Biggest Time Suck
Besides Nate Silver and President Obama, Twitter was clearly the big winner this campaign season. The social media monster seems to set a new record with each major world event, hitting a peak of 327,452 tweets per minute on election night. For news junkies, Twitter has an uncanny way of turning the casual observer into a 140-character obsessive. Add to the mix apps like TweetDeck and HootSuite, which allow for real-time list management, and it becomes still harder to resist the allure of Twitter. Advertisers are beginning to feel the same, with everybody from presidential candidates to retailers hawking Black Friday deals lining up to nab Twitter’s small stable of much sought-after native ad placements. After all the debate over the ad prospects of social brands, 2012 is the year Twitter prevailed as a digital must-buy.
Ascendant Social Brand
While Instagram is now a Mark Zuckerberg production, the photo-sharing app remains fully its own thing—which helps explain its initial $1 billion price tag. That number has dropped along with Facebook’s stock, but all other Instagram numbers are up. Within a week of the two-year-old app finally rolling out an Android version this past April, it was downloaded 5 million times. Later that month, Facebook would come calling. Instagram now has more than 100 million users and in August averaged 7.3 million daily active users to beat out Twitter’s 6.9 million daily mobile users. And that was all before Instagram rolled out Web profiles in recent weeks.
Best Place to Get Your Ke$ha (or Bach) Fix
Bach ‘n’ roll. Streaming site Spotify has attracted not only music fans (to the tune of 15 million global users per month) but also advertisers—particularly Coca-Cola, a prominent investor. Meanwhile, McDonald’s, Chevy, Intel and Reebok have created branded apps on the Spotify platform, curating playlists and epitomizing the buzzy concept of native advertising. Launched in Sweden four years ago, Spotify didn’t go live in the U.S. until July 2011. But its large audience internationally has helped attract U.S. brands, says global ad sales chief Jeff Levick. Says Levick: “I think we do the best when brands develop content that’s relevant for the platform, and also when they tie in the power of combining audio and display.”
Editor of the Year
Last year, when the former music producer turned Engadget editor parted ways with AOL after butting heads with management, few would have believed Joshua Topolsky would within months come to lead the most dynamic new tech-news outlet. Topolsky and members of his Engadget crew joined forces at Vox (which already published the sports site SB Nation), launching The Verge a year ago to rave reviews. With an obsessive work ethic and a tightly knit team, Topolsky has grown a deeply dedicated audience (2 million unique visitors on iPhone 5’s launch date alone) and has helped produce some of the most compelling and visually arresting journalism in the tech space‚ or any space.
Executive of the Year
This is the year Dick Costolo killed the “Fail Whale.” The symbol of Twitter outages was MIA when the social net could well have been KO’d: New Year’s Eve, the Super Bowl, election night. Instead, on each occasion, Twitter handled a crazy volume of tweets (327,452 per minute on election night) and turned those tent-pole events into company milestones. (Twitter now boasts a half-billion accounts.) Costolo brushes off the notion that his is a media company—this, though he seems to have built one on the backs of other media players, and done so in a way that attracts partnerships with those would-be rivals. Deftly done, Dick.
Hottest Newbie YouTube Channel
Shut Up! Cartoons
When YouTube rolled out its 100-channel strategy, much of the focus was on celeb-driven ventures from the likes of Madonna. There was less talk about twentysomethings Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, who launched Smosh, the No. 3 YouTube channel in terms of subs. Because of its huge following among young males, Smosh, part of Alloy Digital, was tapped to deliver views to startup Shut Up! Cartoons. The result: 700,000 subs and 72 million views since April.
Best in Web Video
Anybody who wants to launch a YouTube channel, see Machinima. It’s a lot easier to launch a YouTube net—say, Machinima Prime—when you’ve already got millions of loyal viewers. Part video ad network, part master programmer, Machinima represents a revolution happening under the nose of traditional media, producing hundreds of videos each month on all things gaming plus original scripted series. With 5.2 million subs and 3.8 billion views, the big question: which media giant will snap it up?
