Let us reminisce now, in these joyous final hours of the waning year, about the Harlem Shake.
Do you remember the Harlem Shake? Sure you do. It was what the kids call a viral video – a series of them, in fact; thousands, a full-blown epidemic.
Like most viral outbreaks, the Harlem Shake started small, but quickly got out of hand. Soon, the Miami Heat were doing it, as were NASA staff, the employees at every tech startup in the world and even the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sun News host Ezra Levant tried to get in on the act, and missed the point completely.
There is no better example of Internet-based ephemera than the Harlem Shake. For about two months in 2013, millions of people were entranced by this nonsense – then the whole phenomenon fell off a cliff, as our collective attention turned to the next digital diversion.
This time last year, we put together the inaugural Internet Ephemera Awards, celebrating the best and worst of 2012's impermanent digital culture.
This year, we once again recount the people, places and things that made the Internet such a special place in 2013, focusing exclusively on the sort of stuff absolutely nobody will remember this time next year.
PART I – The Year In Fail
Worst Data Visualization
There's no shortage of amazing visual and data-based journalism on the Internet these days. Reporters and web developers around the world are putting together amazing charts and infographics every day, as they discover new ways to tell stories.
And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there's this thing.
The CBC's graphic illustrating a story about drinking ages in Canada is so monumentally unnecessary, it's kind of beautiful. I mean, just look at that Y-axis, which shows ages in increments of 0.6 years, for some reason. Look at the explanatory note at the bottom, complete with a missing word that makes it sound like something the Incredible Hulk might say ("in Alberta and Manitoba, the drinking age 18." Drinking age 18!). Surely, there is no better way to express the drinking ages in Canada's provinces... except maybe with a single line of text, or any other way.
Most 'Ailarious' Act of Internet-Based Futility
In May, a guy named Dave started a Twitter account to vote for Martin Brodeur as the cover-star of the upcoming hockey video game NHL 14. He got it wrong in every possible way.
The Inhuman Resources Award for Tech Industry Workplace Insanity (Amateur Division)
Being an intern, it ain't often fun. Long hours, menial tasks, non-existent job security, constantly getting the evil eye from the one guy that management is desperately trying to force into early retirement – these are all occupational hazards the modern intern is routinely expected to face.
But at LinkedIn, the online networking site you may know from the thousands of unread invite e-mails sitting in your inbox, interns are subjected to yet another burden. It's called the company all-hands flash mob – "all-hands" being LinkedIn's term for a company-wide meeting.
Ever since a crop of interns started the "tradition" four years ago, every year the interns are expected to "disrupt" an all-hands meeting with some kind of "performance."
You may ask: "The quality of these performances, is it on par with a fifth-grade talent show?" Yes, yes it is.
Here's this year's show.
Now, to be fair, if the interns are actually having fun doing this, more power to them. Still, nobody gets a pass for changing the opening lyrics of Mackelmore's Thriftshop to "I'm gonna write some code, only got 12 weeks to make a difference." Nobody.
The Inhuman Resources Award for Tech Industry Workplace Insanity (Pro Division)
A very strong field this year made it difficult to select a single winner in this category. So we have a tie.
Our first winner is AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who in August conducted a conference call with about 1,000 AOL employees to talk to them about Patch, the company's bloated local news network. Mr. Armstrong had previously indicated that he planned to cut down the number of Patch web sites by about a third. As a result, some of his employees must have been been pretty worried about their jobs, so he held the call, presumably to reassure them.
And then one of his employees tried to take a picture of Mr. Armstrong during the call, so he could post it on the company's internal site, as is convention. Mr. Armstrong apparently did not like this, so he fired the employee right there and then in front of 1,000 employees ... during a call with employees worried about their job security.
Our second award goes to the people who run Penny Arcade. For those of you unfamiliar with the business, Penny Arcade started out as a web comic and quickly became a much larger Internet company, with merchandise stores, legions of fans and some of the most important video game conferences in the world. Lots of people love Penny Arcade, and in 2013, they were looking to hire someone to the team. For countless fans, this would be a dream job.
And because it is such a dream job, the people at Penny Arcade had a few expectations. For example, the successful applicant would be expected to do the jobs of four people, have virtually no work-life balance, and understand up-front that, when it comes to compensation, Penny Arcade isn't "a terribly money-motivated group."
