New Year’s Eve is a day of reflection and celebration and each December we mark the passage of time by inviting NHPR’s own Brady Carlson on the show to share his list of the year’s biggest web trends. Last year his list included: Kony 2012, Kickstarter, and Gangnam Style. Seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Brady joins us again to reflect on the web trends and memes of 2013, and what they reveal about our collective state this year.
10) Harlem Shake!
The year in viral music – oh, and yeah, that's a thing to track now – starts with the Shake, which gave all of last year's “Gangnam Style” fans something new to do with their hands. And their camera apps, too – the meme fell out of favor after pretty much everyone in the entire world made their own Harlem Shake video for YouTube. But not to worry – there was a steady stream of successors, from “What Does The Fox Say” to a duet between Taylor Swift and a screaming goat. And it's why artists backed by big labels were making videos and performances aimed at going viral, like, say, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, and Miley Cyrus with Robin Thicke. By the way, the viral music this year wasn't just about the young people. Exhibit A: “Oh Sweet Lorraine,” 96 year old Fred Stobaugh's ode to his late wife. Exhibit B: Bob Dylan's interactive video in which an entire cable TV system – including home shopping hosts, rappers, real housewives, Drew Carey - sings along to “Like a Rolling Stone” while you surf through the channels.
9) Edward Snowden, surveillance and privacy
And we thought Wikileaks was big: the revelations leaked out of the National Security Agency by contractor Edward Snowden have, in the last seven months, affected US relations with Russia, Brazil and Germany, among others. They've made some tech watchers rethink their feelings about some of the tech companies who were shown to be involved in the agency's PRISM program. This week they've prompted a judge to declare some of the NSA's surveillance “probably unconstitutional” and a presidential review board to recommend new limits to the surveillance programs.
And we may just be getting started, given how many of the documents Snowden obtained are believed to still be out there.
8) New kinds of web content
Each new year brings us new web tools. This year's crop include six-second video sensation Vine, used primarily by one young man named Logan Vine and occasionally by the rest of the world, and the this-photo-will-self-destruct service Snapchat, which teens claim is not really just for sharing questionable content with each other. But if so, then WHAT ARE THEY HIDING FROM US?!?
Also: some old kinds of content won new prominence this year, like Reddit AMAs. See, this time last year, I would've had to explain what a Reddit AMA was. But now, everyone knows what they are because Benedict Cumberbatch did one.
7) Tweeting and tragedies: how social media grew up a little after the Boston Marathon bombings
Social media platforms have been phenomenally successful at lowering the barriers to participation and sharing information in real time. In a crisis or an emergency, those features can still be assets – but that can also become liabilities, if people start posting or sharing information that's inaccurate, misleading or outright dangerous. Reddit, in particular, did some soul-searching after the bombings, about how to maintain a platform that's open to discussion but also isn't, say, harming someone who might be incorrectly identified as a suspect. And Twitter users started to correct each other for sharing inaccurate information or posting what they heard on police scanners, which, as tech editor Curt Woodward put it, “is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.”
Still, the urge to document and participate runs as strong as ever, and as the Arapahoe High School shooting unfolded in Colorado, there were users posting scanner information, leading to a nice rejoinder from New York Times reporter Jack Healy: “Tweeting scanner traffic is like drinking untreated water. Quenches thirst, but could be really really harmful.”
6) I made a list of web trends of the year. What happened next changed everything.
Here's every Upworthy headline ever written: “This [picture/video/story] of a [small child/activist/person enduring difficult challenge/cat] will restore your faith in [humanity/parents/friendship/cats].” And then, of course, an ask for you to share the headline on Facebook.
(The best of the many parodies of this style, by the way, is Upworthy: Springfield, which turns the plots of Simpsons episodes and turns them into Upworthy headlines. Remember Hank Scorpio, Homer's supervillain boss for a day? The Upworthy version is “Meet One CEO Who Actually Cares About His Employees. Imagine That” Ha.)
Of course, we can laugh all we want, but it works. Upworthy may be the newest player in the webcandy market, but it's already a legitimate rival to Buzzfeed (“23 Cats That Watched The 'Red Wedding' On 'Game of Thrones'”), Gawker (“Watch Crack Mayor Rob Ford Dance to Reggae at an Official Meeting”) and the Huffington Post (“PHOTOS: Famous Woman Rides Bike In A Bikini”). And unlike these competitors, which do reporting and news along with posts about pets and celebrities, Upworthy is solely about curating content about “things that matter,” and it curates them so well that it restores your faith in humanity – er, I mean, almost always convinces people to share them.
5) Misogyny on the web: ugh
Here's one place we could use some faith-restoring: the treatment of women on the web this year was notable for all the wrong reasons. I tried to keep track of the depressingly numerous instances of women in tech and web culture being targeted for harassment and threats and alleged “jokes” but there was no way to keep up. (And that's without trying to count the number of unsolicited anatomy pictures sent by text.)
We learned in July, during our conversation about this issue, that solutions are hard to come by when it comes to addressing misogyny on the web. The culture of the web has evolved with a general philosophy of “too much speech is better than too little.” Sites that want to keep objectionable comments away have mostly turned to buttons that say “report this post.” And since the web is customizable and personalized, the thinking has always been that if you find people or content offensive you can choose to steer clear of them. This year's examples of abusive, misogynist behavior suggest that this more hands-off approach is not adequate, and you see sites and users and tech companies starting to rethink what they do when they see this kind of behavior. We shall see whether any of them work.
4) Danger is my, um, last name
Danger. Carlos Danger. The man whose online exploits inspired saucy marketing campaigns, a cocktail, a line of hot dogs, a name generator, endless memes, and even got two votes for mayor of New York City. The alter ego of one Anthony Weiner, who found that being Carlos Danger did not help his actual campaign for mayor of New York City. We're pretty sure that Weiner's being Carlos Danger did not help a man who is actually named Carlos Danger, a doctor of psychiatry who lives in Miami and probably deserves a much quieter 2014.
3) Crowdfunding gets complicated
There's a lot of money in them thar internets! Of course, we saw the rise of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites last year; what was new in 2013 was the rise of some more complex questions around raising money from the crowd. For example, should crowdfunding be geared toward unknowns who deserve more visibility, or for already well-known people who can leverage a fan base into big dollar amounts for their projects? Should crowdfunding sites do more to regulate projects and businesses, or to protect potential backers or investors from fraud or misuse? Should certain kinds of content be off-limits for crowdfunding? And will any project that ends up on Freakstarter make more than five dollars from the crowd?
2) Kids Go Viral
Every year's crop of kid memes is bountiful, but not every year is as high-quality as this one was, from the irrepressible Kid President and “Camp Gyno” girl, to the real-life heroics of Malala Yousafzai, to San Francisco's adorable Batkid. Kids like these make the internet happy. And every so often, as with one young lady in London looking for her lost bear, the internet tries to return the favor.
1) The Viral Hoax!
Remember that adorable couple dancing and singing at the gas station on The Tonight Show? It was probably staged. That video where a woman was twerking and caught on fire? It was definitely staged. That time MTV's Twitter feed got “hacked”? Nope, you got punk'd. The waitress who got stiffed on a tip because she was a lesbian? Not quite how it played out. The web makes it so easy to share stories instantaneously – and some of these stories are so perfect that we want to believe they're true. But, of course, many of them aren't true, and increasingly they're being artificially crafted to appeal to your “share this” muscle – and sometimes your “fund this” muscle. The viral hoax is very real, so next time a dude comes out of surgery and says he can't remember his wife, you might want to hold off on sharing it right away.