The decade in culture-tech: streaming, binging, opining

At the start of 2010 I was running ReadWriteWeb, a tech blog that helped define and chronicle the Web 2.0 era. We had run our first conference the previous year, in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley. The site was growing in leaps and bounds, the online advertising revenue was flowing in, and I’d just hired a new COO in December 2009. It was peak Web 2.0…at least it feels that way to me now, with the benefit of hindsight.

That’s because things have changed considerably over the past decade, 2010-2019. The largely desktop-based “social software” innovations of Web 2.0 gave way to an era defined by smartphones, social media, and streaming entertainment. That made culture much more mobile and inclusive, since nearly everyone could afford a smartphone and had the ability to both ‘read’ and ‘write’ things on the internet.

However, this past decade has been noticeably darker in tone too, like the 1970s following the 1960s. In retrospect, Web 2.0 had an overly optimistic “the Web is made of people” ethos. Those of us who wrote and reported on Web 2.0 should’ve considered the potential downsides more, because from 2010 onwards the internet became increasingly dominated by four massive corporations: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google (sometimes labelled FAANG, if you add in Netflix). We, the people, were soon under the control of Big Tech algorithms. They got us all addicted to feeds and filter bubbles.

With that in mind, here are what I’ve identified as the major culture-tech trends of the past decade…

Firstly, streaming is now the defining distribution method for the entertainment industries. At the beginning of 2010, it was a nascent technology - largely because broadband and 3G speeds still weren’t optimal. Netflix first introduced streaming in 2007, but it wasn’t until the company began creating its own tv shows in 2013 (starting with ‘House of Cards’) that streaming really took off. Not coincidentally, at the same time “binging” a tv series became de rigueur. As for music, Spotify hadn’t even launched in the US at the start of this decade (it did so in July 2011).

By the end of the decade, Netflix led the pack in tv and movie streaming - although other corporations, like Disney and Apple, are catching up fast. In music, Spotify is the current dominant player and its app is how many of us now consume music. Amazon, Apple and Google are all powerful players in entertainment streaming, while Facebook is increasingly competing with Google’s YouTube on social video streaming.

If streaming is the defining distribution method of this past decade, then the smartphone is the defining hardware. This slide from Mary Meeker’s 2019 Internet Trends report shows just how much mobile came to dominate both consumption and revenue over the decade:

Two companies now control the mobile operating system market: Google and Apple. At the beginning of 2010, Google’s Android mobile operating system was fourth in the US market (behind RIM, Apple and Microsoft). By January 2011, Android had already become the most-used mobile OS in the United States, overtaking a steeply declining RIM.

Today, Android and Apple’s iOS together own 99% of the US market. RIM’s Blackberry is like an ancient relic.

Because mobile rules, apps are where the internet mostly happens now. Back in 2010, when desktop computers still ruled, the Web browser was king. At that time, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still held over half the market share for browsers (Google’s Chrome became market leader in mid-2012, and hasn’t relinquished that lead since). But think about how you now watch tv, listen to music, read the news, even read a book. Netflix, Spotify, Facebook, the NY Times, Kindle on your iPhone or Android device…they’re all apps.

Social media took over the media landscape, gobbling up audience, attention and revenue. Facebook grew from just over 600 million in 2010 to about 2.5 billion now. Twitter grew from 30 million users at the start of 2010 to 330m in 2019. The New York Times first introduced a "metered paywall" in 2011, in hindsight a savvy move that would eventually save it from the trail of destruction social media wrought in the media industry.

Social media has also perverted the read/write web over the past decade, with toxic opinions and groupthink having replaced the (admittedly naive) notions of community and collaboration that defined Web 2.0. I believe this has had an impact on the cultural industries too, with ideology now seemingly more important than aesthetics in tv, movies, music and books.

The other major trend of the past decade worth noting is the rise of interactive media; mainly gaming (e.g. Minecraft and Fortnite), Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. AR game Pokémon Go was launched in July 2016 and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon that year. Meanwhile, the first commercial release of the Oculus Rift was in 2016, a couple of years after Facebook acquired it. Fortnite became popular with its “Battle Royale” mode, which was released in September 2017.

It’s fair to say that neither VR nor AR grew as much as first thought, when these technologies started to gain traction mid-decade. That’s largely because the hardware still isn’t quite right. VR headsets are too awkward and smartphone-based VR was a dud, and with AR one senses it will require future innovations in ‘smart glasses’ to really take off. Perhaps the 2020s will be the decade of “mixed reality,” just as streaming defined the decade about to finish.

