The 10 Most Important Social and Digital Media Developments of 2009
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We've assembled a top 10 list in loosely considered order, of significant themes and plot points in the unfolding story of the remaking of the media landscape -- social and otherwise. Enjoy!
10. The Kindle changed everything
So Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) introduced its e-reader in 2007, but this year the Kindle has come into its own. This holiday season, Amazon proudly announced that it was sold more Kindles than any other product, and for the first time, it actually sold more digital books than print editions.
But this is a bigger story than just a win for Amazon. For years, e-readers had been something of a laughing stock in the tech industry -- big hype, no sales. Now it's one of the fastest-growing categories in consumer electronics. Barnes & Noble and Sony both had trouble keeping their devices in stock through the holiday season. Numerous firms introduced or announced plans for new devices this year, with many more to come in 2010, leading to breathless stories that run along the lines of "How Amazon Reinvented the Book." Hyperbole aside, the Kindle and its competitors are forging a new market that Forrester Research is projecting to double in 2010, offering a small ray of hope for beleaguered print publications -- from books to magazines to newspapers.
9. The 'Craigslist killer'
Less significant for the facts of the crime -- a medical student allegedly murdered an escort he solicited on Craigslist -- than the colorful aftermath, the story of Philip Markoff was a case study in the sensationalism that has accompanied age-old crimes committed with the aid of new media. Markoff was quickly dubbed the "Craigslist Killer," a villain whom ambitious politicians seized on to launch an attack against an immensely popular and almost entirely benign Web site.
Had Markoff met the woman is accused of murdering through a newspaper classified ad or the numerous escort services that advertise in the yellow pages, this would have been a non-story. But because it was Craigslist, a relatively new and still not entirely understood online service, the case became a sensation, just as have some instances of cyber-bullying and sexual predation on social networks. Thanks to the grandstanding of elected officials like South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, Craigslist spent much of the first half of the year bathed in negative publicity, reminding us that in certain circles, that which is new is feared.
8. Facebook and Twitter in the black? So they can make money!
Without question, Facebook and Twitter were the two most buzz-worthy social sites of 2009. But since their respective foundings, both have faced the persistent question about how they plan to parlay a base of users who enjoy a free service into a profitable business. Both took significant steps toward answering that question this year.
First, in March, Facebook took the rare step of divulging some of its financial information, leaking word to reporters that it had been operating at a profit for five straight quarters, and was on track for a 70 percent jump in annual revenue in 2009. Facebook derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising and the sale of virtual goods. Then, late this month, reports surfaced that Twitter was actually operating in the black. The company, whose founders had long talked about developing and selling an enterprise-class product, had apparently scored enough cash from their deals to license real-time content to the search engines of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo that it was operating at a profit. So it wasn't a down year for everyone.
7. Social media in government
Barack Obama rode into the Oval Office in January on a wave of promises about openness and transparency, vowing to look for technological solutions to every problem the country faces and change the way business is done in Washington. Given that he'd just finished up what most agree was a remarkably tech-savvy campaign, open government advocates had high hopes. How open government has really become after year one of the Obama administration remains a matter of considerable debate, and it seems safe to say that if things in Washington have changed at all, it has been in the direction of incivility and partisan intransigence.
But there is no denying that Obama and his team have spent a good deal of time and energy expanding the government's presence online. From delivering the weekly address to the nation on YouTube to hosting an online town hall meeting, Obama has been trying to hang on to his new-media credibility. Dozens of new government Web sites and blogs have sprung up, inviting comments from the public, and more federal proceedings are streamed over the Web than ever before. The State Department has begun including new media training in the curriculum for all foreign service officers, and earlier this month the Office of Management and Budget released its long-awaited open government directive, setting a timetable for the agencies to take steps like publishing information online and setting up Web sites where the public has a chance to comment on policies and proposals.
6. The agonies of journalism
Oh, the anxiety! Most are aware that 2009 was not a kind year to the news business. More and more people were getting their news online, aggregators were plentiful, classified revenue was dissipating, newspaper subscriptions dwindled and a sour economy continued to sap advertisers' budgets. Much of this was not new or even markedly different from previous years. But as the economic predicament grew more dire, the first big-city papers closed shop, beginning with Denver's Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, both beta papers in two-newspaper towns. But that left many to wonder how long it would be before a major American city would be left with no newspaper at all.
And so it wasn't long before an industry's existential crisis became a matter for debate among policy makers, with the great, still-unanswered question being: can the Internet produce a business model that will support quality, time-consuming accountability journalism of the sort that can be physically dangerous or legally perilous. If not, is this a case of market failure that warrants the involvement of the government? Everyone has an opinion, which made 2009 a noisy place in certain media and policy circles, as Congress held hearings, the Federal Trade Commission convened a two-day workshop, think tanks and industry conventions tried to breath hope into new ideas, and sometimes resurrect old ones. As in the TV industry, the events of 2009 were a dramatic illustration for the news business of the challenges of adapting old media to new, and the growing instability of a model that relies on advertising to subsidize the production of quality content.