Somewhere beyond Jessica Alba’s bob coif and Kelis’s food truck, there was a conference held at SXSW 2015. The Interactive section of the festival had swarms of marketers, digital entrepreneurs and content developers gathering at every hotel banquet hall in the city (and their adjacent bars) to learn from each other and the leaders in their industry. Sparksheet’s reporters were on the ground, picking up the latest trends in media platforms, digital market and content distribution. Here are the top five things they learned: 

Photo by Geoff Livingston via Flickr

Photo by Geoff Livingston via Flickr.

Lesson #1: Video killed the video star

Has video moved forward at all as a means of communication since YouTube democratized its creation? FOVE and Oculus Rift are still crawling sheepishly from the dripping Davy Jones’s locker of unspeakable ’80s tech. Virtual Reality is old, ungainly wear (even if shooting guns with your eyes is awesome) and storytelling in VR movies is still just playing catch-up with video games. VR is the format that will finally cement the convergence of movie and gaming. But beyond that more visceral entertainment experience, in the humdrum of the everyday and the cacophony of enthusiastic self-posting, there remains no great white hope for video. Meerkat, web series, interactive videos, YouTube creators—it’s all somehow still a bit meh—are still stuck in the noughties, still trying to prove that it’s worth doing, even if it is finally getting attention from brands. The question raised at SXSW is: will the future of video be determined by crowd-obsessed techies, drama-inspired creatives, or both? When will the visual medium of the masses move on from Instagram and Vine to something a bit more now? 

Lesson #2: I’m losing my edge

Got the feeling you’ve lost your edge? Try SXSW—it’s the Bluffer’s Guide to Staying Relevant. But if the audience has lost its edge, then what about the event? Mumbles from the back of Austin’s hotel conference rooms suggest that the true innovators have moved on, while the established digital show-ponies of Google, Dropbox, Spotify and the like, circle their bandwagons in Texas. They’re all trying a little too hard to keep cool. Even the hipster beard is clinging to life here, desperate for its last meal before the cut, yet somehow surprised that those final morsels came from a McDonalds food truck.

Lesson #3: Owned Media is over. Or is it?

Marketers looking for the best way blast their stories into the general consciousness (that’s all of them) probably walked away from 2015’s SXSW confused. Jordan Kretchmer, the CEO of Livefyre, preached the importance of getting users onto your own platforms. His reasoning: Facebook is killing organic reach and Twitter is a “feeding frenzy” where tweets are ignored, so make social media efforts worth more by aggregating tweets, posts, images and video—and content related to this content—on an owned media webpage. (Coincidentally, Livefyre sells a product that does just that.) But try telling that to Jonah Peretti, co-founder of BuzzFeed, whose site just broke the internet with “The Dress”. Peretti says that content is content, no matter the platform, and creators just need to get it out there. If all that matters is distribution, what difference does it make who owns the platform? The only thing that reconciles the two points of view is context. Marketers need a granular approach that considers what is appropriate on every platform. A tweet is content, so craft it to be useful during the split second that users might glance at it. A Facebook post is content too, so shape it perfectly and hope it catches fire—even if a little boosting money is the spark that gets the blaze going. Aggregating all the social bits on your own site might work as well, if your messaging lends itself to this format. Of course, that page is content too, so consider it carefully and execute it well.

Often a spark is needed to get the fire roaring on social media.  Photo by Paul Hocksenar via Flickr

Often a spark is all you need to get the fire roaring on social media. Photo by Paul Hocksenar via Flickr.

Lesson #4: It came from the swamp

Imagine being reborn as a semi-living blob of jelly in a bioart installation. Are you alive? Are you dead? Are you bothered either way? The closer we get to a world where we control screens with our eyes, particles levitate on sound waves, and robots read our thoughts, the harder it is to understand what might be next. But Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of MOMA, can certainly see what’s coming. Behold the silk worms that build entire pavilions, the machines that help men feel what it is like to menstruate, and the amoebic life forms that jerk into motion—neither dead nor truly alive, but captured in an eternal limbo of the art installation. Even as the audience were hoovered in and out of her session like disturbed plankton, she pressed on through a bleeding Powerpoint, where biology and the wild snarled into conflict with electricity and digital life.

The parallels of biology and technology were Photo by Oka Tai-Lee via Flickr.

The SXSW audience was reminded that biology and technology can intersect. Photo by Oka Tai-Lee via Flickr.

Lesson #5: Meerkat Shows the Way

“Who’s Meerkatting this?” was a common phrase at SXSW sessions this year. It was both an industry in-joke and a harbinger. The Meerkat-versus-Twitter story was unfolding at the same time as the conference, and the nerds gathered in Austin were speculating about what comes next: “It’s dead as Ello”, “It’ll be its own Snapchat by the end of the year”, “Twitter can’t keep it down”. The fate of Meerkat—a livestreaming app that piggybacks on Twitter—is now sealed. Twitter has killed Meerkat’s ability to use the platform for distribution and has released its own similar service, Periscope. But the whole affair points to a creeping trend in social media. Like Facebook before it, Twitter is transforming from a free-for-all speech platform to a controlled distribution service, where Twitter itself gets to decide what gets shared and how. Control is in; users’ freedom is out. With Instagram’s new handpicked advertisers and Snapchat Discover—a bizarrely unsharable, curated feed of news items from Snapchat’s media partners—it seems as though the social media big boys are becoming less like TV airwaves and more like TV networks. And we all know what happened to TV networks: struggling to stay relevant in a sea of torrenting, streaming and ascendent cable outlets.

Times have certainly changed for TV networks. Photo by Florida Memory via Flickr

Times have certainly changed for TV networks. Photo by Florida Memory via Flickr.