As Christopher Buecheler notes in his blog post, Penny Arcade almost certainly has the money to hire more than one person to do these tasks, they're just popular enough that they don't have to. But hey, working with the awesome folks behind that edgy web comic is its own reward (because there is no other reward).
Worst Use of Automation
Keep Calm: "No, you don't understand, the computer does all the work, we just sit back and watch the money roll in. Nothing can go wrong!"
Worst Tech Press Conference of the Year
Thanks to the parade of tech companies intent on copying Apple's formula for product launch events, there is never a shortage of strong contenders for this award. But in 2013, despite some mighty fine clusterflops, tech giant Qualcomm stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Qualcomm is a company that designs computer chips. Traditionally, the chipset industry is not especially exciting. But with Microsoft no longer interested in running the keynote at the annual Consumer Electronics show in Vegas, Qualcomm decided to step in. And, in their defence, the result cannot be called boring. It can, however, be called many other things.
Everything about this presentation is aggressively annoying, starting with the video montage of people trying and mostly failing to guess what Qualcomm's presentation slogan, "Born Mobile," actually means. Cruelly, this montage marks the last time anyone on stage will have anything in common with the audience.
From there, it just gets worse: Three shrill actors periodically torment the audience with cloying examples of their mobile-first outlook on the world; Steve Ballmer shows up for no good reason; Big Bird shows up for no good reason; a guy wearing what appears to be Big Bird's skull for a hat shows up for no good reason; Archbishop Desmond Tutu...well, you get the picture.
By the time the show comes to an end with – what else? – an acoustic set by Maroon 5, much of the audience was simply in a daze, punch-drunk by the inexplicable carnival to which they'd just been subjected.
And the cherry on top of this sundae? The live-stream of the Qualcomm "Born Mobile" presentation – the one all about being in tune with this new mobile-first generation – could not be viewed on a mobile device.
Worst Product of the Year
If you're anything like me, you're a human male, and so are naturally confident and capable of using all manner of tablets and smartphones. But for too long, the technology industry has crassly ignored the female of the species, who until now has looked at the average tablet and thought, "I don't understand this. Why isn't this pink? What is computer?"
But thanks to ePad Femme, those days are finally over. Designed late last year and marketed as a Valentine's Day gift, the ePad Femme has everything – a bright pink background, pre-loaded cooking apps and, one can only assume, a robotic hand that pats the user on the head whenever she successfully connects to a Wi-Fi network.
It is almost 2014, and products like this exist. Although, if you're looking for something to be optimistic about, take solace in the fact that hardly anybody actually bought this thing.
The Flojuggler Memorial Award for the Worst Web Site of the Year
The FMA is always a difficult award. The web site after which the award is named (which we refuse to link to on principle) is a pointless, awful thing, but perhaps not as downright evil as last year's winner – a site called Potential Prostitutes that was really just a shakedown racket that forced women to pay money to have their information removed from the site.
This year, we're once again moving in an entirely different direction. In picking the 2013 winner, the award committee was swayed purely by one criteria – rampant technical incompetence.
A few months ago, the Affordable Healthcare Act rolled out in the U.S., finally allowing previously uninsurable Americans to have access to decent healthcare. The centrepiece of the rollout was a set of web sites designed to let users quickly and easily sign up for plans.
The problem is, many of them didn't really work. At all.
Of all the state health exchange web sites, one in particular stood out for its astounding technical incompetence. For months, Oregon's exchange site was effectively unusable, signing up exactly zero people. And when it finally started working, it presented users with a 1994-era list of hoops to jump through.
Why make the site only accessible via Internet Explorer? Why put a one-hour time limit on a Web-based application? Why did no one catch this before the site went live?
Almost everything about the Oregon site seemed designed by a professional troll. If you tried signing up using any other browser, the site informed you that you needed to use Internet Explorer. But if you tried signing up using an older version of Internet Explorer, the Web site refused, and helpfully suggested you upgrade your browser – to Google Chrome.
It's a good bet that, in the next year, this mountain of glitches will be fixed, and the Great Health Exchange Rollout Debacle of 2013 will be largely forgotten. But for now, technical incompetence on this grand a scale cannot be ignored. Congratulations, Oregon Health Exchange site!
Part II – The Year in Win
Best Halloween Costume
There is, as far as I can tell, only one good reason to have children, and that is so you can dress them up in a crazy stick figure LED costume and film them stumbling about like tiny glowing drunks.