Best Reason to Cut the Cord
Microsoft’s Xbox takes all the usual reasons to cancel cable—Netflix, Hulu, YouTube—and wraps them into a gaming console, though the term “gaming console” might not do it justice. With more U.S. subscribers of the paid Xbox Live Gold service watching shows or movies on the device than playing multiplayer games, it has emerged as a magic box that’s made the digital living room a reality. Xbox doesn’t just cut the cord—it plugs into the future.
Best Place to Keep Track of Lilo’s Arrests
The Brits might just be better at this stuff. In a Web awash in cheap gossip sites where side-boob sightings amount to breaking news, Britain’s Daily Mail has spent the last five years growing its U.S. reach and making The Mail Online a must-read for scandal junkies with such click-provoking headlines as “‘I looked like my gay brother’: Anne Hathaway.” The result: traffic other dailies would kill for, with as many as 9 million monthly uniques in the U.S.
Best Place to Break Down Your Fantasy Team
Bill Simmons, ESPN’s The Sports Guy, has been called the most popular sportswriter in the country. And yet his Web spinoff had all the makings of a self-indulgent disaster. Instead, it is helping set a new standard in online journalism. Mixing sports reporting with pop-culture pieces and epic oral histories on topics like Friday Night Lights, Grantland has snagged 2.2 million uniques per month and advertisers including Subway. It has also proved that long-form content can thrive online.
Most Addictive Mobile Game
Even gaming critics have gone so far as to warn the public about the addictive nature of Fieldrunners 2. As far as time spent, the game joins the pantheon of iPhone/iPad monsters like Angry Birds with its ability to turn a casual time-waster into an afternoon binge. One of the kings of Apple’s App Store, Fieldrunners 2 has blown past $1 million in sales. At $7.99 for the iPad version, some have complained about its steep price—and yet the downloads keep coming and the fan base keeps growing. We would tell you more, but we have to get back to our game now.
Most Weekend-destroying Console/PC Game
Assassin’s Creed 3
If a video game’s pitch is that it makes history come alive, it’s probably for grade-schoolers. But Assassin’s Creed 3 is far from a textbook tale of the Revolutionary War, with plenty to offer fans who snoozed through social studies. In addition to battling on Bunker Hill, you can stalk through the woods hunting elk or cruise down to the Caribbean for a legit sea fight. No wonder Google saw a spike in searches for the game on Cyber Monday.
Social Game We’re Obsessed With Right Now
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft showed its resiliency in the uber-competitive gaming world by eclipsing 10 million subs again in October. The Blizzard Entertainment juggernaut had momentarily dipped to around 9 million, but the fall release of its fourth iteration, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, showed it to be one of the most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) ever. This, while tapping the likes of Chuck Norris, William Shatner and Ozzy Osbourne to hawk the brand.
Hottest Tablet Publisher/Aggregator
The rise of the tablet moved Flipboard from an elegantly designed reader interface to a major player in the mobile space. Its 20 million registered users put it in elite company for reader apps while its smooth design make even the ugliest looking blogs readable. Though there was speculation last summer that Twitter’s API changes could hurt it, Flipboard seems just fine, having launched an integration with Apple’s iBookstore in iOS.
Favorite App Right Now
The most famous location-based app edged toward monetization this year, launching a paid-ads product being tested by Old Navy and Whole Foods. Indeed, its fate seems to rest on whether retail shoppers go geo-social. To encourage activity among its 25 million users, Foursquare launched a local discovery feature called Explore. Branching beyond the check-in, Explore drives consumers to businesses that offer specials via the platform.
Pinterest’s debut on comScore’s top 50 list in October (23 million unique visitors) pinned a bow on a year in which the social-sharing site went from obscurity to a marketing must for retail brands. Per RichRelevance, Pinterest posts deliver an average sale of $169, trumping Twitter by 138 percent and Facebook by 78 percent. Female-focused media have also benefitted—among them, bridal blog The Perfect Palette (311,000 Pinterest followers) and Real Simple (205,000 followers).