Chatroulette! Remember that? Looking back, it seems like the pet rock of 2010. In its heyday, though, it was the must-see attraction. Legions of youth signed on to get a hit of random interaction with a complete stranger. The place was swarming.
Pundits rushed to weigh in on whether this was the great new trend of the future. Performance artists arrived. One pianist sang improvised Ben Folds-ish songs to random Chatroulette strangers until eventually Ben Folds himself started doing the same thing, in homage to his impersonator. The site became a fixture at parties. For a while there, it was a featured attraction at boozy office events, projected onto a wall for tipplers' titillation.
Of course, it wasn't long before the site was overrun by penises, then it was over. That was April.
If it seems like so long ago, it might be because Chatroulette represented a vision of the Internet that seems more distant than ever now. It set pundits atwitter because it had the raw edge that the net once promised: anonymous, boundary-breaking, a little bit dangerous. It didn't last.
There are two faces to the Internet. The chaotic side, such as Chatroulette, is dangerous and destabilizing, accountable neither to law or commerce. (Oftentimes, it flouts both.) The ordered side is more comforting: It's where people use their real names, where actions can be policed, where money can be made and borders respected. The two faces swirl around like a perpetual yin and yang.
But this year, they weren't in balance. 2010 was a year in which the anarchic Internet of yore gave a few mighty trumpets, only to be abandoned by a stampede in the opposite direction.
On one hand, a few actors, from the Russian teen behind Chatroulette to the unpleasant Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, to the motley crew of Anonymous made a good show of themselves.
But where did consumers go, by the tens of millions? To the sanitized App Store, and the all-embracing hegemony of Facebook. We have seen the future, and it has a "Like" button.
As an emblem of where we came from, Chatroulette seems as good an emblem as any. Users would click from one randomly chosen conversation partner to the next with the nonchalance of flipping television channels. It was so disconnected from social norms that it sent conniption-lovers on an all-expenses-paid fit.
It was reminiscent of another site that gained some notoriety in 2010: Formspring, which facilitates the asking of anonymous questions. But Formspring remains a vanity item for the conspicuous-disclosure set, which remains a niche market.
It was the same dynamic, writ large, that played out with WikiLeaks. Under the leadership of its messianic and erratic founder, it managed to shake up the diplomatic world by co-ordinating a large leak of diplomatic cables.
It was an effective and dramatic coup. But it amounted to asymmetric warfare: a few determined digital insurgents using stealth and guile to throw the great powers off their stride. As the leaks progressed, corporations moved to cut off WikiLeaks's resources, from its Web hosting to its financial support. WikiLeaks made a splash, but the debacle marked a move away from the radically transparent future it wants.
As it turned out, the future we got looked more like Facebook.
This was the year that Facebook arrived - and not just as a phenomenon, nor merely as a large and maybe even profitable business. In 2010, Facebook transcended popularity to become a simple fact of life, a utility that for many people is as elemental and necessary as the phone book once was, and Google now is.
Facebook spent the year (as it seems to spend most years) blundering from one privacy uproar to the next and watching its user-base skyrocket anyway. It passed the 500 million user mark - a fact that was neatly wrapped back into the marketing campaign for The Social Network, the autumn movie that enshrined the company's creation myth.
It's hard, and probably foolhardy, to pronounce on whether or not Facebook is a force for good. What we can say, however, is that it's a force for an ordered and structured world.
One of its great innovations, is its insistence on real names. It slavishly maps relationships that have already been established in the real world. It harvests your personal information and sells you advertising to match.
While it can expedite the process of organizing activists and protests, it's careful not to rock the boat. It's not a place to be explosive, to be offensive, to be transgressive, to stick it to the man, or really to stick anything anywhere. It's a place for peace, order and good wall posts.
An ordered, regimented and sanitized Internet has always been the kind of thing that appeals to governments. (Just last week, news broke that the U.K. government is discussing blocking adult content by default at the ISP level, and only allowing it to be seen by citizens who specifically request access. Thus, giving the government a list of everyone who looks at smut.) But the success of regimented, closed systems such as Facebook demonstrates an appetite for order that's endemic to users themselves. And that's why, heading into 2012, the ordered Internet will continue to rise, and the chaotic one will wane.
Perhaps it's not enough to ask whether the Internet bolsters or undermines the powers that be. It could just be that, in changing everything, it sees that everything remains the same.