Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, a self-proclaimed tech geek, had already answered a handful of questions after his talk at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

A woman toward the back of the hall stood to ask the next one. She was holding a giant doll of the TiVo logo, and her question was simple: Can she take a picture of Shaq holding the doll?

He said yes, and the picture was taken. I was hoping to ask about Shaq’s smartphone use. Is it frustrating to use a regular-sized smartphone when you have giant hands?

But I guess all anybody else wanted to know was, “Have you heard of my Internet thing? No? Oh, well, it’s kind of a great thing — but otherwise can I take a picture with you?”

In seeking to shrink this year’s SXSW Interactive conference into manageable bites, the question-and-answer portion of so many sessions devolving into self-promotion is a good place to start.

SXSW is a giant marketing opportunity, and marketers have taken notice

The grumbling criticism of SXSW Interactive is that the conference has lost its edge. Big brands, recognizing the opportunity the audience presents, have been spending large amounts on marketing initiatives. This has crowded out startups, leaving them to rely on outlandish stunts to draw attention, while making it harder for the next big thing to break through the noise.

This was my first SXSW, so it’s hard to say whether the criticism has merit. Certainly, it was disappointing when sessions turned into sales pitches, or when attendees decided to use the Q-and-A microphone as a marketing bullhorn. But that’s only because those things seemed to get in the way of learning; in many other ways, there was much to learn from the thousands of eager marketers.

Isn’t this crowded, overwhelming mess of messages reflective of the Internet? Aren’t startups always competing for attention with big brands?

The new SXSW environment is no doubt tougher for startups. But think about it: If you can break through the free Oreos and big-time parties and draw some real attention, isn’t that a much better sign that you’ve got something with staying power? After all …

The Web is restless

No one hesitated to leave a session that was going nowhere. Lines seemed to form organically, as if a line was proof of its worth. Some people waited more than a hour to see a cat whose face is formed into a permanent scowl.

The Grumpy Cat phenomenon, and the way crowds flowed around anything that appeared interesting and disappeared just as quickly upon disappointment, revealed a tech world in flux, hoping to be wowed, ready for something tangible.

Yes, OK, a cat was the star. But will Grumpy Cat be another in a heap of discarded memes in five years? The Web is fickle, and attention is fleeting. There will no doubt be 100 memes with the chance to take over next year’s SXSW. If Grumpy Cat is more than a funny face, it’s a reminder that Web phenoms are as real as anything.

Devoted online fans take their devotion seriously

Two talks at SXSW left me convinced that there are few things better than a devoted Internet fan. At a panel on Reddit, users of the website were upset with what they saw as a slanted take on their favored site. They complained on Twitter, then took to the microphone to complain during the Q-and-A session.

They banded around Reddit as if it were their child under attack — a loyalty that cannot be dismissed. It’s the same loyalty fans of The Oatmeal showed to Matthew Inman, a webcomic creator who received an overwhelmingly positive reception to his SXSW keynote speech.

The thing about fan devotion is that it’s active and contagious. I largely agreed with panelists on the Reddit issue, yet the users’ defense made me want to give the site a second look. Inman talked about how he was able to turn his fans’ loyalty into charity, raising money to fight cancer and build museums, turning his comic into a platform for doing good.

All sorts of things are getting the Web to stand up, to move and to act. Noisiness isn’t going to stop that. Marketing is tough and important, but it’s not what will make or break you. First, you need to create something that will get people to ditch their spot in the Grumpy Cat line — you need to create something that makes them move.

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