Social media has invaded every aspect of our lives, and in 2013 that fact became more apparent than ever. Have a problem with a company? Tweet at them to solve it. See a billboard on your commute to work? Note the Facebook logo in the lower corner. Beyoncé announces the biggest album of the year where? On Instagram, of course.
Social media isn't disappearing anytime soon, but the rules are still being written and it's anyone's guess as to where we go from this point. Here are the biggest social media triumphs and downfalls of the year.
Twitter goes public: The top social media story of the year was, without a doubt, Twitter going public. The microblogging service grew from a silly status updater favored by tech-industry insiders to a "global town square" used to foment revolution and report news. (Though silly status updates still abound.) Now it's a publicly traded company expected to return value to shareholders. To make that happen, Twitter needs more users--and therefore more eyeballs on its ads--so its staff is working to make the service and app more user-friendly. Inline images, swipeable timelines, and improvements to the private-message system are designed to bring people in and help them discover reasons to stay.
Tumblr's big payday: When Yahoo scooped up Tumblr for $1.1 billion in May, it seemed like a curious match. Actually, it still does. But Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer knew that Tumblr's youthful, GIF-addicted audience could provide a much-needed shot in the arm for her dinosaur of a company. So far, Yahoo hasn't done much to change Tumblr--an ad here, an ad there. But the personal-blogging site remains mostly the same, which is good news for users. For now. Next year, everything could change.
Vine launches: While Twitter was heads-down toward the end of the year, focused on going public and making all the money, the social network kicked off 2013 by surprising everyone with a new venture: Vine. The 6-second video-sharing app quickly became a smash hit, attracting artists, actors, comedians, and creative types who viewed 6 seconds as a challenge instead of a restriction. Despite fierce competition from Instagram, Vine continued to thrive, adding new features and expanding its reach from iOS to Android and Windows Phone, too.
Instagram's new features: If you thought Instagram would rest lazily on the $1 billion bed of money Facebook made for the photo-sharing app, you thought wrong. Instagram in 2013 comfortably cruised from 80 million to 150 million monthly active users, half of whom check their feeds daily. The app has become a mainstay of the social routine because it continues to be interesting. After watching Vine become a social media darling, Instagram rolled out its own video product. After seeing Snapchat capture the hearts of teens across the country, Instagram introduced its own direct-messaging feature, Instagram Direct. Some people think Instagram is merely aping whatever its competitors are doing, and that may be true--but no one can deny that the end result is a great social experience.
Snapchat skyrockets: The ephemeral messaging app Snapchat has captivated your teenage relatives, and for good reason: They just tap out a message or snap a photo with a funny caption, and set a timer. When the seconds tick down, the message disappears. It's fun, simple, and, most important, private. Snapchat began growing its fanbase last year, but in 2013 the service was inescapable. The app capped the year by rejecting a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook--not too shabby for a service best known for its more scandalous uses.
Facebook tries something new: Facebook spent the year trying to prove that just because it's the biggest force in social networking doesn't mean it's slowing down. But its efforts to stay fresh have had mixed results. It never fully implemented its highly trumpeted News Feed redesign, though it did end up cherry-picking a few elements to change. Facebook's mobile push went a little too far with Home, which brought the social network to the forefront of Android phones. Home was visually appealing but failed to impress users--and let us not forget the HTC First, the first (and only) phone to come preinstalled with Home. It was quickly discontinued. But Facebook probably isn't all that concerned about its missteps--billions of dollars in revenue would make even the grumpiest shareholder smile.
The ads cometh: We social network users have been coasting along all these years on the free ride that our favorite platforms offer. Facebook? Free. Twitter? Free. Instagram is still free. Vine is definitely free. We offer those networks plenty in return, handing over our most private information so that they can make money. And how do they repay us? Ads. Ads everywhere. This year the major social networks decided they had to step up their money-making efforts. Facebook this month rolled out auto-playing video ads, otherwise known as the scourge of the Internet. Instagram started working ads into streams. Promoted posts, sponsored what-have-you--this is social media as we know it today. If ads ruin everything, we'll look upon 2013 as the beginning of the end.
Path's privacy: Path, once championed as the more private alternative to Facebook, has struggled to find its footing. What started as a photo-sharing app in 2010 has evolved into a Line-esque messaging service with sticker packs galore. Path famously capped the friends list at 150 to maintain a sense of intimacy, but this year the service faced accusations of spamming users' address-book contacts. The incident prompted Facebook to cut off Path's access to its users' friends lists. Path isn't giving up--in September, Path launched a premium tier for members willing to pay $15 a year for unlimited sticker packs and no ads. No word on whether that effort has been successful.
Gross dating apps: 2013 marked a significant shift in the way humans mate. Hookup apps designed to find the most attractive people in a given location have become de rigueur on singles' smartphones. It's all fun and games until humans realize that as a species we have lost the ability to communicate without an interface. The future of civilization is in peril, and we have Tinder to blame. But it's not just the swipeable stacks of photos that are killing romance. We can't forget services like Lulu, which let ladies review the men they date in painstaking detail. People are not restaurants. This has got to stop.