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SXSW Interactive 2012: Studying up at the Sideshows

Unofficial events like this are a huge part of what makes the atmosphere dynamic -- the main circus tent is almost dwarfed by the side shows.

I'm writing this from the Skillshare party in the casual backyard of a bar. Twenty or so people in t-shirts and shorts, festooned with badges and pins, listen while a bearded Etsy employee scribbles about start-ups on a sticky pad. Beyond the bar area with a gaggle of drinkers conversing, another such session is in full swing. This isn’t part of the official conference; it’s just one of many events spinning off on interactivity and using learning as a social tool.

The official SXSW interactive conference is the epicenter of learning about interactive anything for five days a year. This year more than 2,600 official presenters flooded the four floors of the Austin convention center, ranging from Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor to the head of MIT’s Media Lab to the CTO of a three-person three-month-old startup.

It’s spilling over to multiple hotels in the vicinity and even across the river, with red-shirted volunteers directing traffic up plush carpeted steps to crowd into conference rooms. Even a church has opened its doors to official SXSW panels. All those panels and seminars are stuffed into a Vogue-Spring-sized catalog with Bible-sized print, and, since this is a digital conference, in a memory-sucking iPhone app.

But, like Sundance Film Fest spin-off Slam Dance, there are plenty of pockets of learning that aren’t part of the official line-up. Trends site PSFK hosted a discussion at the classic hotel the Driskill, bringing together some of the official speakers for a cozier discussion. The Skillshare party set up multiple stages at a sprawling indoor/outdoor bar for short sessions where people could instruct visitors for short increments on everything from lean startup philosophy to hip hop dance, with users getting report cards and free beer.

The Difference Engine hosted Speakeasy at a dark bar, inviting visitors to brainstorm together about topics of their choice. Outputs involved lots of info on post-it notes and sticky pads, like a brain storm in a dive bar. Dozens of meet-ups brought together people affiliating around gender, work, and even geeks running. The word Un-Conference was bandied about at many a bar, where people crowdsource topics for discussion and learn from each other.

Any conference is built on interaction around knowledge. At the Interactive component of SXSW, the conference itself is the catalyst for further interaction. The unofficial events are a huge part of what makes the atmosphere dynamic -- the main circus tent is almost dwarfed by the side shows.

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