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SXSW: Forget Music and Movies, Interactive is Where the Drama Lies

South by Southwest may be a haven for music and film lovers, but it has increasingly become known as a geek hotspot.

SXSW Interactive, now entering its 21st year, officially surpassed the music festival in terms of paid attendees in 2010, with 14,251 people on hand. Three years later, the Interactive conference welcomed twice that number.

Organizers once again expect about 30,000 people to pass through Austin, Texas, in March to sniff out the next big thing and learn more about pressing topics of the tech world. But several will be there hunting for drama as well.

While the music and film portions of SXSW may foster creativity, they’re generally not known as pot-stirring events. Interactive speakers, on the other hand, haven’t been afraid to shake things up.

In 2009, columnist Michael Wolff delivered a profanity-laced keynote about the evils of advertising. The next year, Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd raised eyebrows when she called out Facebook and Google for not respecting the value of privacy.

The rabble-rousing doesn’t stop at the edge of the stage, though. Interactive’s attendees are a vocal audience, quick to voice displeasure when they feel a speaker or one-on-one isn’t living up to their expectations.

BusinessWeek’s Sarah Lacy learned this the hard way in 2008, when her keynote conversation with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took social media by storm, with members live tweeting their disappointment with the line of questions. That ultimately led to open heckling, with one attendee yelling “Talk about something interesting!” halfway through the session.

Two years later, the keynote of then-Twitter CEO Evan Williams was deemed similarly superficial (with many of the barbs being aimed at Harvard Business Review’s Umair Haque).

SXSW Interactive officials acknowledge the stumbles. However, they note, even something as disastrous as the Zuckerberg keynote started a tech trend.

“I would love to say we scripted all this drama and it was a master plan,” says Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival. “We’ve been lucky enough to get some very good speakers. At some points, shame on us for not preparing the speakers well enough. … However, (Zuckerberg) was an early preview for the power of connected audience that we didn’t know about before. It seems commonplace now, but that was really one of the first times that an audience was communicating with each other and reacting in real time. So, as a grand sociological experiment, at least, it was interesting.”

Attendees at this year’s Interactive conference will have more than 800 sessions from which to choose. And five keynoters will headline the event, ranging from Mythbuster Adam Savage to astrophysicist, author and Internet hero Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Among the topics on hand will be wearable technology and the Internet of Things (including 3D printing). SXSW Interactive will also continue to increase its focus on the videogame industry with a dedicated event and awards show.

The chief focus, though (if there is such a thing at SXSW), will be the same thing the nation has so hotly debated for months: privacy.

“We’re doing a lot of content on that in 2014,” says Forrest. “One of the big factors in our growth for the past 10 years is the rise of social media — and the renewed focus on online surveillance and privacy certainly shines a brighter light on the downsides of the social-media boom.”

There will also be plenty of dealmaking going on, with venture capital firms scouring the show for diamonds in the rough — and entrepreneurs pitching their companies at SXSW Accelerator. (Since the start of that event in 2009, attending companies have received more than $587 million in funding.)

If you’re looking for voyeuristic train wrecks like previous years, though, that’s a bit less likely.

“We have simply become a lot more aggressive in trying to prepare our keynote speakers for what they can expect, having learned from our mistakes with the Zuckerberg thing and the keynote with Ev Williams after that,” says Forrest, who notes that the notoriety of those events has also prompted speakers in smaller sessions to up their game.

With SXSW Interactive seemingly at its peak, Forrest says he’s a bit glad the explosive growth has slowed slightly, as it gives his team time to adjust their focus. He says there’s a recognition that SXSW Interactive needs to become more of a virtual event, since Austin’s infrastructure can’t handle more visitors at present in March (though additional hotels are being built).

Another source of constant debate is the price of a ticket. Badges for the Interactive conference alone run $800-$1,300. While that’s not exorbitant, it does price out some up-and-coming entrepreneurs — and Forrest admits that’s a bit scary.

“There are two competing interests here,” he says. “On one hand, one of the things that has made Interactive so compelling is having young talent there. So many innovations in the start-up world are coming from newcomers. As we raise the price, you wonder ‘are you squeezing out that segment of the market?’ At the same time, interactive has grown so much (as an industry) that the registration price isn’t much of a hindrance.”

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