South by Southwest (SxSW) is a fairly large conference that offers attendees the opportunity to learn more about movies, music, and interactive (online) content at its weeklong festival. It’s become something of a giant party and simultaneously for a lot of people, a way for them to validate their projects and causes by being selected to speak.

The process for choosing who will speak at SxSW is partly open to the public, where speakers propose panel discussions on the voting web site, then encourage friends, family, and anyone who will stand still long enough to vote for their panel. Panels that receive lots of votes have a greater chance of being selected for public performance at the festival.

Competition is fierce, with over 2,200 proposed panels and about 10% or so will make it through (if I remember correctly).

The consequence of this is that every proposed speaker has been shilling like mad to get their panels selected. Sonny Gill asked if there was a better way than this, than making it effectively a popularity contest, and I think there is.

Make the content stand on its own.

Here’s how I’d approach it. Speakers complete proposed speaking session topics, the same as now, except that they are forbidden from attaching any personally identifiable information to the topic. These are then loaded into the system, validated to ensure speakers followed the rules (anyone who didn’t, obviously, is disqualified outright), and then displayed to voters.

Here’s the catch: voters only see the panel topic and description. No speaker name or bio. No information at all about who’s delivering. The URLs themselves are randomized each time you enter the voting process so a speaker can’t find their panel in the pile and tell people to vote for it or even link to it. Voters vote for 5 at a time, ranking them in order of preference, and at the end, votes are tallied and the schedule is revealed.

This eliminates the popularity contest. This eliminates gender or race bias. This eliminates everything except what the panel is ostensibly about, which is the content, the discussion, the conversation.

Will this ever happen? Not likely. SxSW would never get nearly the same number of voters registering under an anonymous system, which means a smaller database to work with, nor would it create the same kind of buzz that the current system does, so don’t expect it to change. Every potential speaker is SxSW’s marketing department, unpaid. Every potential speaker is generating ridiculous Google Juice for SxSW’s web site. Why would you as a conference organizer ever give that up?

But, that said, if there ever were an opportunity for conference organizers as a professional conference to democratize their voting system, this would be the way to do it.


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