Best Use of Internet Outrage
In February, Tel Aviv gave us one of the finest examples of the municipal can-do spirit when they let neither the laws of time nor space stand in the way of a good parking ticket. A couple of city employees, presumably dispatched to paint a handicapped parking space over some curbside, didn't flinch when they saw a car already parked there – they simply painted the lines around the car and, when they were finished, called for a tow truck. After all, the car was parked in a handicapped spot.
Fortunately, the car's owner refused to let this phantom parking violation stand. She hunted down security camera footage of the act and put it on Facebook, where it quickly went viral. As a result, the municipality was forced to apologize and rescind the parking ticket.
Canadian Technological Achievement of the Year
In a year that saw BlackBerry's fortunes take yet another turn for the worse, it was often easy to feel pessimistic about the state of technological innovation in Canada. Fortunately for us, people like Cary Walkin exist.
Mr. Walkin, a chartered accountant, decided to build a dungeon-crawler role-playing video game all by himself. Now, this on its own would be a fairly impressive endeavour. But no, Mr. Walkin took things a step further by building this video game entirely within the confines of Microsoft Excel.
Now you may ask: Could Mr. Walkin have spent his time and ample talent doing something more worthwhile than building a video game using only spreadsheet macros? We say no. Keep on fighting the good fight, Cary.
Tumblr of the Year
A lot of solid contenders this year. So much so that we feel compelled to give you the shortlist of finalists, any of whom could have easily won:
1) A collection of scary Facebook searches.
2) Someone started archiving the incredibly pretentious mission statements of various advertising and marketing firms, but soon had to stop after an executive at one of those firms made an incredibly pretentious threat to physically assault him.
3) This guy, who goes around writing hiding secret messages on and in hotel room furniture.
But our winner this year is dedicated to capturing that particular brand of emptiness unique to the digital age. Screenshots of Despair has quickly become the chief archiver of those moments when the technology meant to make our lives easier accidentally becomes the harbinger of some truly depressing metaphysics.
Best Use of Fitness Tracker Hardware
Earlier this year, the PR folks for Nike got a little angry at us for our review of the Fuelband fitness tracker, a review based in part on me putting the wristband around my cat's neck and using it as a feline activity monitor.
But even I have nothing on this guy, who spent four hours driving around San Francisco just to draw a Thanksgiving turkey. Time well spent, sir, time well spent.
Best Anti-Piracy Experiment
In April, the folks at Greenheart Games released a game called Game Dev Tycoon, a sort of simulator that puts the player in the role of a video game developer. But instead of simply making it available for purchase, the studio decided to simultaneously release a "cracked" version of the game on file-sharing networks, so anyone who effectively wanted to steal the game could do so.
But the cracked version of the game had a slight gameplay tweak programmed into it. After a while, players who'd progressed in the game found that all the new games their virtual studio developed weren't making any money, because of piracy. Eventually, every player of the cracked game saw his or her studio go bankrupt as a result.
Needless to say, the players who'd downloaded the "pirated" version of Game Dev Tycoon didn't quite grasp the irony.
Tweet of the Year
As usual, in our search for the Tweet of the year, we eschew obvious choices, such as the most re-tweeted or favourited posts (which this year were almost all about celebrities who died), in favour of something much more esoteric – something that truly captures the anarchistic noise chamber that is Twitter, full of typos, non sequiturs and unhinged, all-caps bellowing.
And, for the second year in a row, our winner is a rap star.
Before we get to this year's winner, let us first pay tribute to some of the great moments the microblog gave us in 2013. For example, there's this creative little sci-fi story written in the form of a Twitter bug report. And let's not forget the medium's usefulness as a means of asymmetrical aggression, exemplified by this amazing tirade against a movie critic by one angry reader.
But this year, our Tweet of the year comes from the network's primary demographic – C-level celebrities.
Do you know who the Insane Clown Posse are? The Insane Clown Posse are two guys who write and perform profane, sometimes violent but above all else terrible rap songs. Their most famous track is a song called Miracles, the lyrics of which detail a number of well-understood and easily explained phenomena as proof that miracles exist (sample: "Music is all magic/You can't even hold it/It's just there in the air").
Anyway, in January, the guys from ICP decided to take a time-out from their Dr.-Suess-Meets-Easy-E brand of songwriting to issue this heartfelt and sincere missive.
Just to recap, this is the Insane Clown Posse, reminding you that, regardless of what they say in their raps, they owe their lives to wemon.
Best Picture of a Cat in a Shopping Bag