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AUSTIN (USA TODAY) - The shark was officially jumped when billionaire Mark Cuban - yeah, he of Shark Tank fame - compared Bitcoin to buying and selling baseball cards.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but just a little. Cuban on Bitcoin fits in perfectly with the vibe at South by Southwest, the at-times eccentric summit that blends tech, music and film in Texas' capital and can bring new meaning to weird.

SXSW is a glorified three-ring circus of the crazed and crazy. The peculiar sights and sounds are often complemented by a certain sweet smell in the air.

At the Four Seasons' lobby early Friday morning, revelers sang karaoke from an app on their smartphones while swilling champagne and chowing down on pepperoni pizza. By the wee hours, it was a Pearl Jam scream-fest.

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This is part of SXSW's charm. In many ways it's the ideal foil to the product-obsessed, buttoned-down Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Where else but at SXSW can you find superhero-themed pedicab riders, adorable monkeys and a king-size version of Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball?

Think of cool Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, who attended the University of Texas here, as the model for SXSW's gonzo gestalt. But it also was here that Twitter and Foursquare gained traction, where Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk enhanced their reputations.

"If we can tap into the spirit of SXSW for tech all year, it would be in great shape," says John Harrobin, chief marketing officer at Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

The festival has its detractors. It's not only ballooned in size and hype, it has become a magnet for sales bros, hipsters, wannabe tech stars and countless parties where everyone is on the VIP list.

"The conventional wisdom is that SXSW sold out," says Gary Vaynerchuck, an investor and entrepreneur. "The angry elitists want the show of 2007, when it was all about start-ups."

Five years ago, start-ups ruled the show. Today, the big boys - Google, Facebook, Microsoft - dominate. "If you're a tiny company trying to get money, this is not that venue," says Bryan Jones, vice president of North American commercial marketing for Dell.

Yet, I and tens of thousands of others return to Austin year after year, in search of the next potential Twitter. "It's better than ever," says Ben Lerer, managing director at Lerer Ventures.

The growing sway of SXSW is evident in the tech execs, investors, bankers and celebrities who attend the show. "It's amazing to watch tech - through events like South By - become pillars of society," Vaynerchuck says.

This year, international newsmakers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are making the scene via satellite, lending gravitas to the proceedings.

To be sure, pockets of SXSW's distinctive roots remain.

Filmmaker and local resident David Gordon Green has traveled to film festivals around the world showing his films. What makes SXSW special, he says, is its ability to showcase large productions, as well as works by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Green was honored Thursday night at the Austin Film Society's Texas Film Awards and is showcasing his latest movie, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage, at this year's festival.

"It's a refreshing attitude," says Green, who has been attending SXSW on and off for more than two decades. "It becomes a great showcase for people who have been under-appreciated and someone who has been in the festival many times, like myself."

Jon Swartz, USA TODAY's San Francisco bureau chief, has covered Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Contributing: Rick Jervis

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