11 things we learned at SXSW 2016

At this year's tech, film and music fest in Austin, Texas, the president and first lady stole the show. And, of course, there was Grumpy Cat.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read
© Jim Bennett/Corbis

When President Obama took the stage last Friday to kick off South by Southwest, he uttered two words that made the audience roar: "Thanks, Obama."

He was having fun with one of the Internet's favorite memes. You burned your toast this morning? #ThanksObama. You got a papercut? #ThanksObama.

But really, it's South by Southwest, the tech, film and music festival that descends on Austin, Texas, every year, that should be saying thanks. Obama's appearance, the first by a sitting president in the history of the 30-year-old event, and his comments on digital privacy and security were the biggest news of the week, especially since the festival seemed to be lacking in that department this year.

That doesn't mean there weren't other memorable takeaways.

Startups from all over the world jockeyed for the attention of the press and early adopters in an attempt to become the next Twitter, the social media phenom that broke out here in 2007. Marketers tried to find a place in the limelight as more than 30,000 attendees roamed the dusty Austin streets. And, as they always do, people looked silly trying on virtual reality goggles.

Here's a look a glimpse of what we learned during this year's festival. First, let's start with the president:

1. Obama says privacy trade-offs may be worth the extra security
The FBI has been embroiled in a high-profile battle with Apple over data on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters in December. Obama said Americans have always made privacy trade-offs with the government when public safety is involved -- for example, when it comes to cases of child pornography, or even the annoyance of waiting in a long security line at the airport. The data on someone's phone, he said, shouldn't be treated any differently.


Brands, like USA's "Mr. Robot," took South by Southwest very seriously.

© Jim Bennett/Corbis

2. People will stand in line for just about everything
It's not unusual to see people queuing up to get into a special event on Day 2 of SXSW. But dozens of people lined up in the hot sun on a Saturday morning outside a storefront with a large sign reading #catconcoctions, which begged the question: why?

Answer: to take a photo with social media star Grumpy Cat. A woman named Tara, who journeyed to Texas from Connecticut to check out SXSW, told us she stood in line for about an hour to get her picture snapped.

3. J.J. Abrams doesn't want you to watch Star Wars on your phone
Or any movie, for that matter. The "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director is a big fan of technology -- he put out an iPhone special effects app in 2011 -- but he also knows when not to use it.

He doesn't want you to use a phone or tablet for watching a movie. Instead, watch it on a big screen, to get the full experience. "It's the nightmare of every storyteller that people are going to watch it on something so small," he said. But he concedes he's watched films on smartphones too, and doesn't remember the scenes feeling small. So it may just be a case of an artist's protectiveness.

4. Headscarves are actually OK
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the 2016 US Olympic fencing team, was registering for the festival on Saturday afternoon when she was asked to remove her hijab. Muhammad, who is Muslim, told the attendant she wears the headscarf for religious reasons. The checker still insisted she take it off for her badge photo. They eventually did let her wear the scarf for the photo, but then gave her a badge with the wrong name and company. Can you guess what happened next? TLDR: Her tweets go viral, many, many news stories are written and apologies are issued by the event organizers. Muhammad said she hopes that this doesn't happen again, but noted that "someone asking me to remove my hijab isn't out of the norm for me."


As I can attest, you cannot look cool while checking out VR goggles.

5. South by Southwest? More like South Brands Southwest
The brands have taken over. That's not new: SXSW has been overrun with media and product brands trying to get in with the cool kids for several years now. But this year, the gimmicks seemed bigger. "Mr. Robot," the USA show, had a Ferris wheel downtown with the show's title emblazoned across the installation. There was also a giant TIE fighter from Star Wars near the festival's official food truck plaza.

6. Michelle Obama doesn't want to run for president
The first lady is moving out of the White House in January, and she isn't planning on moving back in. When Queen Latifah asked Obama if she would run on Wednesday, the audience of about 2,000 people at the Austin Convention Center applauded raucously. "I will not run for president," she replied, to sighs from the crowd.

Another thing we learned about the first lady: She likes Boyz II Men. When she was first asked about her husband's term ending, she responded with a line from the the song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."

7. You can't look cool while checking out VR goggles
Have you ever seen a baby staring up at a spinning mobile? The head moves back and forth, the mouth's agape and the hands grasp at the air. That's kind of what it's like watching someone wearing VR goggles watching 360-degree videos. In case you're wondering if it's possible to look cool while looking at cool stuff, the answer is no.

8. We didn't get the next Twitter or Foursquare, but people are trying.
Each year, everyone tries to figure which startup "won" SXSW Interactive. In 2007, it was Twitter. Two years later it was check-in app Foursquare. Highlight and Meerkat are other social apps that flew high during the festival, only to come back to Earth once the technorati left Austin. This year, there was no clear winner, but that doesn't mean people weren't trying.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, for instance, launched his new app Nom. It's a live-video service dedicated to food and cooking. And Andrew Jarecki, director of HBO's "The Jinx," pushed a video app he launched in January called KnowMe, described as a cross between Snapchat and Instagram. He demoed the app onstage during his keynote with Abrams.

9. Filmmaking is easy, and you can too!
OK, it's not easy. But it is getting easier for people to try their hands at it. Lots of speakers here, including Jarecki, talked about how almost everyone's got a smartphone camera in their pocket, so almost anyone can be a filmmaker. Ilya Naishuller, the Russian director, even held the US premier for his film "Hardcore Henry" at the festival last weekend. The film was shot almost entirely with a GoPro action cam. After the movie, the cast and crew gave one lucky audience member a GoPro. "Go try to make some of this s*** at home," said Sharlto Copley, one of the film's lead actors.

10. Washington <3 Austin
The president and first lady got top billing, but government officials in general were here in full force. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, were here plugging their proposed 16-member commission to examine digital security. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, unveiled a bill aimed at alleviating cyberbullying, dedicating more than $20 million to help train law enforcement deal with such crimes.

11. Online harassment won't be fixed in a day
But SXSW did dedicate a day to talk about it. In October, the festival started a firestorm after it cancelled two panels about harassment in video gaming. After receiving heavy criticism and threats from media outlets to boycott the festival, SXSW instead created an all-day summit devoted to discussing online harassment.

At the summit, held at a hotel across the river and away from most of the other programming at the Austin Convention Center, the check-in process was intensive. Security to get into the building was tighter than any other event at the conference, with a bag-check more stringent than when President Obama spoke at the festival the day before. There were also policemen stationed near each of the three ballrooms.

"It's not about shutting people up," said Kami Huyse, a director for Civilnation, a nonprofit that fights against cyberbullying. Instead, it's about trying to find solutions.

CNET's Connie Guglielmo contributed to this report.