Conclusion

Despite the dominance of Big Tech and the damage that social media has inflicted on the read/write web over the past decade, from a cultural consumption perspective we’ve got it very good at the end of 2019. We can listen to nearly any album we want on the likes of Spotify and Google Play, binge-watch a range of compelling 2010s-era TV on Netflix and similar services, buy an obscure book on Amazon and have it immediately available on our Kindle, read (and possibly subscribe) to the latest news on the NYT or WP or Guardian or BBC apps, listen to an incredible range of podcasts on-demand, play Fortnite with people all over the world, and so on.

All of this we can do while out and about, using our smartphones to stream on fast 4G (soon to be 5G) mobile networks.

This past decade will ultimately be looked upon as a golden era in cultural content on the internet…with the major caveat that business models for creators are far from ideal. Streaming revenues aren’t even close to matching past CD sales (or even download sales) for musicians. All but the very elite authors have been squeezed out of mainstream culture; and most won’t make a living from books. Media has had it worst of all during the 2010s, with the online advertising industry decimated by Google and Facebook.

So I’ll look back on the 2010s as being a boon for cultural content, but a bust for many creators in terms of revenue. Let’s hope we see innovation on business models over the next decade.

As for the content itself, I expect it to become much more interactive and immersive in the coming decade. The cultural content of the 2020s will be more often ‘experienced’ than ‘read’ (or watched, listened to, etc). Whether that’ll be a good thing or a bad thing…well, check back with me in December 2029!

Top 5 Culture-Tech Trends of 2019

Every December going back to 2004, I’ve done an end-of-year review of the top Internet technology trends. This is my sixteenth year doing this, but the 2019 review will be a little different. This year I’ll be focusing on what I call “culture-tech”: digital technology that is transforming the cultural industries. This, of course, is what I’ve been writing about here on Cybercultural since I launched the newsletter in May.

Let’s get to it. In no particular order, here are my top five culture-tech trends of 2019…

  1. Audio rules 🎧

Audio formats have had a big year, particularly in podcasting and the book industry.

Audiobooks have been by far the fastest growing segment of book publishing, with the Association of American Publishers (AAP) citing a revenue increase of 37% last year.

But in terms of cultural impact, it’s podcasting that has shined brightest.

While independent podcasters and public radio stations like NPR have been riding the podcast train for a while now, this year saw the big players hop on board. Spotify in particular announced a major strategic shift, to become not just a music company but an audio company. In February, it acquired several podcast companies - including the podcast network Gimlet Media - for around $400 million.

Spotify followed up with a redesign of its app to highlight podcasts in June, and then took its Spotify for Podcasters dashboard out of beta in August. Google has also broadened its podcasting ambitions this year, in particular by integrating podcasts into its core search engine product.

There was no shortage of premium content to listen to in 2019. Back in June I highlighted one of my favourite shows of the year, The Chernobyl Podcast. There are also a lot of great podcasts run by a single, spirited individual (shades of blogging in the Web 2.0 era). For example, earlier this year I interviewed Doug Metzger from the Literature and History podcast, who has created a passion project that features over 100 hours of audio. It’s that ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ aspect of podcasting that I love the most.

Finally, 2019 has seen some interesting experimentation in audio. Some authors even brought the production sensibility of podcasting into the book world. Check out the audiobook version of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, which includes recorded interviews, archival audio, conversations re-created by actors, and music.

  1. Streaming tv matures…and also gets a bit boring 📺

2019 saw further growth in streaming tv and movies, with new bigco streaming services like Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and NBCUniversal's Peacock launching (or about to launch). Meanwhile, streaming veterans Netflix and Amazon continue to spend vast amounts of money creating or licensing new tv and movie content.

The flip side is that with multiple large corporations now battling for the consumer streaming tv dollar, the content itself will inevitably suffer. It will become less risky (which means less original), less artistic, and more designed to appeal to mainstream tastes. We’ve already seen this play out in movies over the past decade and more, with Marvel movies, reboots and sequels dominating Hollywood.

To my eyes at least, tv quality has already begun regressing. Chernobyl and Succession were two excellent - and original - tv shows in 2019, but I can’t think of many other cultural highlights. Sometimes Netflix seems like it’s now made up almost entirely of tv shows designed by committee to satisfy a specific demographic. And I wish they’d stop auto-playing when I browse through them!

