WikiLeaks

Julian Assange draws a big SXSW crowd, which quickly loses interest

March 8, 2014: 3:43 PM ET

In-person always trumps phoning it in.

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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.

For the past two years, the SXSW Interactive festival has been evolving its reputation as more than a place for big social media apps to "break out." Last year, the festival focused on nerdier tech and science themes like 3D printing and space exploration. This year, there is an emphasis on politics and privacy, with keynotes from Assange and Edward Snowden.

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The controversial and outspoken anti-censorship advocate drew a crowd of approximately 5,000, packing almost every seat in auditorium. The problem? He wasn't actually there in person. (He has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012; the British government has been seeking to extradite him for a year.) Assange connected to Austin via Skype, and there were technical glitches. On first ring he didn't answer.

After a rocky logistical start, the interview began slowly, with softball questions like, "How did you start Wikileaks?" Despite that, Assange managed to offer a few choice Tweet-able sound bytes, such as:

"There has been a militarization of our civil space, an occupation of our civilian space."

"The best way to achieve justice is to expose injustice."

and

"Only a fool has no fear. Courage is seeing fear and still proceeding anyway."

But generally, the interview consisted of Assange embarking on detailed, elaborate, slowly drawn out answers which do not translate to an engaging Q&A. Making matters worse, opening up to audience answers awkwardly included two moderators -- one from Skype and one from the stage -- who often spoke on top of one another. Most of the audience questions didn't even come from the audience in the room -- they came from Twitter. It felt more like watching a TV interview than attending an event.

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The audience grew restless and began pouring out of the room. That's (unfortunately) when Assange delivered one of his most inspirational answers for a South by Southwest audience of founders, hackers, and activists, encouraging them to follow in his footsteps.

In telling his story of fighting the British government, he said, "I hope that gives people courage, that in fact, with a bit of help from your friends, and with some clear thinking and a lot of dedication, you can come to a position where you can stand up against these awful … great powers. You can outmaneuver then. You can do it."

The auditorium was half-empty by then.

It was a coupe for SXSW to snag an appearance from Assange, who does not frequently agree to interviews. Unfortunately, the Assange session made it clear that live, in-person guests trump remote appearances. SXSW's other big keynote speech, with Edward Snowden, will also take place via Skype. He'll be interviewed by Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, on Monday at 11 a.m. Central Time, from Russia, which granted him a year-long temporary asylum in August.

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