Our Internet or Theirs?

At South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) last Tuesday, I went to hear a conversation between a couple of billionaires: Mark Cuban and the living mogul of all moguls, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. And in this massive (and massively influential) festival’s cheeky, anti-authoritarian style, the Cuban-Eisner chat was shoehorned into the tiniest session room at the venue.

(The panel I was on merited a ballroom. Take that, Mike and Mark!)

One day and one flight later, I wake up to Eisner’s successor, Bob Iger, doing the same Q&A thing with “BusinessWeek” executive editor John Byrne, at the much smaller and very much more suit-and-tie sober McGraw-Hill Media Summit in New York.

Unlike his predecessor, Iger got no photo op with Flat Stanley. And unlike his colleague Sarah Lacy’s now infamous SXSW trainwreck of an interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Byrne breezed through his Q&A with zero audience interference.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

Going from SXSW to McGraw-Hill’s event felt like traveling from the interior of the Web to beyond its borders, peering in. The speakers and panelists at both events were of roughly equal stature. The audiences were what differed. McGraw-Hill attracts old-media corporate types (one guy I met publishes a print newsletter with minimal Web presence). Conversely, the militantly populist SXSW attracts, well, everyone. Well, everyone who’s not wearing a suit. “It’s the mix of people here,” said Ian Schafer in Austin (he spoke at the McGraw-Hill event, too), describing why he returns to SXSW year after year, “there are kids off the street, developers, musicians, and filmmakers.”

SXSW is resolutely egalitarian; a press badge or speaker credentials don’t guarantee entrance to anything, or any special treatment whatsoever. You may spend a lot of time in lines, but you emerge from each queue with actual new friends.

At McGraw-Hill, participants and panelists talked about the Web. SXSW, meatspace as Austin may be, was on the Web and totally democratic. While McGraw-Hill’s Wi-Fi didn’t function, SXSW was as active on the back-channels of Twitter and Meebo (not to mention the live blogging) as it was in session rooms and in Austin’s bars and restaurants. In fact, the back-channels shaped proceedings as much (if not more so) from the audience as from the stages of the event itself. A single text message received on one mobile device could disperse a line of 50 people outside one party and redirect them to another venue.

McGraw-Hill’s panels were professional, informative, and frequently data-driven. SXSW’s panels were that, too. Only sometimes a speaker made 3,000 people cry.

Bird’s-Eye View vs. Down and Dirty

Please don’t think this column is dissing traditional conferences. The networking, insights, and business opportunities at events like McGraw-Hill’s are invaluable. But don’t underestimate the importance of getting your feet wet and experiencing the social and user phenomena all those other events merely talk about.

“When we say ‘South by Southwest Interactive,’ we do mean ‘interactive,'” festival director Hugh Forrest told a crowd. He was referring specifically to the disastrous Lacy-Zuckerberg keynote, but the statement applies to the festival across the board.

It’s not only more fun to hang with the cool kids, you learn more, too. SXSW makes manifest all those jargon-y ad biz buzzwords, such as “experiential,” “immersive” and “user-generated.”

And the barbeque is great, too.

Meet Rebecca at SES New York March 17-20.

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