This year has been all about privacy, or lack therof, online. Time magazine named Mark Zuckerberg as their Person of the Year, while the popular vote went to Julian Assange, the founder and chief instigator of WikiLeaks. Much has been made about both men trying to make our lives more transparent, Facebook with its 500-million-strong social network, and WikiLeaks with its bounty of classified diplomatic cables. And while openness and transparency are wonderful ideals in society and journalism, there is a tipping point where transparency becomes a violation of privacy. Whether that’s changing the Facebook privacy settings in a convoluted way, or leaking documents that could harm an informant’s life, creating transparency can also create pain points. As Pew Internet’s Lee Rainie put it, “It’s hard to have privacy and be social at the same time. It’s the classic human struggle/tension.”
Meanwhile, in the world of politics, the Internet and new forms of media played a big role in the midterm U.S. elections. Facebook became not only a major place for candidates to connect with potential voters, but also a place to raise money and organize. The Tea Party movement used YouTube and social media to help spread their message online, building momentum for a groundswell of support, swinging the House of Representatives back to the Republicans and taking more seats in the U.S. Senate.
As for digital disruption, nothing beat Apple’s iPad, which beat expectations and sold millions of units. It changed the way that publishers view mobile content, and gave some of them hope for new revenue streams from subscriptions and ads. Also in the mobile space, the Android operating system built momentum and overtook the iPhone in global usage.
Without further ado, here’s the list of top stories of 2010, with the help of some folks who joined in the writing of this article via iEtherPad. Their contributions are credited below.
1. WikiLeaks releases private diplomatic cables via mainstream news sources.
WikiLeaks operates as a site without a country, a “state-less” organization, and has made transparency its chief aim by publishing secret documents from banks, governments and other companies. But this year, the site put the U.S. in its cross-hairs, releasing video from Iraq showing gunfire from an American helicopter that killed two Reuters news staff. That was followed by the two massive leaks of material, The Iraq War Logs in October, and the Secret U.S. Embassy Cables),_1966-2010/ or CableGate, in November.
While those releases brought criticism of WikiLeaks from the U.S. government and critics who said it would disrupt delicate American operations abroad, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange said sensitive material was redacted from the cables. Meanwhile, Assange was wanted for alleged sex crimes in Sweden and detained in London. He is now under “mansion arrest” in London and WikiLeaks is being mirrored on multiple sites, including through Reporters Without Borders.
Prediction: No matter what happens to Assange and WikiLeaks, the digital cat is out of the bag. Anyone can (and will) start WikiLeaks-style sites to post secret documents, but gaining the trust of the public will be difficult. One such effort already launched is called Brussels Leaks.
2. Facebook becomes very, very big, dominating social networking.
2010 was another year that Facebook took criticism for not doing enough to protect people’s privacy, releasing Facebook Places so people could even “check in” to say exactly where they were located. And Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took it on the chin with a negative portrayal of Facebook’s early days on the big screen in “The Social Network,” a movie that will likely bring home some Hollywood hardware with awards. But Zuckerberg had a lot to celebrate this year, too, with these kinds of eye-popping statistics:
> More than 500 million active users.
> More than 200 million active users on mobile.
> 700 billion minutes spent by all users on Facebook each month.
> More than 2 million sites using Facebook social plug-ins
> The Washington Post had a 280% increase in traffic referred by Facebook this year
Prediction: An initial public offering could come for Facebook soon, as it continues to become a monster in social networking and beyond.
3. iPads, iPads everywhere.
With great fanfare, Apple released the iPad, a new take on the tablet computer concept which had largely failed in previous incarnations. So how did it do? It far surpassed expectations (and criticisms of being “a big iPhone”) with sales that could top 8 million units after the holiday season ends. eMarketer predicts iPad sales will more than double to 19.4 million units sold next year, and more than 30 million in 2012. While publishers salivated over the prospects of charging big money for iPad apps (in some cases charging as much as, or more than, print editions), users were not quite as willing to fork over that money. Plus, a study by RJI found that more than half the people who subscribe to print newspapers and have an iPad are “very likely to cancel their print subscriptions in the next 6 months.” The iPad continues to be the savior/anti-Christ for traditional print publishers.
Meanwhile, a raft of new tablets are in the works that will run Windows 7 as well as Android. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab already sold more than 1 million units in its first two months for sale outside the U.S. At the moment, the biggest competitor for the iPad is the iPad 2, which is rumored to be coming in the next few months. According to Pew Internet, 5% of American had iPads or tablets as of November 24, but Pew’s Lee Rainie says that number will surely climb over the holidays.
