It’s that time again: Nic Newman‘s email has dropped asking various people to do some highly suspect future-gazing (at least I got WhatsApp and the election right last time). Here are my answers to his questions, delivered with suitable scepticism…
What surprised me most in 2015?
What surprised me most in 2015 is the enormous surge in ‘civic tech‘ around the election compared to 2010: coders collaborating to make apps and websites to help people make an informed decision on their vote.
This was particularly facilitated by the Democracy Club mailing list where developers swapped notes and data. As I wrote at the time:
Members of the list have created a raft of Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) such as Who Should You Vote For?, PositionDial.com, YourCandidates.org.uk and WhoGetsMyVoteUK. Vote for Policies is typical of these in offering to help you “Compare policies from each party in their own words, and make an informed decision about who to vote for” while Who Shall I Vote For is a “quick, interactive and insightful quiz” to “Discover whose policies match your personality”.
Disappointingly, I was also surprised by just how little the information security practices of most journalists have changed in the wake both of Snowden and the RIPA revelations: I would have expected experienced crime reporters at least to know that their communications could be intercepted without them being notified, but that’s not the case.
And there is no coherent security thinking around social media accounts.
Finally, as I look back at 2015, I’m struck at just how retro the whole year (and in retrospect 2014) has been:
- We’ve seen GIFs complete their emergence as a mainstream form of visual communication.
- Emojis – effectively emoticons on steroids – have completed the same.
- Email newsletters are no longer seen as old fashioned.
- Everyone is looking into podcasts – again.
- Virtual reality. Remember Second Life?
- Chat apps are the new social media. Remember AOL and MSN Messenger?
- And platforms are becoming publishers – again. Remember AOL and MSNBC?
What will surprise us in 2016?
That last development. Medium has always walked a fuzzy line between blogging platform and magazine publisher, while Facebook’s Instant Articles (and reinvented Notes) suggests it wants to play a similar role.
In contrast, I suspect we’ll be surprised by (and sceptical of) what Google does in trying to support a dying news industry, and perhaps what other cash-rich tech companies do on that front too.
There’s a big fight to be had over mobile, which has barely started this year with Instant Articles, Apple News and Google’s AMP.
I’m tempted to say we’ll be surprised by another massive leak, because these are now happening relatively regularly.
Not necessarily a Snowden-style whistleblower but perhaps more along the lines of Hacking Team and Ashley Madison. This will throw up some major ethical challenges for news organisations which they haven’t really anticipated.
I’m also tempted to say a UK news organisation will have its social media accounts hacked, for the reasons explained above.
Any particular technologies or companies to watch?
Snapchat for me is the most interesting: it has moved very fast since its beginnings as a pioneer in the ephemeral-image-sharing genre, to a slightly-less-ephemeral storytelling app, to a host of branded content ‘channels’, to a publisher in its own right based on curation of geofenced UGC. And now it’s rolling out inbound links.
Where Twitter’s innovations sometimes feel like a platform on the back foot, Snapchat feels like it’s a step ahead of where everyone assumes it is.
That said, I also wonder whether the Snapchat bubble will burst in 2015: so far it has gotten by without any hard metrics for publishers. That can’t last.
I have to mention VR, but I think 2016 will remain in the early adopter curve for that, with publishers still working out how to fit it into their workflows, reduce costs and make money. Meanwhile everyone has forgotten about AR (Augmented Reality), but the HoloLens could bring that back into the foreground.
What both suggest is that as we keep repeating ‘this is the year of mobile’, gaming consoles are likely to be an increasingly important battleground. For that reason, news is likely to be some years behind games and business applications in leading the way.
Elsewhere, Beme intrigues me: it’s a streaming app which intentionally disintermediates itself from your social interactions (that’s fancy academic-speak for ‘you have to put it down so you can look the other person in the eye rather than looking at your screen’).
It may not have a big impact directly, but I can see that approach being mimicked by others.
There’s still a lot to come from the chat apps: Whatsapp needs to be easier for mass media to work with, and it may be that either it addresses that in the same way that Snapchat has, or that another chat app sees it as an opportunity to grab market share.
And while everyone is focused on the tech companies, there are publishers to watch as well: Immediate Media‘s single-minded data-driven approach is just one that fascinates me, while the BBC is quietly and steadily returning to some of its 2005-era pioneering work as it reshapes itself in anticipation of Government attacks.
Buzzfeed is always in the spotlight but it now has one of the strongest and most web-savvy investigative teams in the UK, engaging with an audience that normally would be excluded from that sort of work. What does that mean for the shape of the genre?