SXSW's Next Big Thing Summed Up in One Word: 'Us'

Every time I come back from the SXSW Interactive conference, I get asked the same thing: "So what's the next big thing?" There seems to be this artificial pressure to "discover" the next Twitter. The next Foursquare.

It never used to be that way. SXSW Interactive used to be about academia. About teaching and learning from each other. About the future of technology and humanity. About criticism, heated discussion and debate.

This year's SXSW Interactive conference was the most attended, most sponsored and most talked-about yet. Mainstream media set up camp at the CNN Grille, and what used to be temporary brand installations were so built-out, it looked as if they were permanent fixtures in the Austin cityscape. It was spread out over miles, rather than consolidated in one location. People had to stay at hotels alongside the highway, or rented rooms and apartments rather than fit into one of the thousands of typically available hotel rooms surrounding the convention center.

So while it seems to some that the conference may have "sold out" by allowing itself to be taken over by brands, by letting in too many "beginners," or by letting itself get too big, I think it was the best one ever. Because this year, SXSW's "next big thing" was collaboration.

Sure, people discovered group messaging for the first time (Groupie, Beluga and Fast Society). People took a lot of photos with apps on their phones (Integra, Instamatic). People still checked into places on Foursquare and Gowalla and even into each other with Hashable. But if you looked and listened closely, this year's SXSW was all about finding ways to work together and building interoperable platforms. Connectivity and connections won.

Some of the most amazing things I saw at this year's conference were actually not apps, not sites, but APIs, platforms, and enhancements -- things that were meant to be built-upon or plugged into something else to make it better. API-masters The Mashery even had a Circus Mashimus Lounge to facilitate interactions between people and platforms, and platforms and each other.

Brands were all over it, too. American Express plus Foursquare. Brisk plus Hipstamatic. Samsung plus Twitter. Each of these brands used platforms to make their products more interesting, and more helpful. Checking into a participating location with Foursquare, and paying with your American Express card got you money back. Brisk cans featured drinkers' photos. Samsung featured stunning visualizations of SXSW-related conversations on Twitter. And there were many others.

Anecdotally, the feedback I heard about the "best" panels were ones that were about APIs and platform development, user experience and interface design, device and content convergence. All of those panels had one thing in common: connections (to people, content and information).

But some of the most positive feedback I got from the conference overall was not about its panels, but its attendees. Its size was its advantage. The sheer number of people to talk to, to learn from, was unprecedented. At any given point in time, you could be chatting with a brand manager. An engineer. A Hollywood agent. A developer. An entrepreneur. A venture capitalist. A manager for a nonprofit organization. Serendipitous conversations were plentiful, and only possible because of the collaborative and convivial atmosphere that can only be created by the convergence of so many different people with a shared passion for connectivity. Of course, as always, there were parties. But they were so plentiful and spread out, getting into them was easier than ever, only serving to facilitate serendipitous contact.

One thing the last few years has taught me is that collaboration -- not competition -- yields the most innovation and the best ideas. If, as Steven B. Johnson writes in "Where Good Ideas Come From," innovation is bred from the "adjacent possible," then SXSW made that adjacency possible for thousands of people. A city like Austin known for its live music, BBQ and bars makes for the perfect place to share ideas. It was a density of creativity and creative people where everyone mattered, and any form of elitism was rejected. People in VIP areas at parties wound up partying with everyone else. People boarded buses that took complete strangers to the Salt Lick (you shouldn't have to ask what that is), and took them back as friends. It's not normal or every day. But if that's what keeps Austin weird, I'm all for it. And I'll be back again next year. Just like everyone else, coming back smarter as a result.