Prediction: The iPad will continue to dominate in tablet computers, taking on netbooks and even laptops, and more competitors in the space will only push tablets further into the mainstream.
4. Online ad revenues surpass newspaper revenues this year in the U.S.
We all knew this day was coming, but didn’t realize it would happen so soon. According to eMarketer, all ad spending on newspapers, including on their websites, will be $25.7 billion in the U.S. this year, while online advertising will surpass it for the first time at $25.8 billion. And next year, the gap will widen even more, with newspaper ads bringing in $24.6 billion to $28.5 billion online. And online ad sales will eventually top $40 billion by 2014, according to eMarketer. This phenomenon of online ad sales surpassing newspaper ad sales happened even earlier in the U.K. but is now finally hitting home. It means that newspaper companies, which have finally had an uptick in their stock prices, will need to focus even more on online revenues and initiatives.
Prediction: Newspapers will continue to lose print ad money, but will start to make up for some of that loss with rising ad revenues in web, mobile and tablet platforms.
5. FTC proposes a Do Not Track list.
The beauty of online advertising is that it’s so much more measurable. And trackable. That gives advertisers a lot more data on who you are, what sites you visit and what you might like to buy. Therefore, when you get “behaviorally targeted ads,” they are actually for things you might want. That’s a good thing. But it’s also creepy, too. Many people like the idea of targeted ads, but don’t like advertisers knowing that much about them. Thus, law makers in the U.S. have had hearings, proposed laws and have generally been up in arms about online tracking and privacy issues. But very little has come of that teeth-gnashing. Now comes a possible Do Not Track list from the FTC that would allow people to opt out from online tracking in one fell swoop, just like the “Do Not Call” database for telemarketing. Some think this would hurt online advertisers. Others think it would benefit the biggest online publishers. The FTC is recommending that Congress step in to implement Do Not Track if the industry doesn’t do it themselves. European regulators have said they also want to give consumers more control over online tracking.
Prediction: The subject of online tracking for advertising will continue to be a hot-button topic, and it’s doubtful the media industry and government will come up with a workable solution that pleases everyone and protects consumers.
6. Groupon turns down a multi-billion-dollar offer from Google.
2010 was also the year of social coupons, where groups of people can cash in on special offers from merchants. The biggest player was certainly Groupon, with its geo-targeted deal per day. Various reports tag Groupon’s sales at between $500 million to $2 billion, with Forbes calling it the “fastest growing company ever.” But maybe Groupon was believing its own hype by passing on a massive $5 billion to $6 billion takeover offer from Google. Were they being smart to wait for a better offer or an IPO? Or would they rue the day they turned down all that money? Time will tell. The Toronto Star’s Sarah Millar asked, “Will the ‘Oprah effect’ be enough to carry Groupon through? Groupon turning down Google is reminiscent of Facebook doing it too. Perhaps Groupon has more up its sleeve than we are giving it credit for.”
Prediction: Social coupon and “deal a day” services will continue to proliferate in the digital era. But are the barriers to entry too low? More competition might put a crimp in Groupon’s dominance, though it just filed to raise $950 million in more funding for international expansion.
7. Pay wall talk dominates, but are pay walls actually paying off?
Last year, News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch led the rhetorical charge for paid content at news sites, saying all his company’s sites would charge online and he would remove his sites from Google’s search index. While some of that was overheated rhetoric, the Times of London did go behind a pay wall. The results were not impressive. Only 14% of Times readers became paid subscribers in the first 6 months of the pay wall, and many of those people were already print subscribers so got access online. It’s surprising that Murdoch hasn’t learned the lesson of his own Wall Street Journal Online’s leaky pay wall, where a lot of stories — as well as blogs and videos — are still free. The New York Times will take the “metered wall” approach early next year, something that has worked well for the Financial Times’ website. But PR veteran Keith Trivitt wondered if the NY Times might lose some visitors coming from social media.
“What will be especially interesting is how much tolerance people have for hitting that pay wall if they come from a social media site, such as Facebook, Tumblr, etc.,” he said. “NYT has been giving off the position that it thinks its content is unique enough (it likely is, in some cases) that all readers of NYTimes.com will want to pay for it, given enough time to learn about and understand the pay wall. I’m not so sure, especially in a culture that now values the sharing of free content via social networks.”
