It’s difficult, I think, to make a thing on the internet about things on the internet and not make me want to stab my eyes out. I’m trying to spend as little time as possible on teapot tempests. My motto for 2013 was “Just. Don’t. Click.” I carry a tote bag that says “I Would Prefer Not To” with an extra “no thanks” brooch pinned to it.
So when my friend PJ Vogt told me he was starting a blog and podcast analyzing online drama for an NPR audience, I think my exact words were “why?” And while I still think calling something TLDR without the semicolon is sick and wrong, TLDR the blog/podcast/stepbaby-of-On-The-Media is actually totally great.
Vogt and Alex Goldman have produced nine episodes so far, exploring, yes, @horse_ebooks and Silk Road, but also small human stories a la This American Life — an interview with an ordinary New Yorker who has never used the internet, the guy who still runs a 1994 text-based BBS out of his basement despite having basically no users left, a grieving son who asked Metafilter to figure out the mysterious file of dad jokes his father left behind.
What I love about these pieces is they aren’t clickbait for the crowd sarcastically tweet-faving the backlash to the snark to the smarm, but they also don’t feel remedial to those of us who dabble in inside baseball. They discuss silly media and tech phenomena with nuance and context, as a slice of what’s going on in our society and a reflection of broader truths about how we interact and communicate. It makes me laugh; it makes me think; it just needs a fucking semicolon.
David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said, “If it were on television, House of Cards would be the best series the medium has to offer.” Nah, I don’t think so Mr. Zurawik, but it sure as shit is the best TV show not on TV.
Back in 2011, David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and their producing partners started pitching HBO, AMC, and the other cable-television powerhouses a remake of the ’90s British TV political drama House of Cards. At the same time, they approached Netflix to see if the company would pay a premium for the second-window digital rights. Netflix surprised everyone by making a blind commitment of $100 million to finance the first two seasons of the show.
On February 1, 2013, breaking with the industry convention of doling out individual episodes on a weekly basis, Netflix put all thirteen episodes of the first season of House of Cards on their service and changed the landscape of television. They bet on their digital-only distribution platform and on binge-watching, and they won big. As a company, Netflix has more than doubled in value since the launch of House of Cards, and they went on to make history by being the first non-TV channel to win a Primetime Emmy. The show earned nine Emmy nominations and won three awards, including Best Director for Mr. Fincher.
Now Amazon and Hulu are chasing Netflix’s original content strategy, and it’s become clear that it’s financially viable to make expensive high-quality television shows that are distributed online only. That’s a no-brainer to you brilliant people of December 2013, but for the mooks of January 2013 it was still a big unanswered question. The second season of House of Cards starts in February 2014, and although I’m looking forward to watching the show, I’m even more excited to see how it will continue to reshape the film and television industry.
I’m a sucker for cuteness porn. And this year’s biggest discovery for me was a cat named Henry. Henry is on Vine, with video shot by his owner, Evan Ratliff. At least, I hope Henry isn’t shooting it himself. Vine is a social network that consists only of children and pets, and the video flow is slow enough that you can check it once a week and not miss much. Most of the videos in my feed are inquisitive toddlers, happy dogs, and languid cats — that these are punctuated with shots from a concert, party scenes, and homemade movies, Vine feels like the “cute” social network. Partly it’s the content, but the slower speed at which it moves makes me feel less frantic. So when I’m overwhelmed by T H E C A S C A D E, I check in on Henry. His zen is contagious.
When Apple broke off their agreement with Google as of the release of iOS 6, there was much to be said about their resulting replacement Maps app. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Google released their own iOS app with their far-superior mapping and even including features that Apple had never bothered to add to their built-in app when it had used Google’s data. At some point we all settled down and it became clear that those who cared use the Google-provided app while the rest use the Apple app and complain constantly about bad directions.
One other thing to fall out of that contract breaking down, though, was the discontinuation of the built-in YouTube app, and not as many people seem to have noticed or cared. It’s true that you can watch YouTube videos in the browser pretty easily on iOS, but having a native app affords a number of features that just don’t work in the browser. By the time Google had released their second major iteration of their own YouTube app this year, it was clear that they have a team of thoughtful designers and engineers trying to make a really good mobile experience, even on a platform they technically compete with.
