What does it say that the leader of the free world will be speaking at South by Southwest this year?
Some fans of the annual show for music, film and technology say it's a sign of Obama's cultural cachet, particularly among young people. Others argue it's the culmination of a decades-long shift by SXSW toward the mainstream — and away from its quirky, outsider roots. But no matter how you answer the question, one thing seems clear: It's a historic moment for the Austin-based festival. Never before has a sitting president delivered a keynote at "South-by" in its 30-year history.
As Vice President Biden might put it: Obama's visit to SXSW is a BFD.
In a live Q&A session onstage with the Texas Tribune Friday, Obama is expected to talk about technology's growing role in the political process. Days later, he'll be followed by first lady Michelle Obama, who will address music-festival attendees with a speech about education for girls.
President Obama's scheduled appearance at SXSW Interactive — the portion of the festival aimed at makers, builders and entrepreneurs — highlights the show's tremendous rise in recent years. Fueled in part by deep-pocketed brands, SXSW Interactive drew nearly 34,000 people to Austin last March. Interactive has been on a runaway spree since 2010, when for the first time, more people showed up there than for either of SXSW's sister attractions, SXSW Music and SXSW Film.
The growing dominance of SXSW Interactive mirrors the expanding importance of tech companies to the U.S. economy. And that has led to huge shifts in the way tens of thousands of people experience SXSW, according to Alan Berg, an Austin resident and award-winning filmmaker who directed a 2011 documentary tracing the history of the festival.
"These giant technology companies, they're bringing armies of people," Berg said in an interview. "…It's great to have the tech people here — but the whole vibe just totally changed."
Berg's film, "Outside Industry," looks back at the very beginning of SXSW. In 1986, a bunch of starving musicians who were fed up trying to attract the attention of big-name labels decided to attempt something new: Create a small music gathering in Austin in the hopes of getting on the radio or signing a record deal for a better shot at becoming famous. The following year, those discussions paid off with overwhelming results. The founders expected no more than 150 people to show up, but as many as 700 actually did.
The pace of expansion has only accelerated since. What began as a way for small artists to get noticed has grown into a 10-day bonanza that's showcased the likes of Jay-Z and Johnny Cash. Featured speakers this year include the mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, actor Don Cheadle and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Together with SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive, the entire operation directly and indirectly contributes hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Austin's economy.
To keep pace with the festival's soaring popularity, its organizers have turned increasingly to technology. SXSW was one of the first major U.S. music festivals to invest heavily in onsite public WiFi. Over the years, it's added more bandwidth and — using mobile apps and location trackers — has learned to alert attendees of other event-goers nearby who may share their interests.
SXSW aims to gather even more data, beginning this year with a "recommendation engine" that suggests new events attendees may have missed when building their schedule. The algorithm behind it accounts for factors such as event times, location and popularity, and weights them to arrive at a handful of curated event suggestions that learns from an attendee's preferences. Eventually, the goal is to design a mobile app that can predict what you'll be interested in before you think of it.
"There's a huge opportunity there, particularly through an intelligence created through a combination of big data and smart algorithms," said Scott Wilcox, SXSW's director of technology. "The recommendation program is very much the first phase of that evolution."
Wilcox says SXSW tries hard to be on the cutting edge of technology, not least because it draws some of the most sophisticated tech users in the world. SXSW has become known for putting tech firms on the map. Armchair historians of the festival credit the annual gathering for much of Twitter's early success; attendees adopted the social network in droves in 2007 so that they could find out where the coolest events of the week were. Those early adopters then became some of Twitter's biggest evangelists back home.
But stories like these have also led to rapidly growing expectations for SXSW — expectations its organizers have worked hard to manage. Longtime attendees report feeling left behind. They use words like "resentment," "corporate" and "jumped the shark" to describe the influx of major brands seeking to capitalize on SXSW.
Writing for Grantland in 2015, Rembert Browne described the moment he considered never coming back. It came as he stood waiting to enter a concert, only to be given special access to the venue by using what he called "Option B" — trading Twitter messages with the all-powerful Taco Bell.
