10 things worth loving that still happen at SXSW Interactive

Push past the snarky criticism and appreciate what works at the tech fest.

It’s pretty easy to throw darts at South by Southwest Interactive. At 23, the long-running festival is mainstream and big — 33,825 attended in 2015 — and recent major sponsors have included companies such as McDonald’s, Esurance and Subway.

It's also become known as a place for hipsters hustling new apps to party on rooftops amid free alcohol, swag and unpaid musical performers, all on someone else's dime. In a recent post, the snarky website Gawker called the announcement of President Barack Obama as an opening keynote speaker embarrassing — for POTUS, not the festival — dismissing SXSW as "the annual vanity carnival." Yee-ouch!

The criticism gets to the prototypically Austin-ness of the fest; the more it changes, the more longtimers will lament what it used to be and complain about all the new people taking up space. And don’t get me started on those outside of Austin who’ve never attended; the fest’s otherness — it’s not really a pure tech conference or a programmed entertainment festival — will never sit well among the haters.

In the many, many years I’ve gotten to spend at the fest, some things have remained constant — and those are the things I try to hold on to going into each crazy SXSW Interactive week. Though I happily embrace change every year it comes — hi, Barack and Michelle Obama, mind the traffic — here are some things to love about the fest that I expect will continue for the 2016 incarnation.

1. Surprises. As carefully planned as the festival is and as much forethought goes into the giant, increasingly corporate installations, something always happens a day or two before the festival to change the entire conversation among attendees. Often it's completely out of SXSW's control, such as the infamous 2012 "homeless hotspots" public relations snafu or the Arab Spring in 2011. Other times, it's within the programming itself, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's trainwreck keynote with journalist Sarah Lacy in 2008. Sometimes it can be a last-minute speaker added to the fest, such as Al Gore in 2012.

2. Music bleeding into SXSW Interactive. SXSW Music doesn't officially begin until March 16, the day after Interactive concludes, but it's still possible to get exposed to a lot of big music acts during the tech portion, either as part of RSVP-only events put on by tech companies or at parties that tie in with the fest itself, such as the Interactive Closing Party, which has hosted acts including Foo Fighters, Ludacris and TV on the Radio. During Interactive, I've seen performers including the Flaming Lips, Jay Z and Spoon.

3. Presenters who change what you think the future will be. Forward thinkers are well programmed into the panels and keynotes of the fest, though some fall into the trap of simply promoting their company — last year's keynote with Lyft CEO Logan Green, for instance — or pushing a specific initiative. Twice last year, though, I was blown away by presenters who changed my perception of what tech will bring us in the next 20 years. Futurist and Sirius XM inventor Martine Rothblatt suggested ways human consciousness may be transferred or cloned to bring us closer to immortality, while Google X Labs leader Astro Teller suggested that failure in innovation is useful for getting us to the next big thing. This year, I'm curious to hear what Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn has to say about getting us where we need to go a lot faster.

4. Food. If you've ever been to an event at San Antonio's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, you may know that getting decent food without a long hike that isn't covered in orange cheese-like goo is a huge challenge. SXSW Interactive has an insane SouthBites Trailer Park, lots of street food — much of it free — during the fest and an increasing number of decent options within the Convention Center itself. The only complaint I've heard is that it's an embarrassment of riches. "I just want a salad," one woman lamented in a food line behind me last year. We were waiting for tacos.

5. Weather. You don't need me to tell you how great mid-March in Austin can be. As long as it's not raining, it's the perfect time to be walking around, biking or lounging outside in the city.

6. Causes. SXSW Interactive brings passionate people together — and there's no shortage of panels about solving problems. There's a specific convergence track, SXGood, open to all badge holders and focused on social innovation. The fest community is good at responding to breaking news; in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan as Interactive was starting, a "SXSWcares" campaign and event were set up, raising more than $120,000 in addition to SXSW 4 Japan events during SXSW Music.

7. The Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards. It's hard to find an event at SXSW Interactive that has consistently showcased the positive side of technology more than this annual show. Named for the digital activist who started SXSW Multimedia (which became Interactive), it honors 10 individuals around the world who are making a difference through innovation. Each honoree is awarded a $1,000 grant and a festival registration. The ceremony takes place at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Meeting Rooms 201 and 202 of the JW Marriott downtown. It's free with a guest pass and worth your time.

8. SXSW GO. The official festival app, which includes the schedule and lots of extras for connecting with other attendees, used to be a chore to use, but it seems to improve every year and is the best resource for updates on schedule changes and determining ways to get around the festival. This year, a new feature, SXSW Recommends, will use hardware in 600 locations to feed suggestions for where to go next based on location, popularity and other factors.

9. Friends from out of town. For each evening of the fest, I try to carve out time to spend with people who are in town for SXSW and who I don't get to see any other time of year. Even amid all the activity of the fest, it's possible to work in a late-night diner run or drinks with a group of friends to catch up.

10. Increasingly international feel. One welcome trend I've noticed the last few years of Interactive is delegations from far-flung countries coming to either present startups their nations have to offer or to get U.S. contacts interested in doing business there. Belgium, Brazil, Ireland, Korea and South Africa are among those with a presence at the fest this year and, for the first time, SXSW is putting on a Casa México event March 11-14 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center.

SXSW Interactive, as a signature event, still has a lot to offer and it’s the envy of lots of other cities. It’s not always perfect, but even after all these years of covering the festival, I feel lucky that we have it.

On the web 

Follow our coverage of SXSW Interactive here on 512tech.com, and for the whole fest at austin360.com/sxsw. You can also find recent SXSW preview episodes of the podcast "Statesman Shots," co-hosted by Omar L. Gallaga and Austin Eavesdropper blogger Tolly Moseley, at statesman.com.com/shots. "Shots" will also be doing daily dispatches during Interactive.