An audience gathers at xyz. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

An audience gathers at the Austin Convention Centre. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

This year South by Southwest Interactive turned 21. And like many 20-somethings, the tech conference is still searching for its identity.

The five-day orgy of brands vying for attention, startups preparing for launch, never-ending lineups for workshops, panels and meet-ups, and of course, free tacos can be summarized as an exploration of the ever-expanding digital space.

Look closer and you’ll discover “the ever-expanding digital space” leaves things pretty wide open. The conference covers topics as wide-ranging as marketing, robotics, gaming, journalism, retail, design and the list goes on.

As newbies, we landed in Austin with an ambitious schedule, but as Interactive veterans will tell you, it’s impossible to make it to more than a small fraction of the 800 sessions in the official program.

But, hey, that’s what makes SXSW Interactive what it is, and it’s why so many make the pilgrimage in the first place. So without further ado, here is what we learned from the slice of tech, media and marketing sessions we attended.

For five days venues across Austin are filled with SXSW participants. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

For five days venues across Austin are filled with SXSW participants. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

Wearables are (going to be) good for your health

While we spotted many festival goers snapping photos with their Google Glass, the conversation around wearable technologies at SXSW zeroed in on the potential impact these devices have on our health.

The conference was buzzing with hype, but for many panelists, the promise of wearables like Nike’s FuelBand and Fitbit to effect long-term behavioural change is still premature.

Martha Wofford, head of insurance company Aetna’s consumer platforms, explained during the panel Connected Fitness 2.0: Shaping Healthy Behaviours, that many of these devices don’t provide enough context around data to deliver insight that really resonates with users.

Improved sensors are on the horizon though, and will be able to measure everything from an individual’s sleep patterns to their hydration levels, which will give patients more control of their data and health care, cardiologist Leslie Saxon told the audience during a panel on the future of networked humans.

Perhaps deserving of the most optimism, however, is the potential wearable technology has to change the lives of people with disabilities. Plenty of niche products were on display, from Lechal’s Bluetooth-enabled haptic shoe, which helps the visually impaired get around, to Sension’s facial recognition software designed for people with autism.

Wearables come in all shapes and sizes. An attendee tries on Samsung's Oculus Rift. Image by nan palmero.

Wearables come in all shapes and sizes. An attendee tries on Samsung’s Oculus Rift. Image by nan palmero.

Step away from the shiny new object

Over the course of the five-day conference, panelist after panelist preached the “just do it”’ mentality long-championed by the startup world.

Kristina Halvorson delivers her talk on "drunk marketing." Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

Kristina Halvorson delivers her talk on “drunk marketing.” Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

But in her popular session, Kristina Halvorson urged marketers to stop focusing on the ‘new’ and to fix what’s broken before finding new things to break.

Referencing the Super Bowl Oreo tweet and its 44,000 quantifiable engagements, Halvorson questioned whether marketers blew the campaign’s success completely out of proportion. Ultimately it was cute, but not a game-changer, she told us during an interview after her session.

The need for reflection was also felt by many of the designers in attendance as the industry looks beyond the current approach to content creation and distribution using the familiar desktop/tablet/mobile model.

During the session From Every Screen to No-Screen: Next Gen Responsive, when an audience member asked whether content and functionality should differ across devices, panelist Tim Hayden’s response was, “that’s the wrong question.”

For him, taking a device-centric approach to content creation is no longer tenable. Functionality and context should meet people in the moment and be more relevant and personalized to them.

Customer experience expert Kerry Bodine. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

Customer experience expert Kerry Bodine. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

As panelist Kerry Bodine explained, mobile doesn’t necessarily mean “on the move.” Systems need to identify the context – say, lounging on the couch versus waiting for the bus – in which people are using these devices and provide an experience that’s tailored to that context.

Approximately 50 billion connected devices, ranging from wearables to digital signage, are expected to be in use by 2020, and content creators and marketers will have to work with developers and designers from the start to address contextual needs.

