Austin Convention Center by adamjackson1984 via Flickr

Anyone who has been to SXSW can sum it up with one word: Huge. At any moment there are dozens of panels, parties, meet-ups, showcases and sessions to attend on topics ranging from design and advertising to the future of journalism.

Because we’re interested in all the above at Sparksheet, I’ve spent the last few days bouncing across Austin to participate in conversations about every aspect of the media and marketing universe. I’ve discovered that while the jargon may differ from industry to industry, the major issues are pretty much the same. Here are some lessons and observations from the past few days:

The old battle lines are being redrawn

In his book The Chaos Scenario, media critic Bob Garfield argued that both brands and journalists are being threatened by the ‘new media apocalypse.’ So it was fitting on Saturday that Garfield moderated a panel on “Brand Journalism,” featuring representatives from JWT, Pepsi and GMD Studios.

While a typically skeptical Garfield questioned whether brands can do “real journalism,” JWT’s Kyle Monson and David Eastman insisted that brand journalism is about making advertising more like content, not vice versa. Pressed by Garfield to name some examples of great brand journalism, Eastman pointed out that “if this were something brands did well, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about it.”

Later in the day, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen held court on the other side of downtown Austin about the enduring animosity between journalists and bloggers. Rosen argued that it’s time to stop worrying about who is a real journalist; what matters is preserving “acts of journalism,” regardless of who commits them. Instead of “bloggers vs. journalists,” Rosen suggested we start thinking of content in terms of “raw vs. cooked” or “institutional vs. individual.” How about branded and unbranded?

No matter the platform

At SXSW, designers, journalists and marketers all seem to agree that from the consumer’s perspective, content should be platform agnostic.

In a Saturday panel called “The Great Paywall Experiment,” The Wall Street Journal’s Chief Product Officer, Daniel Bernard, insisted that “content has to be available anytime, anywhere the user is.” Bernard said that the Journal originally charged separate prices for its print, online and mobile products but discovered that readers wanted the freedom to move from one platform to another without being charged at each point.

On Sunday morning, The Guardian’s Deputy Editor, Ian Katz, pointed out that his newspaper’s (impressive) coverage of the recent Middle East revolutions was scattered throughout various live blogs, Tumblrs and Twitter feeds, raising the question, “Does it matter where we publish news?

Apps are disruptive

While users may not be picky about platform (as long as content is available where they need it), SXSW has made it clear that the growth of mobile is changing the game for publishers and advertisers alike. In his “Awesome Internet Design Panel,” Jeffrey Zeldman proclaimed that apps have introduced “beautiful design ideas” like simplicity and customization that can “percolate” into the non-mobile space.

In the “Great Paywall” panel, Daniel Mandell, the director of business development at Wenner Media (publisher of Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal) suggested that the App Store model of paying for content a la carte has given brands the opportunity to “retrain” users to start paying for content.

The year of the paywall

Speaking of paywalls, after a decade of debate over whether content “wants to be free,” it looks like premium content is poised for a comeback. Wenner Media’s Mandell spoke about Rolling Stone’s decision to charge for access as the music magazine “dipping its toes” into the world of paid content. But Mandell acknowledged that “content has to be rich enough for people to dip into their wallets.”

From Jay Rosen’s perspective, paywalls are “not an ideological issue, but a practical one.” Rosen said that paywalls would make journalism more like private newsletters, an industry that informs a special class of citizens rather than the public at large (sounds like an ideological issue to me).

For Typekit’s Mandy Brown, who spoke on Jeffrey Zeldman’s design panel Sunday evening, whether or not people will pay for content is indeed a practical issue.  Digital consumers “need the process of paying for content to be as simple and quick and natural as everything else we do” online, Brown said.

Live doodles of Christopher Poole keynote by inuse pictures via Flickr

Playing together

Perhaps the overriding theme of SXSW so far ­is that all this interacting and engaging and creating should be fun. Saturday’s keynote speaker, Seth Priebatsch, explained how companies are adding a “game layer” to our online interactions. In yesterday’s keynote, Christopher Poole, founder of the popular and controversial message board 4chan, argued (contrary to Mark Zuckerberg) that the anonymous nature of online play breeds creativity and collaboration. Later on, Publicis’ Marci Ikeler drew out lessons from 4chan for advertisers, insisting that – like 4chan’s dedicated members – brands need to invite customers to “co-create experiences that are meaningful to them.”

In a Saturday panel called “The Sharing Economy,” representatives from ridesharing company Zimride, renting community Rentalic and experts from Shareable magazine and Latitude Research explained how sharing with strangers online (think craigslist and Netflix) has empowered us to share offline.

And that’s what SXSW is all about: Tech geeks from around the world getting together to connect, collaborate and share some real-life fun.