The 20-year-old festival is constantly evolving.
FORTUNE — In conversations with friends leading up to the SXSW Interactive, the standard response to the topic has been somewhere between pity that I’m going and disdain that they too have to attend.
Many lead-up stories to the event have reflected that tone. Business Insider declared, “Everything you’ve come to know and love about SXSW has died.” Digiday wrote, “This will be the last SXSW that agency folk make a big deal of.” The Wall Street Journal noted that there’s been a “backlash to the mainstream popularity of SXSW Interactive.” Wired declared that SXSW can’t create a breakout app.
They point to the fact that Foursquare, GroupMe, and Twitter — social media apps that can credit SXSW for a big part of their early success — will not have any presence at the event.
Few apps have attempted to copy those companies’ breakout successes since 2012, when Highlight was positioned as the winner and utterly belly flopped. Even this year’s hottest social media apps, Snapchat and WhatsApp, won’t be here this year. Secret, one that techies have adopted in droves, will not host an event. (For its part, Highlight still struggles along; the app released a new version this week.)
But this move away from social media fever signals a sea change, but not a death of the event. After all, something like 30,000 people are still making the trek. That likely includes many first- and second-time attendees. It’s easy to outgrow a professional event that doubles as a marathon party. So as past attendees are “over it,” a new generation of people flock to it. SXSW Interactive is 20 years old. It started out dedicated to CD-ROMs. It’s constantly evolving.
Last year the festival attempted to move away from its reputation as a hype-driven social media kingmaker. Instead, SXSW focused on nerdy tech ideas with keynotes from Elon Musk, Google X “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller, who oversees Google’s craziest inventions like driverless cars and Glass, and Bre Pettis, founder of Makerbot. This year is similar in its avoidance of social media apps, featuring keynotes on privacy, spying, and politics. Edward Snowden will speak via telecast, as will Julian Assange.
That’s why I think SXSW’s “problem” is mostly a problem for us in the media. That being, it’s just too big to find an easy overarching narrative to report on. We media types like to declare “winners.” We like to be authoritative. We like to tell people “everything they missed” in convenient list form.
We do that because it’s much easier than the truth, which is something like: “Lots of cool stuff happened at this festival. It was impossible for one person to experience more than 5% of it. Here’s what we saw, but it is by no means authoritative.” That’s not a very clickable headline. But it’s the best way I can describe this chaotic, noisy, annoying, and insanely fun mess of an event.