a quest to deliver the same 1,000-mile high talking points and sound bites.

SXSW has become the industry’s premiere moment. This is not a screed designed to drive out the self-proclaimed and deservedly so luminaries, but rather a plea to open the dialogue beyond that of asking the little people to cast a vote for the usual suspects. Social, the single great leveler of our time, deserves something more than a close-knit good ol’ boys club.

[Image via Wikimedia]