In a year where social media was an afterthought at SXSW, what really mattered? Space exploration, that's what.
Last year the big news of SXSW was ambient geo-location. A half a dozen startups tried to convince us that we wanted friends and even strangers to find us wherever and whenever, without us having to push a button or swipe a screen. Our mobile phones would be our aura, ever available and connectable, and constantly scanning our proximities for other auras. Glancee, Highlight, Sonar and other forgotten companies competed for room on our smartphones and showered us with swag. The universe of SXSW was built on connecting the dots of people, and these start-ups were the talk of the town. In past years Twitter and Foursquare had their coming out parties at SXSW, creating a precedent for highly anticipated social applications.
This year, there's nothing comparable. Vine was released shortly before SXSW and, although it got heavy usage to document and share video, there wasn't any official presence. There were little launches but nothing that carried the title of next-big-thing like past social launches.
So what mattered?
One of the big stories this year was outer space. NASA had a big presence this year. It had representatives speaking on numerous panels, and it brought in the big guns with a full-scale model of the Webb telescope, the famous Hubble telescope’s next generation. Entrepreneur Elon Musk's privately funded space program was the lightening rod keynote, giving first person detail of what it's like to launch a rocket into space. The most discussed topic during the entire festival, he generated over 10k mentions in social media for his talk.
Drones circle the bars, with rapt audiences watching the tiny fliers disappear into the sky. Even Vice Magazine brought us space at their events location across from the convention center by showcasing various flying machines, props from the upcoming Tom Cruise sci-fi flick Oblivion. According to Beth McCabe and Itai Asseo of the Hype vs Reality: Takeaways from SXSW panel, space was more than hype - last year it was the subject for 4 panels; this year it was 30.
Hardware was front and center too, with keynotes by the makers of the 3D printing device Makerbot, the gaming console OUYA, and the gestural control device Leap Motion. With the ongoing success at Kickstarter of crowd-funding devices like OUYA, Obama's nod to 3D printing as a sign of US industry and innovation, and the renewed passion in American manufacturing, it's no wonder that the future feels like it's made of plastic and metal.
Have we exhausted the possibilities of social media? Have we expended every iteration of how to connect around what typed content or behavior explored? Possibly. One might even say hopefully, as we get fatigued of the always-on nature of social media.
But more inspiringly, our renewed fascination with space is also being facilitated by social media. Mars Rover won the social media award at SXSW for its twitter feed, and also u-streamed the NASA announcement of finding inhabitable landscapes last Tuesday.