When did SXSW Interactive lose its mojo?

In years past, Interactive was the launching ground for household names like Twitter, Foursquare, and GroupMe. But this year—from the keynote talks to the various tech events—Interactive was, well, underwhelming.

Instead of functioning as a breeding ground for the hottest up-and-coming startups, this year's Interactive felt like a cesspool of persistent advertisers, bad marketing, and misleading panels.

You couldn’t escape the barrage of irrelevant flyers and cards practically put in your pockets. Marketers hounded everyone for his/her email address so that they could later spam you.

I don’t even know where to begin to describe the horrible SXSW Trade Show. It was full of companies all promising to “scale,” “disrupt,” “synergize,” and “streamline” businesses. The show floor was filled with desperate companies all trying to latch on to someone or something. The booth attendants were skilled at holding you in conversation about cheap phone cases, their home country’s plans for technology, or why their company was “the next big thing.” Generally I found the conversations irrelevant and uninteresting.

Which is a shame. I'd been excited about heading back down to Austin for my second year; my original plan had been to write about how SXSW is the best tech event of the year. But this year, after five days of navigating the Austin Convention Center, I felt like it was more of a flop than a runaway success. 

This year's Interactive felt like a cesspool of persistent advertisers, bad marketing, and misleading panels.


SXSW, as I see it, is meant to embody the rebel punk spirit of the tech world’s rising talent, and should act as a counterpart to the enormous,corporate-loving, kind-of-relevant-but-not-really Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which happens at the top of each year in January in Las Vegas.

While there were some stand out panels like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's video chat and NSA-leaker Edward Snowden's Google+ hangout, many other talks were just ways for startup founders to plug their "next best thing" that probably won't amount to anything. Buzz Stone’s attempt to create the next great social platform, with Jelly, comes to mind.

Stone, a likeable guy, explained how he and his co-founder came up with the idea for Jelly, a way to crowdsource information from friends. Imagine if you saw a dog on the street and you wanted to figure out the breed—you snap a picture, upload it to Jelly and the hope is that your friends chime in. But instead moderator (and author) Steven Johnson spent too much time plugging his upcoming PBS Show, How We Got To Now, and Stone seemed a little too preoccupied talking about himself rather than offering attendees the advice and lessons learned expected from someone with his experience.

Take, for example, another panel. “I Ran an Extremely Successful Crowdfunding Scam” sounds interesting, right? Wrong. The panel was supposed to focus on how a product called Instacube raised over $620,000 back in 2012 and still is only a concept that will probably never ship. The talk revealed little about how the scam happened—“for legal reasons,” of course—and ended up being a platform for the former social media marketing manager, Savannah Peterson, to apologize. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I came with the expectation of getting juicy details about how something like this can happen and why there hasn’t been a resolution.

This year’s Interactive also lacked groundbreaking or large scale product launches. The sad truth? New "disruptive" companies are wary to launch at SXSW because it might be too clichéd.

Instead of feeling like they were getting in on an indie conference, the 30,000-plus attendees were subjected to mostly advertorial panels, hosted by huge corporations that need to remind you that they're still around. Brands engulfed every inch of the Convention Center.

“The event also reflected a growing unease with SXSW’s evolution from a relatively intimate gathering to a rollicking corporate brand orgy, the Internet’s own Lollapalooza,” wrote Casey Newton for The Verge.

Although SXSW isn't going anywhere, in order for it to remain relevant and useful, it has to return to its indie roots. The companies you would have found at Interactive five years ago are now heading to greener pastures like Portland's XOXO conference.

The conference has been pegged as a reason to still love the Internet and technology. Last year, the event’s founders asked for trust. They promised “to create a conference for people who care about the Internet,” said The Verge’s Ryan Gantz, who attended. The event also isn’t yet filled with gatekeepers and huge companies that have yet to asses the value and plausibility. And that’s a good thing. XOXO is the intersection of technology, music, art, and video games—the same sectors that birthed SXSW.

Many people still flock to SXSW for its ripe networking opportunities, regardless of the actual show. But my fingers are crossed, hoping that SXSW 2015 proves to be more meaningful and with, you know, actual news.