The YouTube app for iOS is really nice! It supports features like the “Watch Later” playlist, a sort of Instapaper for YouTube most easily invoked by clicking on the little clock face in the toolbar of YouTube videos on desktop browsers. This playlist behaves like most other playlists except on mobile it actually sorts by most-recent to least-recent, the opposite of other playlists but handy when you want to seek out something you saw earlier today but didn’t have time to check out. It also lets you shuffle playlists, the perfect tool for a playlist of your favorite music videos, and can actually play playlists continuously, a no-brainer feature that the Apple app never managed to include.
Possibly the greatest feature of all, though, is that you can start watching a video, swipe it into the corner of the screen like a little picture-in-picture mode, and keep browsing for what you want to watch next. It’s the perfect tool when using your phone in conjunction with an AppleTV via Airplay, letting you queue up the next videos to watch one after another until all your party guests get bored and go home.
I resisted, but in the end I could hold out for only so long.
Adrian Chen said it best but I’m going to say it again: memes are awful and evil. I thought I could hold out, and I resisted, but then like everyone else there I was loving doge and laughing at doge and texting like doge and even enjoying, doge help me, the evolution of the meme. It’s one thing to laugh at the originals, photos of Shiba Inus with rainbow colored words scattered across them like a burst of semi-sensical dog thoughts. It’s another thing entirely to laugh at the tegno dogestep club flier, which I did for about twenty minutes with friends on Twitter and am not ashamed to admit here.
Just now, in fact, I walked by a Shiba Inu on the street and almost snapped it to scribble on and send to my friends. Maybe I should have. 2014 will be here soon enough.
Have you read The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan? The story is that during the early 1960s, Berrigan grew enamored with the sonnet form. He was drawn to it because of the structure’s inherent challenges. It was all very interesting to an ambitious college student. Yet over time, and after writing hundreds of the things, Berrigan realized that those same challenges were distracting, were “stultifying” as he put it, and so he abandoned the effort in frustration.
But then a funny thing happened. He got Dadaist. He went through all of his prior drafts and cut out the lines that he liked the best. Then, he assembled a new batch of sonnets composed of lines he’d stitched together from previous drafts like Frankenpoems. The end result was described by Berrigan’s editor and second wife, Alice Notley, as “musical, sexy, and funny,” and the finished collection has been described by Frank O’Hara as “a fact of modern poetry.”
I tell this story because the best thing I’ve discovered online this year is Pentametron 2013, a Twitter bot that acts as a virtual Ted Berrigan for the masses. Using a basic algorithm, Pentametron combs the entirety of Twitter in real time for rhyming tweets written in the English language (or, at the very least, containing words with English characters). It has two criteria: tweets must be ten syllables long; and they must be written in Iambic pentameter. The account then retweets a pair of these tweets every hour on the hour. (Presumably forever.)
The end result is best viewed on Twitter itself, although a PDF “novel” of the stuff has been published as well.
These couplets are vulgar as often as they aren’t, and more than anything they’re mundane. But in their very essence they do a marvelous job of taking the vast sea of content heaped out into the open and carving that heap into a work of art. At times, the work is almost profound, as depressing tweets are paired with optimistic non sequiturs.
I really hate the person I've become.
— Tyler (@Ty_Holmes_1) December 8, 2013
I wanna jump across the table, yum 😍😘😘
— •mariah (@MariahShanice) December 8, 2013
And at times these tweets can also become similar to Berrigan’s in their musicality, sexiness, and humor:
Butt naked banging on the bathroom floor
— Abelxo (@bethmekonene) December 7, 2013
you are the one and nothing matters more😔
— ريما وليد المرزوقي (@Reemapii) December 7, 2013
If you squint hard enough, then, these ordinary lines take on greater meaning because of Pentametron’s context. As Berrigan himself put it in “Sonnet XXVIII”: “to gentle, pleasant strains / just homely enough / to be beautiful.”
There was one summer I occupied myself inventing words that rhymed with orange, and one of them was “yorange: the need you didn’t know you had until it was satisfied.” This is what LoudGIFs have been for me this year. LoudGIF (warning, that page is loud), created by Garrett Miller (though no one asked him to), makes it easy to combine gifs with YouTube soundtracks, which I’ve found to be an addictive activity. [Garrett is the designer of the Bureau, just FYI —Ed.]
But also, I find that loudGIFs get more interesting the more finely applicable they are. For example: the comfort of combining two of my most soothing daydreams (the one where a wee little beastie pads over to me for some scritches, and the one where I’m floating gently underwater, my arms resting away from my body, my hair undulating in the current, kind of like I was seaweed); a meditation on exquisite destruction, which was the only thing to finally inspire me to begin my Wednesday in earnest; a means of introducing my friend Ashley, who spins gorgeously, to my friend Rob, who likes John Adams; and the horror of exactly infinity identical cats emerging, one by one, from a pizza, because it makes me laugh.
