The new new things that weren’t

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Meet Binky, the anti-social media simulator

We’re always looking for the New New Thing in tech, since long before Michael Lewis coined the phrase. Often we are entirely too successful. There are so many New New Things — and so many of them fall from the sky like burned-out flares soon enough, to further litter the graveyard of Old New Things. Can we learn from them? Probably. Will we learn from them? Probably not. But it’s worth remembering them anyway, from time to time. And so I give you this highly idiosyncratic list of yesterday’s tomorrows from the twenty-teens:

2010

  • Chatroulette was perhaps the most mayfly-ish of all the once-new things. It launched in November 2009. Three months later it was a cultural event. Three months after that its creator was the subject of a length New Yorker profile. Three months after that it shut down. Then it came back, but by then, no one cared..
  • The BlackBerry PlayBook was, and this may be hard to believe, awaited with great anticipation. It was going to be BlackBerry’s big comeback. It was going to dominate the tablet space. It was the subject of my very first TechCrunch post. And it … couldn’t do email unless tethered to a BlackBerry phone. RIP, PlayBook.

2011

  • The Arab Spring was the world’s first social-media-driven revolution, agreed everyone breathlessly. (Including me.) The problem is, with the exception of Tunisia, the world is still waiting for the first successful social-media-driven revolution. The Arab Spring soon became the Arab Winter, and has become little more than a historical footnote.
  • Google Plus was a big deal. It was Google’s move into social media. It was Google’s Facebook killer. It was the sign that everything Google did was now social. I mean, until it completely failed. It’s still there, but it’s a ghost town.

2012

  • Windows Phone had an absolutely gorgeous and good-to-use new OS, Windows Phone 8, which launched this year. It had the full weight of mighty Microsoft behind it. It was aimed at the still-burgeoning smartphone market, which was not yet thought to be an entrenched duopoly. It flopped, it burned, it died.
  • Google Glass was supposed to be the harbinger of widespread augmented reality and wearable computing. Instead it became most notable for prompting the coinage of the word “Glassholes.” They really, really should have added an LED to make it very apparent when its camera was reporting. I was pro-Glass in the abstract, but then I went on a multi-day dive trip (a dive trip!) with a Glasshole. Yeesh. Five years later, the world is still waiting for its harbinger of widespread augmented reality.

2013

  • Upworthy was the most viral news site on the Internet, with a signature much-mocked, much-maligned, much-copied headline format, a social conscience, and a hockey-stick growth graph. Then the hockey stick inverted and the readers grew bored. Nowadays, a layoff or two later like every other struggling news site, it says it’s focusing on video.
  • The Snowden Revelations seemed immensely consequential when they happened. And they certainly did change the ongoing conversation about state surveillance vs. encryption. But if you look at what’s actually changed since then, you’ll find … not very much. One can certainly argue that this is because he prevented things from getting even worse; and in truth he remains a hero of mine.

    But this is on the list because we thought then that it was the opening shot in the defining political conflict of the future, that of the battle against authoritarian surveillance state and surveillance capitalism. It turns out, post- Brexit and Trump, that that is only a sideshow; the future’s real political battle is between cosmopolitan multiculturalism vs. xenophobic ethno-nationalism. We would have been shocked and horrified to learn that in that long-ago innocent year of 2013.

2014

  • Yo, an app which literally just sent the notification “Yo” to its users in response to events, caused me to coin Yo’s Law. It caused others to wax eloquent about the virtues of single-bit communications. And then it faded away and was soon forgotten.
  • Secret was a big deal, it was controversial, it was such a big hit that it was funded by venture capitalists who were happy to give $6 million of the money in question directly to the founders rather than to the company. And then we all lost interest.

2015

  • Yik Yak was a big deal, it was controversial, it was such a big hit, it was valued at $400 million, etc etc etc. Farewell, Yik Yak.
  • Meerkat was all anyone in tech could talk about for a few months. It was the toast of SXSW. It was huge on Product Hunt. Live video broadcasts were going to change everything. RIP Meerkat.

2016

  • The DAO, or Distributed Autonomous Organization, was the first really big app built on the Ethereum blockchain. It was going to make money by investing in other apps built on the Ethereum blockchain. It raised $150 million. Then it turned out its code had a bug that let a hacker siphon that money out. You have to admit, after reading all of the above, that this is a much more interesting way to crash and burn than just bleeding MAUs until nobody wants to fund you anymore! Alas for The DAO.
  • Chatbots were last year’s Next Big Thing. Some people still believe they are this year’s, or next year’s, Next Big Thing. I cheated on TechCrunch to explain why those people are wrong for my first publishing love The Walrus more than a year ago. Still waiting for a counterexample to prove me wrong. Suspect I’m gonna be waiting for a long time…

What can we learn from this? Maybe that the nadir of sugar-water smartphone apps is, thankfully, behind us, in 2014 and 2015, finally replaced by more interesting technologies. Maybe that Google was flailing a little for a few years there, but has since stabilized. Maybe that the notion that connecting the world would change it for the better, politically, faded away after the first few years of this decade, replaced by the grim reality of increasing loggerhead political polarization. And maybe that what seemed like the onrushing future can turn into the quaint past with amazing speed.