Option B could handle the situation in about 10 minutes, but Option B was going to be the death knell of me pretending the music industry was in any way controlled by those making the music.
To choose Option B was to decide against paying the iron price. It meant acknowledging that SXSW is something more deliberate than just an organic jumble of musicians and innovators who happened to stumble upon Austin this one weekend every year in March.
Shireen Mitchell recalls the first time she came face-to-face with that simmering discontent. The world had just been introduced to the Internet meme known as Grumpy Cat, she said, and techies at SXSW were enraged by how it had taken the festival by storm.
"I found that they were really bothered in the shift away from the, 'Let's just get together and hack'" philosophy that motivates so many inventors, said Mitchell, who leads a Washington non-profit dedicated to getting young women into tech. "So many people were bent out of shape that Grumpy Cat was a thing. If Grumpy Cat was the biggest trend, then what did that mean for tech?"
The latest of these growing pains for SXSW came last fall, when organizers pulled two events from the agenda over concerns about potentially violent disruptions. The panels themselves were widely viewed as oppositional to each other: One aimed to discuss online bullying and hate speech, and included several women who had been targeted for harassment by mostly male video gamers.
The other had a lineup that included supporters of Gamergate, a movement whose stated mission is about journalistic ethics but whose members have shown blatant, graphic hostility toward women and minorities.
That SXSW agreed to hold a pro-Gamergate panel at all provoked a major controversy; critics blasted the festival for giving misogyny a platform in a tone-deaf show of false equivalence.
"Any 'both sides' narrative is nonsense," wrote Arthur Chu, a Gamergate critic, in the Daily Beast.
Supporters of Gamergate say that the media have mischaracterized who they are and what they stand for.
"There's been no diplomacy between people, and that's the greatest failure in all of this," said Oliver Campbell, a Gamergate supporter.
When SXSW canceled both panels abruptly in October, the outcry only grew louder. Thinkpieces abounded; companies like BuzzFeed announced they were pulling their coverage of SXSW unless the panels were reinstated. Days later, they were. SXSW even created a new, day-long summit on online harassment.
The summit confronts many of the challenges of toxic digital behavior, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. "But it is an extremely complicated issue," he added, "so it would be difficult to presume that we could address all sides of the issue or that a one-day summit can completely fix this problem."
The flap over Gamergate — which may boil over again when the sessions begin — is the latest measure of how the Internet, and Internet culture, have become a vital part of SXSW's own identity. And it reveals how the festival is increasingly bringing sharply different peoples together as its popularity soars to new heights.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing visibility of government policymakers at SXSW. Long regarded as stuffy, wonky bureaucrats unable to match the speed of Silicon Valley, public officials such as Obama are heavily courting the crowds. U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith will be on hand this year to discuss innovation policy; Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is traveling to Austin to talk about smart, Internet-connected cities.
That courtship runs both ways. SXSW has spent years cultivating contacts at the White House, said Forrest. In the past, U.S. senators, regulators and dozens of city administrators have been known to attend. And as new inventions like driverless cars and the Internet of Things dramatically change how Americans live their lives, the way these technologies interact with existing regulation and policy is going to matter a great deal.
Still, Washington hands who routinely go to SXSW say there remains a foreignness to it all. A session last year on one of the biggest issues affecting the Internet — net neutrality — barely drew a crowd. In a room that could seat 1,000 people, roughly 25 of them were actually filled, estimates Brian Dietz, a spokesman for a top cable industry trade group.
"A lot of this audience really isn't focused on policy," said Dietz. "They're really focused on selling products, new innovation. And you know the government clearly isn't on their mind, otherwise you'd think this kind of panel would be packed and standing-room only."
For Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the biggest changes he's seen at SXSW have all had to do with himself. After attending for four years in a row — this year will be his fifth — he offered his Senate colleagues a bit of advice: Lose the coat and tie.
Let's see if President Obama heeds that message when he takes the stage Friday.