Maybe the most fun use of loudGIFs, as long as we’re considering finely tuned applicability, is the breadth of flirting that becomes possible with the medium. Omg, the flirting: the flirtation of ardent anticipation, the flirtation of magical crotches, the appreciation for the subtle variations of rhythm and pressure called for by the most delicate of endeavors (this last created by Garrett Miller himself). You feel me on this?
Thank you, LoudGIF. You, to me, are like Tom Hiddleston’s dreamy face doing that lip thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
You’ve probably seen Welcome to Night Vale mentioned a lot over the past few months (including in this very publication’s recommendation section), and with good reason: the show rocketed to the top of the iTunes podcast charts after winning over fans with its creepy-funny take on community radio. I’ve been listening to podcasts since 2006, and Night Vale was a breath of fresh air in a medium that’s grown somewhat stagnant.
The show’s format is innovative, the writing is compelling and original, and the acting and sound design are up there with the best of “real” radio. What’s more, the creators of the show, Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor, have handled their internet-fame with aplomb, quickly expanding the property to sold-out live episodes (and a forthcoming Harper Perennial book) while maintaining a dedication to intelligent and open interactions with fans, and thoughtful, progressive decisions when it comes to character creation and casting.
One of the guidelines for this assignment is that we were supposed to pick something that should be “native to the web.” None of my things necessarily fell into that category. I love sites like Cachemonet like any other sane person, but overall I’m finding the web as it stands kind of basic. And anyway internet is a lot of things besides the web.
There were concepts that really hit their stride in 2013: context-switching and thematic flow. I should probably come up with better, more water-based metaphors to use but here are a couple of examples in the meantime.
Context-switching: Sometime in the past year, I started using Snapchat, and the first person I regularly used it with was a 37-year-old dude who lived off some island in Maine. They were mundane and even pedestrian snaps, but it was the sort of mundanity that helped turned a rando into a friend in a way that Twitter, where I had met said rando, never did. Twitter always seems to demand either profundity or a punchline, and so all I had to do to shift from one emotional context to another was tap a different round icon. Pretty cool.
Thematic flow: Twitter bots. There’ve been a bunch, but I’ve been most fascinated by something like @exosaurs which spawned an extended universe within Twitter and even started to jump across mediums, involving a leaderboard website and a Google Doc. The Exoverse is not necessarily the best example of thematic flow — of how we can follow one thread across different mediums — but it was the one that made me smile the most.
I have never been a fan of Medium. It’s not necessarily that I think Evan Williams and Biz Stone’s publishing platform is a bad idea. In fact, the implementation is actually pretty good, and I admire the notion that Williams has spent his entire career putting text boxes in front of people. My issue with Medium is the type of writing that it has attracted. Unsurprisingly — especially given that Medium started as invite only — it is full of self-absorbed San Francisco (and some New York) tech assholes.
Naturally, Medium’s penchant for sloppily written, male-centric business dribble inspired a parody Twitter account. But the truth is that Medium’s articles are parodies of the tech scene already: “Boost the visibility of your LinkedIn profile,” “Why I Started Reading a Lot of Books,” “Self Everything” to name a few. (Don’t worry: here are more.) And of course, there’s my favorite hate-read of 2013: “Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code”, which illustrated the hubris of startup culture better than anything else in a year when tech really seemed to be at its most classist, misogynistic, and racist.
It was the backlash against Medium that actually inspired me the most in 2013. Tech journalists were quick to pounce on Medium’s problematic content, and a platform that had excited internet folk quickly became the target of much-deserved scrutiny. I loved reading smart criticisms of things like”10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition,” which shamed semi-well-known entrepreneur Peter Shih enough to take down his wretched listicle complaining about public transportation and women. And of course, I delighted in the many takedowns of Patrick McConlogue, author of the homeless coder piece.
The problem with Medium is that it straddles the line between a platform and a publication more than anything before it. Medium can’t be held responsible for shoddy content if it’s user-generated, but it also can’t expect to be regarded as a publication with editorial judgment either. The site exists in the uncomfortable place between these things, and its failure to reconcile technology with editorial proves that these things should remain separate.
