As with many topics where I thought I had a lot to say, it turns out I can sum up my feelings about SXSW pretty easily:
I wouldn't pay for it.
A badge gets you in to all the panels and the parties. (Not the films or the music events.)
Except a badge doesn't really guarantee entry to any panel because there are so many people. I got shut out of at least one panel every day because the room was at capacity; I could have arrived earlier--for some of those panels, people start lining up a half-hour to hour-plus beforehand--but that would mean missing out on the previous panel I wanted to see. In other words: You can't see all the things you want to see.
But that's not so bad because (a) you can always go to your second choice panel--assuming that isn't full up too and (b) there are plenty of interesting people to meet outside of the panels. Some of the best conversations I had were with random people I happened to be standing next to on line. That's how I met a guy working on IBM's Chef Watson project and a guy working in interactive film and a guy working for Google Play out of New York.
Then again, I also met a lot of recruiters and PR people and marketing people. And don't get me wrong, I had some really nice chats with them. But it made SXSW feel less like a playground and more like a networking/work event. I wanted to hear about exciting new things coming out of DARPA (I was shut out of that panel), but instead I heard about why I should move my company to Scotland. (There were a lot of booths and parties for national and city governments.)
Ultimately, I had a fine time, met a lot of nice people, but almost all my favorite things happened outside of--as a byproduct of--SXSW events. Maybe it's different when you've got an exciting new company or some capital in search of an exciting new company, but overall, I didn't get a good feeling from the event, which was so overpopulated (and too spread out over the city).
I'm not sure there's anything to do at this point; SXSW is so big that people will keep coming to it and spending money on it (and giving panels that are thinly veiled promos for their companies), all of which will keep even more people coming. But that also means there's room here for really cool anti-SXSW festival, a smaller convention really dedicated to the future of technology.