Cheezburger founder Ben Huh on SXSWi: Jumping the shark has jumped the shark

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Ben Huh is the founder of the Cheezburger Network, home to wildly popular Internet meme sites including LOLcats, FAILblog, and I Can Haz Cheezburger. His goal is to make the world happy for five minutes a day. Huh attended South by Southwest Interactive in Austin this week and below shares his takeaways from the annual hotspot with EW:

In just a few years, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from the scrawny, geeky, younger brother of the SXSW festival family to the largest Internet conference on earth — boasting every possible promotional stunt, giveaway, costume, and business model. In my first year of attendance in 2007, the entire conference occurred in the Austin Convention Center. Now, some conference locations require a transfer between multiple methods of transport (say, a pedicab and a shuttle bus).

I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of friends in the tech world who have complained and resolutely sworn they wouldn’t be back, and last year was no exception. Yet here we are. Voices ragged from trying to have a conversation at loud parties, belt lines stretched from too much amazing Texas BBQ, and shoes ruined from waiting in too many queues with the inebriated and uncoordinated.

So why do we keep going back? Simple logic. First, technology that connects people creates more demand for actual face-to-face interaction. Second, Austin in March is warmer and more fun than most other places in March. Third, (most) of what people do at SXSWi still falls under business expense — so at best, it’s free, at worst, it’s tax deductible. When was the last time you turned down a free five-day fete of beer, BBQ, and technology?

Maybe the early adopters will slowly start skipping SXSWi, but the show will go on. So far, it still rocks.

We’re the Animals in the Zoo.

Just two years ago, SXSWi was the place to launch your hot mobile geo-located social cloud-based application platform. This year? The hottest thing was observing the natives use the technology. There was no breakthrough app or platform (even though many tried and predicted). There was no single topic that dominated the conversation.

So what was hot? At the risk of coining a future cliche, the people were the hottest apps of SXSW 2012. People from health-care companies came to learn about the quantified-self movement — where users measure their own behavioral data to better themselves. Media execs were watching how people consumed or bought media. Musicians, well, they just looked much hipper standing around doing nothing in their worn-out skinny jeans next to techies in logo-plastered T-shirts with faces glued to their phones. Watching real people use technology is a lot more fascinating than actually using the technology — and we were all watching each other.

Carry a Phone Charger. Better Yet, Carry an Extra Phone Charger.

If you managed not to run out of juice on your phone all day, you were a genius. If you had enough backup power to help other people charge their phones, you were a hero. It’s easy to conclude that at a 24/7 event like SXSW, this isn’t normal usage, but everyone has had the experience of running out of power when they most needed it. As much as we’d like to talk about the amazing awesomeness of the Internet, it doesn’t exist if you’re out of power.

The day will soon come when some new technology will make complaining about battery life extinct. That moment may be one of the greatest steps towards achieving Singularity: a point in the future where an intelligence explosion will cause an exponential increase in technological progress. But until then, I just want enough juice to get one last text message to I know when to leave this overcrowded bar for some other overcrowded bar.

NEXT PAGE: PEOPLEWATCHING

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