Alice Myerhoff, an executive at real estate site Inman News, notes that paid content works for unique content. “Working for a company with a news site that has a pay wall and is also very active in social media, I can tell you that it’s likely to depend on the niche aspect of that particular content,” she said. “Who is the particular audience and is that an audience willing to pay for content? Mainstream news has become commoditized and the Average Joe certainly won’t pay for that.”
Prediction: Putting up a pay wall around general interest content will likely fail in the long run. Using the leaky wall strategy or metered wall might have a better shot at success with high quality content, and a strong pay wall will work better with targeted, niche content.
8. Cord cutting for cable TV starts to gain some momentum, even though cable companies say it’s a myth.
Is it really happening? After much talk about the recession leading people to cancel expensive cable TV and satellite services for streaming Netflix, Roku and other over-the-top services, there was still scant evidence it was happening. A story I wrote for MediaShift in January, Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV, was one of the most popular posts this year. Finally by mid-year, cable companies admitted that subscriber numbers had dropped, starting with Time Warner Cable. But rather than give credence to cord-cutting, the company continued to say other factors were at play, including less people moving into new homes. The Toronto Star’s Sarah Millar believes that “cable will always be around — and people will continue to pay for it. While we don’t have ‘The Event’ television we used to, there are some programs people will want to watch when it airs.”
Prediction: Cable companies will continue to push “TV Everywhere” which ties people to cable, even if they want to watch online. There will be a showdown between Netflix, Hulu and over-the-top services and the studios and producers who will want more money for streaming rights.
9. E-books continue to make inroads, becoming more mainstream.
This one hits close to home. I bought my 70-something dad an Amazon Kindle for his birthday, which is right around Christmas. He is a voracious reader and traveler so it seemed like a good fit. He then told me he was going to return it because he’s “not electronically inclined” and prefers to get books free from the library. Then a friend of his, also a senior, said they were hooked on their Kindle and found a way to get 2,000 free public domain works. Now my dad is examining that list and reconsidering. And so are a lot of print book readers. According to MediaShift’s self-publishing guru Carla King, “As big publishing sees falling sales of print books and rising sales of e-books they shift resources to create more efficient workflows in-house and revenue streams in the market. Meantime, tech companies and creative self-published authors define the terms.” While the iPad as e-reader has certainly been a huge success, sales of the Kindle continued to grow.
Prediction: “This is the year that e-book reader users will start clamoring for access to all those library e-books that are not yet easy to access,” said Pew Internet’s Lee Rainie. Dedicated e-readers will continue to hold off tablets, for now.
10. Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places, Google Hotpot make geo-location important.
Important, yes, but to whom? While geo-location services let people keep track of where their friends are, or meet up with people in a spontaneous way in the real world, it still hasn’t reached the mainstream. The arrival of Facebook and Google offerings might change that, but not at the moment. According to Pew Internet, just 4% of online Americans had used geo-location services as of September 2010, and only 1% used it regularly. That number does increase to 7% for online Americans with cell phones, but it’s still pretty small. “Best to say that it’s just entering the ‘early adopter’ phase with lots more room to grow if people and businesses handle it well. New social norms are also going to be invented around this — e.g. ‘acceptable stalking,’” said Pew’s Lee Rainie.
Prediction: Geo-location services can win more converts when they get beyond the check-in gaming apsect and bring people closer to the services they want in the vicinity.
Here are some other stories that didn’t quite make the cut, including some that were suggested by people while I was writing the article on EtherPad.
> FCC makes new Net neutrality rules, which could be challenged in court or in Congress.
> Twitter gets a big funding round and multi-billion-dollar valuation, but revenues are still in the early stages.
> “Tools like DocumentCloud make it so that readers expect to see documents that underpin any interesting story.” – Amanda Hickman
> Apps continue to proliferate and publishers wonder what the best way to make money is with them. Ads or pay apps, or both?
> The rise of data journalism and mapping projects, including OpenStreetMaps.
What stories do you think made a difference in 2010? Which ones did we miss? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: This story was created using an experimental tool called EtherPad, that allowed me to write it on a public web page while people chatted in real time and made their own comments and changes. (Click the image at left to see a larger version of it.) You can see the entire timeline for the story here by hitting the Play button in the top right corner. This was a new way to do a story, very distracting, but it also helped me get all the quotes that you see in the story — all from people who stopped by the EtherPad. I was inspired by ReadWriteWeb co-editor Marshall Kirkpatrick, who did the same thing for a story he was working on. I might well do it again, and will let you know how it goes. Thanks to everyone who participated and contributed!
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.