Frankly, I have no idea what’s happening on the internet anymore. Everything seems to be a hoax, a BuzzFeed list, or both. So let’s take a step back and consider the fundamentals. What’s the best thing about the internet? Animated GIFs, obviously. And what was the best animated GIF of 2013? Here’s my vote:
This GIF of a complete game of Snake contains qualities of many of my all-time favorite GIFs in a tidy, monochromatic package. For example, I love GIFs that show how things work, like sewing machines, lock picks, and battleship canons. The Snake GIF does just that. It reveals that a complete game of Snake is possible, and demonstrates how it’s done. The gameplay is so well executed that I’ve seen speculation that it was performed by a Snake-playing robot. It’s difficult to determine the truth because the file comes from a Russian message board, but I don’t care either way. The image of perfect play is compelling enough for me, whether done by man or machine.
I also adore mesmerizing GIFs that suck you in with their smooth, looping motion. While the Snake GIF doesn’t technically loop, it goes on long enough to produce a hypnotic effect. I’ve seen it posted many times over the past year, and each time I end up watching it a few times through. Not only is the movement of the titular serpent fluid and soothing, but the GIF also has the subtle hooks of a simple narrative. Whenever I happen upon it, some part of me wants to keep watching to see what happens next, even though I already know.
The best GIFs of all, though, are those that teach us profound lessons about life, particularly those that involve animals and their attempts to make sense of the world. And what is the Snake GIF about, if not an animal and its struggle with existence? Its only goal is to eat and eat and grow and grow until it has grown so large there is nothing left to eat but itself. Doesn’t that say it all? Isn’t that all of humanity, expanding like a cancerous blight, devouring every resource in our path until the only way to slake our endless thirst is to melt human beings down into a pink sludge to fuel our sports utility vehicles? That is the future this GIF portends.
I grew up with Bill Nye. Before he was The Science Guy, he was part of a local Seattle comedy show, Almost Live!, that aired on one of the local channels before SNL every week. There, he did break out the blue lab coat from time to time — but he also performed as the superhero Speedwalker and in a variety of side roles.
Anyway. It’s not that he’s been silent since the end of his PBS show; he’s always game to debate creationists or global warming denials. But in the last year, he’s had a comeback, thanks in part to his appearance on Dancing With the Stars.
I’ll come clean: I missed his winning paso doble and his season-ending quad injury on DWTS. But the upside for me was that, on the coattails of his new pop cultural relevance, he started appearing on YouTube, in the role I knew and loved him in best: as The Great Communicator of science.
Bill Nye on the latest NASA probe to Jupiter? Bill Nye on asteroid impacts? Bill Nye on the art of storytelling about science? Sure, I’ll watch.
Since April-ish, it’s been a Bill Nye bonanza. As he says, science brings the joy of discovery: it makes our species worthy of the future. And, by the way — with science, you can CHANGE THE WORLD. Let Bill Nye remind you about all that.
This year I got hooked on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog after reading a post about armed knights fighting snails. There are even fun games for budding medievalists like Guess the Manuscript. The British Library has a host of well-curated, always-fascinating blogs. I guess they are just blogs and blogs are so last decade. But what they lack in flash, they make up for in curatorial genius. (And, this, I suppose is one standard for a good blog.) Where else would you find out that the dung of the caladrius bird cures blindness?
Esteemed author Joyce Carol Oates’ Twitter presence is completely sublime. Some of it is comprised of straightforward wisdom and sage advice. But mostly, her updates are steeped in kookiness; a great number of them concern her cat. One might wonder if it’s self-aware and performative or straight up stream-of-consciousness rambling. Who the fuck cares? It’s all utterly brilliant:
By "stalking" I'd meant the old-fashioned way, on foot. Looking in windows, waiting at roadside. Not online which lacks romance totally.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 13, 2013
Valet parking in Galapagos? Hope so.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 27, 2013
Proposal that human beings wear colorful collars with name tags & little tinkling bells, as cats do, to make for a better world.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 13, 2013
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) December 13, 2013
Some of my best friends are banjos.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) September 30, 2013
You do you, JCO.
Also, everyone knows that The Onion’s Joe Biden coverage was excellent this year. But I’d say that the Taylor Swift fake boyfriend stories were on par with those. They were emblematic of The Onion at its best — unabashedly silly copy and great Photoshop work. Pairing Swift with notorious, nefarious individuals like James Holmes, Christopher Dorner, and Suri Cruise was funny enough. But when they reported that she was dating the Watertown boat — earning the couple the portmanteau “Swiftboat” — I completely lost it.