Flying Object’s 2014 look back

2014 was a year of how, not what. Technological innovation took a back seat, for once; instead, how we use the web, consume content, and present ourselves online struck us as the dominant tropes. It all seems to signal an internet coming of age, increasingly dominated by big companies, be they traditional (Disney, buying up Maker Studios) or massive public companies born online — see Alibaba’s IPO, the world’s largest.

We pulled together ten things that we thought merited special attention from 2014. Next up, we’ll be taking pot-shots at 2015.

1. Hardware doesn’t deliver…

A list, written last year, forecasting 2014 trends would no doubt have focused on the heavily rumoured “iWatch” launch, Google Glass going mainstream, and the exciting potential of Oculus Rift. Yet Glass remains a niche, and often unliked product, Oculus Rift was acquired by Facebook before going rather quiet, and the Apple Watch hasn’t even come out. Mobile hardware development seems to have plateau’d as well — new phones are increasingly a case of a bit bigger, a bit faster — while Samsung’s mobile division is facing declining profits.

That said, there is one piece of hardware that’s had a great year — the printed book.

2. …But content businesses do

Vice took $500m in investment, valuing the company at $2.5bn. Buzzfeed passed $100m in annual revenue. A host of YouTube MCNs were bought up by traditional media. And even The Times’s controversial paywall looks like it might be paying off. Following years obsessing over the platforms and technologies that reach billions, 2014 is the year we remembered there’s still value in engaging specific audiences with content they love. That said, any would-be Citizen Kanes should bear in mind that those audiences don’t arrive overnight. Vice began as a magazine in the mid-90s, Buzzfeed has been trying to get viral content to stick since 2006, and the Times has been recruiting potential subscribers since, oh, 1788.

3. YouTube approaches adolescence

YouTube will be 10 years old in 2015, a decade that has seen the site grow from a repository for home movies, to a platform for cute animals and bedroom broadcasters, to an ecosystem of profitable video channels built for the web. Thanks in part to huge ad campaigns run by Google, 2014 was the year that creators like Zoella gained name recognition outside of their core teenage audience.

For those able to scratch a living from online video, things are looking up. But the changing nature of the site has caused much soul searching for the wider YouTube community: some big-name creators have expressed discomfort with their screaming, idolising fans. More worryingly, a number of male vloggers stand accused of illegal or coercive sexual interactions with viewers. Perhaps “YouTube famous” isn’t so different from “normal famous” after all.

4. The podcast returns

AKA Time To Rebuild Your Shattered Attention Span. Long-form storytelling on the internet has taken a beating over the past decade, but this year made a stunning return in the form of Serial. It turns out that podcasts, which allow us to do other things while we enjoy them, are perfect for lengthier formats. In other corners of the podcast world, Radiotopia set itself an ambitious $250k Kickstarter goal and ended up raising $600k, and we first heard from podcast start-up Gimlet, which itself raised $1.5m from investors and equity crowdfunding (see below). We hope all this is the (re-)start of something big — though what would really help is a top-class podcasting app for Android.

5. We asserted control over our online lives…

The EU’s requirement that we all need to keep accepting cookies and 2013’s Snowden revelations made us all think about privacy online — but not a lot. After all, does anyone not accept cookies?

But there does seem to have been a move towards asserting control over our lives online. Smaller, private networks focusing on controlled one:one or one:few conversations — see WhatsApp, Line, KakaoTalk — and the self-destructing SnapChat now dominate social networking. Privacy-friendly DuckDuckGo was added as a default search option on Safari. And when you do want people to know who you are — say, on Tinder — you can organise a photoshoot first. All of which seems to signal that we’re taking more care on who sees us, and how, when we’re on the internet.

6. …so Facebook tries to own private conversation

Reports of the death of Facebook (see: various articles about millennials deserting the site in January 2014) were greatly exaggerated. But as the trend to smaller networks emerged, Facebook went with it, investing heavily to try to get ahead of the curve. Messenger and the WhatsApp acquisition were the result, both of which came with collateral damage — WhatsApp eventually cost an extraordinary $22bn, despite having a “no ads” policy, and Messenger’s launch as a separate app enraged users. But Facebook clearly sees private conversation as the future of social networking, and is happy to pay whatever price to be on top (although apparently not enough to buy SnapChat too).

7. Video tightened its grip on brand’s digital budgets

Over in the optimistic world of advertising, 2014 was yet another year of video. At Cannes Lions, three Cyber (yes, they still call it Cyber) Grands Prix were handed out, all to video projects — Pharrell’s 24 Hours of Happy, Chipotle’s Scarecrow, and Volvo’s Epic Split. Meanwhile, brands began engaging with and hiring YouTube creators in earnest, mostly co-opting their audiences but going as far as sticking them in traditional ads. Even the ASA began paying attention.

8. A big year for fintech

While Kickstarter and Bitcoin have been in the headlines for years, the rest of the world of financial technology has grown quietly but persistently, and 2014 feels like an inflection point. Equity crowdfunding — chipping in on a growing company not to get a reward, but a chunk of that company — has made important legal progress in both the UK and US, while peer-to-peer lending on both the consumer and business side grew rapidly, according to NESTA. After another dreadful year for banks’ PR departments, the alternatives are looking stronger than ever.

9. The shine comes off Silicon Valley

Was anyone terribly surprised by Uber’s various examples of bad behaviour this year? Assault allegations were shrugged off, they scuffled with competitors over alleged below-the-belt tactics, and an executive was caught talking about digging up dirt on journalists: it’s all beginning to feel rather familiar. Silicon Valley used to feel like the promised land, but the drumbeat of executive arrogance, San Francisco civil unrest and all those tax issues has buried that image for good. Although, maybe things will change if Airbnb wins the Nobel Peace Price.

10. Ice Bucket Challenge is a scale model of the entire internet

Sure, by late August we were all sick of it, but if a future historian is hunting for prime examples of how earthlings created, communicated and shared in 2014, they need look no further than the ALS Ice Bucket challenge:

In May (or thereabouts), a concept of unknown origin is morphed and pounced upon by do-gooders and attention-seekers to raise money, or at least be seen to raise money, for charity. It seems to contain a magic formula that causes it to spread: social pressure + time pressure + low barrier to entry + social media narcissism. As the concept picks up steam, it morphs over and over again: the ante is upped, the charity changes, the spin-offs arrive. Celebrities jump on the bandwagon, the traditional media wakes up, and the mainstream joins the party. It all happens within the space of three months, and by the time it’s winding down, billions have watched, millions have participated, and the backlash to the backlash is just getting going.