  1. Online gaming and interactive media are crushing it 🎮

As I wrote in August, online gaming, virtual reality experiences and mixed reality apps are among the fastest growing parts of the digital economy. According to an industry report, the global interactive media market was worth USD$152.1 billion in 2019 and is growing by 9% every year.

A couple of trends became clear in 2019. Firstly, leading games like Fortnite and Minecraft are almost as popular now as movie brands like Star Wars and Marvel. Certainly in terms of engagement, because the top interactive games are played daily by hundreds of millions of people (many of them young).

The second trend of note is the continuing rise of AR. Minecraft will soon launch its AR version, called Minecraft Earth. And the company that started it all, Pokemon Go developer Niantic, recently launched a platform for third-party developers. So the 2020s looks set to be a big decade for augmented reality entertainment.

Perhaps VR will finally find its market in the early 2020s too. For now, VR is at best a niche entertainment format - although the rise this year of theatre-like places like The VOID is a promising development. Just as I used to go to movie theatres regularly as a kid in the 1980s and a young man in the 90s, this generation of youngsters may flock to VR theatres.

Indeed, there is a generational shift happening here: from the traditional media world of tv and movies to the interactive media of games. With the slight dulling of tv and movie streaming content described above, the 2020s is ripe for interactive media to take over. While ‘lean back’ entertainment won’t go away, Generation Z and younger will be more attuned to leaning back with AR glasses or VR headsets.

  1. Social video and the ‘stories’ format are winning 📱

Instagram Stories, Snapchat and TikTok are the current hip apps for young people. Add in Facebook’s adoption of ‘stories’ (for us oldies) and it’s clear that social media in 2019 has been largely defined by short-form, multimedia videos.

What’s been most interesting for me this year, is seeing the “remix culture” of TikTok become popular with today’s teenagers. Despite being a catchphrase during Web 2.0, remixing never really took off in that era. That’s because legacy cultural companies were quick to crack down on copyright infringing; Napster incited this, but the lawsuits multiplied when Google acquired YouTube in 2006. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in creators owning the rights to their works. But I also enjoy seeing how new platforms like TikTok encourage re-purposing of content - in this case mostly music, since TikTok started as kind of a digital karaoke app.

From a cultural point of view, TikTok, Instagram and similar apps are undoubtedly leading to new ways for creators and artists to connect with their audiences. 

Also notable this year was the introduction of Spotify Canvas, which enables musicians to create short, looping videos for their songs. In a way, it’s an evolution of the music video - although Spotify itself calls it “album artwork, for the streaming age.”

  1. Email newsletters are the new blogs…but no media saviour 📧

It’s been a tough few years for the media business, with the Facebook and Google online advertising oligopoly having run many media companies (both old and new) into the ground. While prestige brands like The New York Times and The Washington Post have thrived in this new digital subscriptions era, getting people to pay for media content has been much harder for smaller brands and what used to be called professional blogs.

One potential saviour has been email newsletters, which have provided a home for longer-form, more thoughtful content. Indeed, email newsletters are in some ways the blogs of 2019. Only instead of posts being delivered via RSS to an RSS Reader, they're delivered to the inboxes of subscribers. In the case of Substack, the platform I use for my newsletter Cybercultural, posts are also available online.

There have been some indie newsletter success stories (Stratechery is the most oft-quoted example), but getting to that magical figure of 1,000 paying subscribers has eluded many of us. Also, more generally, there has been evidence of subscription fatigue among consumers this year.

One of the most surprising news stories of the year happened in August, when Verizon sold the formally popular social blogging service Tumblr to Automattic (which owns Wordpress). On the back of that, I argued that blogs, Tumblr and email newsletters can offer an alternative to the Black Mirror world of social media we currently live in. I still believe this, with the caveat that 2019 ultimately failed to prove the subscriptions model is viable for the majority of email newsletter publishers (or bloggers).

I’ll end the year on a more positive note though. Art and culture is meant to be enjoyed and savoured, as well as make you think about the world from different viewpoints. Blogs and newsletters give independent creators a platform to discuss and analyse our culture in a much more in-depth and satisfying way than via social media. So let’s hope newsletters become even more well used in 2020 and beyond.

Those are my top five culture-tech trends of this year! Let me know your thoughts in the comments, or by replying to the email, or on Twitter.

Image credit: Coachella AR experience, VR Owl

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