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…
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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