Web privacy debates heat up

Following Edward Snowden’s revelation that the NSA and other government agencies are basically spying on us, the man himself spoke to three auditoriums-worth of conference goers via Google Hangout… and seven proxies.

Snowden called for the tech community to build better, more user-friendly encryption tools to help the everyman safeguard their personal information.

He also had a message for Google, Facebook and other tech firms dealing with user data. As quoted in the Guardian, it’s not that the firms shouldn’t be collecting data, but “that you should only collect the data, and hold it as long as is necessary, for the operation of your business.”

When it comes to how the public uses the internet, though, fundamentally what’s at issue is the balance of usability with user protection.

Or, as Washington-based privacy researcher and activist Christopher Soghoian explained during the session, “You have to choose between a service that’s easy to use and reliable and polished, or a service that is highly secure and impossible for the average person to use.”

Snowden delivers his talk via Google Hangout. Image by ChrisGoldNY via Flickr.

Snowden delivers his talk via Google Hangout. Image by ChrisGoldNY via Flickr.

Upping the service in retail

Several panels touched on the fact that shopping, technology and social media are becoming more and more intertwined.

Sophia Amoruso, CEO of Nasty Gal, which has grown from an eBay store to a vertically integrated $100-million-a-year business, uses Snapchat to engage with customers.

Online clothing store Zappos, meanwhile, is experimenting with social shopping using a specific hashtag to offer shoppers personalized recommendations on Instagram. Users tag their selfies with #nextootd and Zappos will recommend an outfit, explained Will Young, director of Zappos Labs during a session on accelerating retail innovation.

The session panelists – which also included Jen Rubio, global director of innovation at All Saints and Kristina Simmons, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz – agreed that retailers need to deliver people what they want and when they want it.

That might mean building additional distribution centres to help improve shipping times (something Amoruso brought up) or it might mean using beacon technology to send customers relevant information or offers based on their preferences as they walk through the door.

The future of journalism is nerdier, more engaging

Increasingly, algorithms decide what content we consume, which means that, increasingly, these snippets of code are becoming more powerful than the traditional content gatekeepers – editors.

But as Poynter’s Kelly McBride warned during a panel entitled Algorithms, Journalism and Democracy, just because it’s code, doesn’t mean it’s neutral.

Algorithms, like human editors, also prioritize certain types of information and are therefore biased. She thinks companies like Facebook need to be semi-transparent about their algorithms and that citizens need to be more algorithm-literate to protect themselves.

In an engaging and often hilarious conversation led by the New York Times’ media reporter David Carr, Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser defended his startup’s algorithm juicing and link bait packaging, opining that traditional media should stop hiding its content behind bland headlines.

New York Times' David Carr and Upworthy's Pariser talk journalism and engagement. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

New York Times’ David Carr and Upworthy’s Eli Pariser talk journalism and engagement. Image by Steve Mandamadiotis.

Though criticized by Carr for essentially only making the news “sound more interesting,” Pariser said that Upworthy, which logs about 60 million unique views per month (they also look at “attention minutes” or how long a user spends with a piece of content), is basically at the mercy of the free market: “We don’t do well unless people like what we do so much that they share it.”

Still, for Pariser, Upworthy is ultimately about sharing content that has a social conscience. After all, “there’s no purity in doing the beautiful thing that doesn’t reach anyone.”

In another future of journalism session, M. Scott Havens, President of The Atlantic and soon-to-be SVP digital at Time, shared his experiences on how the decision to run the publication like a startup upped engagement and profit.

For Havens, this meant studying data in excruciating detail to define the publisher’s audience, assembling world-class editorial talent, flipping the hierarchy, and above all, avoiding “paralysis by analysis.”

His advice is that if you fail, fail fast. Turn those failures into lessons and keep moving forward.

After 21 years, SXSW Interactive’s content continues to morph according to the whims of the day. The plethora of sessions, startups and attendees might keep the conference bereft of a tidy identity, but we still think it’s headed in the right direction.