Nobel Laureate, Dr. John Mather and Northrop Grumman engineer Scott Willoughby talks to a large crowd at South by Southwest on March 9, 2013. Image by NASA Webb Telescope via Flickr.

Nobel Laureate, Dr. John Mather and Northrop Grumman engineer Scott Willoughby speak to a crowd, backed by a model of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Image by NASA Webb Telescope via Flickr.

Any comprehensive roundup of South By Southwest Interactive ought to begin with the caveat that it is impossible to deliver a comprehensive roundup of South By Southwest Interactive.

With hundreds of sessions, exhibits and networking events (read: parties) happening simultaneously throughout Austin over five days, SXSW Interactive is an entirely unique experience for every one of its 25,000-plus participants.

That said, every year a handful of themes and memes manage to rise above the noise – at least for me. Here are my five key takeaways from this year’s event:

It’s not the platform, but how you use it

In last year’s SXSW roundup I noted how there didn’t seem to be any buzzworthy new app or social media platform to break out at the event the way Twitter famously did in 2007.

This year I hardly even heard anybody talk about Twitter – or Facebook or Instagram for that matter. SXSW 2013 may have been the first SXSW to coincide with a papal conclave, but it seems like the interactive industry has officially become platform agnostic.

Or, as Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti put it in his keynote, “The railroad tracks have been built – now the question is, “What’s worth sharing on them?”

One of the most telling moments occurred after Google senior developer Timothy Jordan demoed the much-hyped Google Glass prototype, revealing how partner brands like Evernote, Path and the New York Times are already designing apps tailored to the wearable, headmounted device.

Jordan passionately argued that “by bringing technology closer, we could get it further away.” The device seemed to work flawlessly and the use cases Jordan presented were compelling, but the SXSW crowd was mostly unimpressed.

During the Q&A, someone brusquely announced that although the device’s hardware is impressive, there doesn’t seem to be a single thing he could do with the device that he can’t already do on his iPhone. The crowd burst into applause.

On one hand, the crowd’s cynicism made me think of comedian Louis C.K.’s famous rant that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” On the other, I was heartened to see that people no longer seem to be blinded by the “bright shiny object” syndrome.

The lesson for me is that it’s not about the platform anymore; it’s about what you can do with it. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the platforms people did talk up this year are utilitarian – workflow apps like Evernote and TeuxDeux (designed by keynoter Tina Roth Eisenberg, AKA Swiss Miss) and Nextdoor, a platform for community organizing.

Digital is physical

I’ve written before about the “click to brick” phenomenon: Location-sharing app Foursquare driving retail purchases, online eyewear purveyor Warby Parker opening real-world “showrooms.”

Well, the line between physical and digital is even blurrier now with the rise of 3D printing, which was the subject of at least 10 SXSW sessions and the focal point of a sub-event called SXSW Create.

A 3D printing exhibit at SXSW sub-event Create. Image by John Biehler via Flickr.

A 3D printing exhibit at SXSW sub-event Create. Image by John Biehler via Flickr.

There’s also a growing awareness that our ever-increasing production and consumption of digital content has (geo)physical implications. At least that’s the message David Bellona, a designer at Twitter, is hoping to get across.

Bellona gave a talk on “The Paradox of the Cloud,” noting that our ever-increasing online activity is powered by gigantic data centers, which he calls the “factories of the Information Age.” There’s estimated to be as many as 500,000 of them around the world.

Some tech companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, are making efforts to source renewable energy to power their operations, but most data centers are run on fossil fuels.

Chalk it up as yet another reason why, when it comes to content, we should be aiming for quality instead of quantity.

The next generation of media brands has taken over

For the first time in three years at SXSW I didn’t come across any panels about paywalls, newspapers or “how to save journalism.” In fact, many of the usual new media pundits and legacy media apologists were conspicuously absent. No one talked about print being dead or alive.

Instead, two of the major keynotes were delivered by web-native content publishers who have figured out how to create massively popular – not to mention free – content and get paid for it: Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti and The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman.

A slide from Matthew Inman's presentation.

A slide from Matthew Inman’s presentation.

Peretti revealed Buzzfeed’s secret sauce for creating shamelessly sticky and shareable content. Ingredients may include: cute animals, nostalgia, timeliness and humour, churned by an algorithm that relentlessly promotes content that resonates quickly, and ruthlessly “starves” content that doesn’t.

Buzzfeed makes money by lending that recipe to brands in the form of so-called native advertising, or as Peretti called it, “social content marketing,” which he said accounts for 100 percent of Buzzfeed’s revenue.

For example, check out the “The 20 Coolest Hybrid Animals,” a sponsored post that was completely on-brand for both Buzzfeed and Toyota Prius, the hybrid car it was promoting. Silly as it is, this may just be the future of content marketing.

For The Oatmeal cartoonist Inman, the key to success is authenticity (he only publishes when he is inspired to – again, quality over quantity), crowdfunding and profitable brand extensions like books, t-shirts and other swag that allow him to keep his core content free.

Looking outward, ahead and beyond

There was lots of talk about the future at this year’s SXSW. And not in the ubiquitous “Future of X” kind of way. The actual future when none of us will be around, never mind the startup du jour. (Al Gore even wrote a book called “The Future,” which he was interviewed about on stage).

This may go down as the year SXSW Interactive attendees quit naval-gazing – stopped looking at themselves as the be-all and end-all and started looking outward. Sometimes way out.

One of my favourite sessions featured astronaut Mae Jemison, astronomer Jill Tarter (who Jodie Foster’s character in Contact was based on), and Star Trek actor LeVar Burton discussing the 100 Year Starship project, which boldly seeks to enable interstellar space travel within the next century.

NASA was also in Austin to showcase its next-generation telescope, while SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO Elon Musk discussed private space exploration in a Q&A with former Wired editor Chris Anderson.

Elon Musk delivering his keynote address at SXSW 2013. Image by Digitas Photos via Flickr.

Elon Musk delivering his keynote address at SXSW 2013. Image by Digitas Photos via Flickr.

The Space contingent represented a profoundly optimistic view of The Future at SXSW, while sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling brought us back down to earth with his apocalyptic closing remarks, reminding us that “these are not boom times” and “just because technology advances doesn’t mean things are getting better.”

I didn’t make it to any of the sessions but the healthcare stream was beefed up considerably this year, indicating that if we’re going to make it to Al Gore’s future, we better start taking care of ourselves – and each other.

Seeing sessions about autism, Alzheimer’s and accessibility on the schedule was a sobering reminder that despite what the dot-com millionaires turned self-help gurus lead us to believe, the sky isn’t the limit for everyone.

Maybe that’s what happens when you bundle an interactive conference with a music festival. Everyone starts to believe they’re Bono saving the world with a mobile app (my colleague calls this delusion “the elevation of purpose”).

So here’s the question: How do we remain optimistic and idealistic and moral (to borrow a term from RJ Owen, who led a great session on “moral design”) without becoming trite and sanctimonious?  How do we prevent healthy skepticism from sliding into cynicism?

Perhaps we need the Jill Tarters fearlessly leading us toward a Gene Roddenberry future alongside the Bruce Sterlings crankily calling BS. The fact that both were given a platform in Austin is a sign that as big and noisy as SXSW has become, it still gets it, and is therefore still worth going to.