Buzz Web

Improving the SXSW panel voting

Coming up in March is the next South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference. It’s one of the biggest gatherings of new media people (meaning web folk) and it’s held in Texas. The conference time-table is filled with talks. Who gets to talk at SXSW? That gets decided by online vote. While that seems like a neat idea at first, it has attracted criticism for not delivering a quality panel line-up.

Greg Story, over at Airbag, is quite articulate on this matter:

There are six-hundred-and-eighty-three proposal submissions for next year’s South by South West, and once again it’s up the the Internet to filter through all of them and choose which ones are worthy of becoming real events.

How absolutely absurd.

I didn’t like the crowdsourced voting last year and with this astonishing amount of submissions I fail to see how the quality of the SXSW experience is going to improve. I heard a lot of complaints about the lack of quality in many of the panels so I don’t understand why the conference leadership is extending the program.

Source: Cross, Airbag.

Hugh Forrest, one of the organisers commented on the post and explained SXSW’s stance on the matter. I still found myself agreeing with Greg, and commented on possible improvements for the choosing mechanism:

Hugh: Why not extend that idea by having the would-be panelists upload a snippet of their talk. That way you (and us) could rate their speaking abilities (filtering out the monotones) and get an even better idea of the route they’re going to take their talk in.

Of course, it needn’t be limited to audio…SXTube FTW

Source: Myself at Cross, Airbag.

I was happily surprised Hugh then took the time to respond to me by email!


I’ve been following the dialogue on Airbag. Good stuff there — meaning, all dialogue is good dialogue.

Re the suggestion of letting panel proposers add rich media to the Panel Picker, this is a good idea. And, one that we talked about last week.

Reasons we have decided not to do this for this year:

1) Still having some tech issues. So, best to try to work those out with the site as is before adding in new features.

2) Philosophically . . my concern is that the experts (who we most want to speak at SXSW) have the least time to put together a video for the site. So, in some ways, this might be counterproductive to the ultimate goals here.

But . . again . . it’s a really good suggestion and something that we are still kind of mulling about. Thanks for the feedback!

Best regards,

Hugh Forrest
(Published with his permission)

My response:

Hi Hugh,

I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation on Airbag — all attention is good attention, right?

Thanks for getting back to me, I’m flattered that you took the time to respond personally.

As for your arguments, #1 I can sympathise with, but #2, well… If the experts can take the time to prepare a panel and go to a week long conference, I imagine they can put in the extra 20 – 30 mins to say some words into a microphone and upload it to one of the many audio/podcast sites.

The non-experts (who you’re trying to filter out) will probably have more time, and might discover during the process of recording something that they need to get their act together.


Again, thanks for taking the time to mail me,


So what do you, the reader think? Is the choosing mechanism fine? Is it completely broken? Or do the (often lacking) descriptions of panels just need some audio or video to give voters a better idea of what they’re voting for?

(Hat tip to John Gruber who’s link I followed to Airbag in the first place.)

6 replies on “Improving the SXSW panel voting”

As i said earlier in a continuum far far away: If it doesn’t have a call for papers, I don’t attend. Any talk should have a base in some kind of research, and i want to be able to read that research. The talk should merely be to entice someone to read the paper, or go into more detail, explaining the paper.

Call me old-fashioned, but the panels and voting are keeping me away. There is no mechanism for quality control whatsoever in place.

Making it a video show wouldn’t help one tiny bit.

I can imagine why you´d like a call for papers, and in all other industries I´d agree with you on it. But in web coding? How would you right a paper on css or other mark-up?

That said, in the usability and accessibility area´s I´d much rather see proper papers, but I think it might be a bit tricky to not have the same rules for everyone.

There’s lots and lots of documentation out there about best coding practices. I was once researching the alt, title and longdesc attributes for an article (i never finished), and ended up with ~10 a4 sheets of text.

If you’re just gonna show up at a congress to talk about css, xhtml, the universe and everything, well, that’s being ill-prepared. Anything worth presenting is worth writing tales about. If one can’t come up with a good justification for the talk, just don’t do it; it’s not worth the saliva.

Noone ever said the conference circuit was easy, it’s just that in webdev, organisations like sxswi lower the bar to such an extend that every odd git can now get on a panel. It demeans the industry.

Why do you think the web industry is the only one that should go without skill and depth? What makes it an exception? are the people in it not capable of delivering quality papers and presentations, so we have to step the intelligence down a knot? I like to think people in webdevelopment are as intelligent as anyone and are able to do a lot better then they’re doing right now. Conferences are supposed to be about content and new ideas. Not about blabbering talking heads.

(forgive the rantlike qualities, maybe if you read between the lines it might make a bit of sense after all 😉 )

I do see the sense in it Hayo, originally I thought you meant being able to back up coding choices with statistical proof (as to why they were better). But yes, proper research should be a given.

Still, when one can’t articulate their paper properly on a panel it’s still not worth the saliva, so I’d still like some audio if I have to vote for them!

PS. I think you mean ‘down a notch’ 😉
PPS. “Isn’t worth the saliva” is an excellent phrase!

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