FORTUNE -- Every year, the South by Southwest Interactive festival comes along, and every year, like clockwork, someone must self-righteously bemoan how the festival is so over. SXSW has jumped the shark; it's too big, too noisy, no longer relevant, the worst event in the history of humankind. It never fails, every year.
If you're a startup u should be building products, talking to users & creating -- not swinging on a ball or doing shots with Nas. #SXSW
-- jason (@Jason) March 10, 2014
Typically, these complaints are made on the very platform that's responsible for SXSW's shark-jumping -- Twitter. According to SXSWi director Hugh Forrest, the interactive portion of SXSW had only grown modestly before it became a springboard for breakout social media apps like Twitter, Foursquare, and GroupMe. After Twitter won one of the festival's big awards in 2007 (in the "blog" category no less), the app quickly became a cultural phenomenon. South by Southwest became the place to launch your social media app. Attendance for the interactive portion of SXSW exploded from 6,400 attendees in 2007 to 41,7000 registrants last year. Including the music, comedy, and film festival, SXSW is responsible for bringing in $219 million to Austin's economy.
And so SXSW has grown into a massive event, and the growth was largely driven by brands and marketers. It only makes sense -- they're the ones spending millions of ad dollars on social media platforms like Twitter. Social media advertising pulled in around $7 billion in ad spend last year. Twitter itself did $665 million in revenue last year, the vast majority of that being ad sales.
In 2012, SXSW's growth hit a tipping point, and organizers realized they couldn't rely on breakout social media apps to drive interest. (That year the expected breakout, a social app called Highlight, left users disappointed.) So in 2013, SXSW shifted its focus from hyped-up social media apps and behoodied founders to science and nerd stuff, featuring keynotes about 3-D printing, space exploration, data science, and Google's "moonshots."
This year the focus moved again, to the political issues around technology. The keynote sessions featured two high-profile political exiles: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Both interviews were done via telecast and attracted international media attention. Forrest noted that, in years past, he offered interviews to media outlets like TechCrunch about SXSW, but this year, he's been fielding requests from the likes of Fox News.
The interviews had a "scary future" takeaway. Snowden preached the gospel of encryption, especially by the big tech companies, so that the government could not spy on a massive scale with no oversight. Appealing to the festival's tech crowd, he said, "[The NSA is] setting fire to the future of the Internet," he said. "And the people in this room, you guys are the firefighters. We need you to help us fix this."
Likewise, Assange warned that Facebook steals wealth and power from the population, by "stealing information from all of us," he said. "Knowledge is power, and so they're accumulating a lot of power." Assange said Google's ownership of Android is problematic because of its information collection: "That's a big problem, that a single group is able to capture that much information (about people). You are all the product," he said.
And so, thousands of people left those keynotes thinking about protecting their rights and privacy. From there, they proceeded to their next panel, possibly one focused on how brands can better collect data for marketing. Take, for example, "Dive into Social Media Analytics," which promises advice for using social data to "power predictions on buying behaviors" and "push the boundaries of what is possible." If they like that one, there are 175 more where it came from.
And perhaps on their way they'll stop at one of many very expensive "activations" from big brands like Subway, Esurance, Oreo, and 3M (MMM). All they have to do in order to participate is hand over their email address, or follow the brand on Twitter, or Instagram a photo of their brand experience.
"Scary future" doesn't exactly jibe with social media and big brands.
Panels that tried to straddle the line between the two fell flat. One called, "Do Consumers Really Care About Online Privacy?" presented a totally unbiased (read: not really) discussion of the "media circus around privacy." There was also a panel called "Is Privacy a Right or an Illusion?" which puts forth a marketer's favorite argument in the privacy debate, that consumers are willing to give up privacy in exchange for personalization, "to earn additional rewards or to get better recommendations, like targeted ads."
It's a tricky line for SXSW to walk. I was on a panel with Josh Rubin of CNN who pointed out that, sure, his story on crazy taser drones at SXSW was funny and entertaining. But it's also important because we need to be having a conversation about these scary new technologies. "We talk about the future like it's never really going to come," he said. "This is here."
As the SXSW festival evolves, it becomes more complicated, and with complications mean contradictions, too. Thanks to its social media roots, SXSW will always be overrun with marketers. But right beside them are the privacy advocates, asking questions.
Only at South by Southwest.
FORTUNE -- In a lounge in the center of Austin's main drag on Saturday night, executives from General Electric (GE) gathered with a packed house of inventors, engineers, electronics lovers, and geeks. Beloved scientist Bill Nye sat upright on a stage. Nearby, comedian Andy Samberg slouched on his barstool, looking slightly unsure about what exactly he was doing there.
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In-person always trumps phoning it in.
FORTUNE -- The South by Southwest festival is known for long lines to get into parties, panels, taxis and restaurants. But rarely is there a long line to leave a room.
That's what happened this afternoon, during a keynote interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
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The 20-year-old festival is constantly evolving.
FORTUNE -- In conversations with friends leading up to the SXSW Interactive, the standard response to the topic has been somewhere between pity that I'm going and disdain that they too have to attend.
Many lead-up stories to the event have reflected that tone. Business Insider declared, "Everything you've come to know and love about SXSW has died." Digiday wrote, "This will be the last SXSW MOREErin Griffith - Mar 7, 2014 1:04 PM ET
Couldn't make it to this year's new media pow-wow? Here's everything you need to know in 500 words or less.
FORTUNE -- This year's South by Southwest Interactive may be remembered just as much for what happened outside the halls of the Austin Convention Center as what happened in them. Here's a look at the biggest news stories to come out of the five-day media free-for-all:
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Who is Seth Priebatsch? How did his tiny company, based on turning life into a video gaming experience, wind up with a $100 million valuation?
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With a huge attendance boost this year, big businesses from GM to Microsoft continued the trend of coming to Austin to get in front of hip influencers.
By Elisabeth Long, contributor
Now in its 15th year, the South by Southwest Interactive conference has taken off like the handle of the ubiquitous hockey-stick growth model that startups at the conference aspire to. The 2011 conference saw a spike in attendance – up about MOREMar 16, 2011 12:15 PM ET
Doing the Bump at SXSW: A new app is trying to send all those little pieces of paper to the recycling bin.
By Caroline Waxler, contributor
One of the first pieces of advice given to anyone who goes to the South by Southwest interactive conference in Austin is bring enough business cards. And don't be surprised when you run out.
Not this year.
At the 2010 conference, exchanging physical cards (remember those little rectangular MOREMar 16, 2010 11:54 AM ET
Foursquare and Gowalla are squaring off for the title of top tagger at Austin's annual tech-fest.
By Caroline Waxler, contributor
The annual South By Southwest Interactive conference kicks off Friday and the advance buzz is all about a fierce competition between two location-tagging social networking companies: Foursquare and Gowalla. (Disclosure: I know the Foursquare co-founders.)
These services help you locate where your friends and contacts are at any given moment -- perfect MOREMar 12, 2010 9:24 AM ET
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