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A band heads for SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Associated Press/Photo by Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
A band heads for SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Has SXSW lost its culture-making mojo?

Culture | Join WORLD's Warren Cole Smith as he goes in search of what's keeping Austin weird

AUSTIN, Texas—When you land at the Austin airport, you see the T-shirts right away: “Keep Austin Weird.”

The truth is that Austin is a diverse city of more than a million people and the capitol of one of the reddest states in the country. There’s a fair amount of non-weirdness here. Even during the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival—going on now through March 17—it’s business as usual for much of Austin. In fact, if you’re not downtown, where more than 100,000 people will converge during the 11-day festival, Austin might even appear sleepy. The schools—including the University of Texas—are on spring break, and lots of residents try to get out of town during SXSW, or “South by,” as some call it.

Some people have started to question whether SXSW has lost a bit of its culture-making mojo. The festival is actually three events in one. It started as a music event. Movies came soon afterward. Now, the festival begins with a trade show, South by Southwest Interactive, which kicked off on Friday. 

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SXSW Interactive has been around since 1997, when it had such prescient sessions as “So You Want To Make A CD-ROM” and “The Internet Is Dead.” Becky Worley of Yahoo Tech has taken a look back at “The Ghosts of South-Bys Past” and found SXSW Interactive’s record pretty spotty when it comes to introducing game-changing innovations. But she noted some undeniable hits. “In 2007, Twitter put up TV monitors in the halls of South by Southwest Interactive, scrolling tweets from attendees,” she wrote. “The founders credit that move with catapulting the service to its current status of 241 million active users.” Siri and Airbnb, the on-line house-sharing service, both also got big boosts at Southwest by Southwest.  

But those outsized hits have caused most people to forget the misses. Worley noted that in 2009 “some of the big hits in the interactive competition were TubeMogul, Popcuts, and Project Miso. What? You haven’t heard of them? Yeah, me neither.” In fairness, TubeMogul still exists, though in a different form than the one debuted at SXSW five years ago. Popcuts and Project Miso? Long gone.

All of which prompts Worley to say she “will bring a strong dose of skepticism to my consumption of hot trends here. Based on recent history, I expect some winners, some losers and a Texas-sized load of marketing bull to wade through before I crown a game-changing disruptive technology star.”

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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