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If Grumpy Cat is the biggest news of all, is SXSW in trouble?

Few expect SXSW to turn out a Twitter-like success every year. But if a small feline is far and away the biggest news of a show with tens of thousands of attendees, trouble may be brewing.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Laughing Squid managing editor Rusty Blazenhoff with Grumpy Cat at SXSW. Laughing Squid

AUSTIN, Texas -- Talk to just about anyone who has been at South by Southwest this year, and there's really no doubt what was the biggest news of all: Grumpy Cat.

On the one hand a sweet little cat with a facial expression that looks annoyed, and on the other one, of the biggest Internet memes of the last year, Grumpy Cat has been the unquestioned biggest star of SXSW, thanks to Mashable, which managed to bring the famous kitty to the world's most important interactive conference so that tons of her biggest fans could meet her.

Never mind Al Gore, Neil Gaiman, or Elon Musk, all of whom spoke at SXSW over the last few days. It's Grumpy Cat that has been on everyone's lips. Whether for good -- after all, who doesn't love a sweet kitty, even with a taciturn expression? -- or for bad (the poor kitty has had to deal with an unbelievable number of people pawing at her), it would be hard to find a bigger story here this week.

This cannot be good for SXSW.

Over the years, this interactive festival has been the launching pad for some pretty amazing technology. Twitter exploded here in 2007, and Foursquare launched here in 2009. GroupMe had its public coming-out at SXSW, and so did people discovery apps like Highlight.

This year, no one really expected any new apps to break out, or for there to be any real big news or controversy. But I'm willing to bet that no one expected that the biggest story of all would be a small cat with a grumpy face.

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For several days now, tens of thousands of people have been prowling around the streets of downtown Austin, attending a billion panels, keynotes, featured sessions, parties, meetups, and so forth. Many of the smartest people in the industry have shared their wisdom, and thousands have happily listened during an impressive selection of talks available to badge-holders.

But ask any veteran SXSW attendee, and I'm willing to bet that you'll hear a similar story: the energy level has been low. There's no buzz about anything. There's a few interesting new apps -- Takes and MessageMe come to mind -- but in general, there hasn't been much worth talking about, at least among companies that had yet to be in the public conversation.

For the many, many startups that come to Austin every March hoping to be the next Twitter or Foursquare, the odds have always been low against repeating such a success. But every year, there's been a couple of new technologies that could rightly claim to have dominated the conversation, and it's the dream of being the next one to repeat that success that has for years fueled the journeys to Austin -- and the big budgets -- of a million startups, not to mention the big brands that want to latch on to the attention of the many early adopters who flock here annually.

Some veteran attendees complain that SXSW has devolved into a marketing bacchanalia, and it's hard to argue with that idea when you see little more than branded cars, pedicabs, actors, and lamp posts everywhere you go. I would argue that still found amidst all that marketing hoopla is the best interactive festival on the planet, and many of the people that are responsible for making the modern Internet what it is.

But those aren't the people paying SXSW's bills. Rather, it's the endless supply of startups and big brands that show up hoping to set the zeitgeist aflame. And when this year's crop returns home and has to admit to the beancounters that they were outgunned by a feline, I'm willing to bet there's going to be a lot of uncomfortable conversations.

Does this mean, as I've heard several people suggest in the last 24 hours, that SXSW has jumped the shark? It's certainly tempting to think so. But then again, conferences have off years, and you can't expect a new Twitter or Foursquare every year.

What you can expect, though, is some legitimate news to come out of a show this big, and where this much money is spent. The mayor of Austin introduced Al Gore on Friday and mentioned that SXSW brings in more than $200 million over its ten days. Certainly, much of that is attributable to the film and music portions of the show, but Interactive is at least as important as the others in terms of the economic impact on Austin. And if nothing happened that moved the needle during the show (which, of course, still has two days to go), there's going to be a lot of people in control of budgets who are going to have to wonder if they should write big checks for projects next year.

I have no doubt that SXSWi 2014 will have tens of thousands of attendees, plenty of big brands with giant budgets, and a slew of startups and app makers looking to jump start their big futures. And the thousands of staffers and volunteers that produce SXSW will, as always, deserve heaps of praise for their hard work.

But if SXSW 2014 comes and goes without a big story, without the kind of breakout hit that leaves those with rival technologies seeing red, people are going to start questioning what this show is really about. And a lot of people are going to start trying to book Grumpy Cat. Let's hope she's not a keynote speaker at SXSW 2015.