Last year’s Techcrunch50 caused me to wonder if we’d hit the end of the Web 2 bubble. There was a bloated decadence to the event that reinforced all the negative stereotypes of so many valley startups. Instead of innovation there were a host of companies who were adding nothing new, simply copying others’ ideas in the great cash-out game. Yammer, which was closer in degree to Twitter than Kevin Bacon is to Will Smith, was named Best-in-Show. Really, after all the work up, after all the companies coming from all corners of the world, the award was ultimately in appreciation of tweets. A perhaps-politically-motivated appreciation of tweets. A lot has happened in the last year. Banks crashed less than two months after TC50, with the stock market soon to follow. Good times were R.I.P.’ed in the valley, countless companies shut down and hundreds of thousands lost their jobs in the industry.

Analysts and journalists put it in evolutionary terms: the recession represented a paring down of the obvious bloat, a cycle of necessary industry Darwinism.

We’re still too early into recovery to tell if that’s true, but TC50 will be one of the first real event-barometers of the effects of the past year.

Other things have changed as well. Twitter, then just the bell of the valley ball, had yet to hit critical mass (interestingly, one of the major players in Twitter’s mass adoption, Ashton Kutcher, was here last year. And is here this year in spirit, as a VC just asked Penn and Teller if they were punking the crowd).

In Twitter’s wake, real-time has become the theme of the year, leading me to believe that real-time might be the Web 3 cornerstone we thought semantic would be.

There have been other changes in the last year as well. Obama’s use of the web to mobilize voters has put the spotlight on technology’s powers of social and political change.

There’s a lot of lip-service to grassroots and bottom-up here in the valley, but most of the innovation seems to be coming from other places, which is too bad considering San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland’s activist pedigrees.

It’s something Stowe Boyd and I talked about over the weekend: the solipsism of so many in the valley who are only here to carpet-bag innovation, and who at the same time mitigate so much of San Francisco’s progressive and cultural heritage.

There was a certain sort of decadence at last year’s event, both of the scene and the culture. R.I.P Good Times avant la lettre. Even if the event has just started, there are already signs of change. The demo floor is thinner, the conference hall audience sparser. VCs seem to be more critical and everything is real-time.

The economy has begun its long trudge to recovery. TC50 will show how well our industry and culture follows, and will be one of the first real 'cultural' indications of if we've emerged leaner, smarter and meaner, as promised.

By Mark Alvarez