You probably wouldn’t bang on about your galloping gout or your teenager’s arrest for grand larceny in a round-robin letter at Christmas. So why should technology firms be any different?
Most end-of-year reviews from technology companies emphasise the positive, from the biggest videos on YouTube or the top apps on Apple’s App Store through to the most popular hashtags on Twitter and the most-streamed artists on Spotify.
These reviews can still teach us a lot about how these companies are services are evolving, as well as about how they see themselves – and/or would like to be seen by others. But unsurprisingly, they omit to mention some of the less positive stories of 2015.
So what did we learn – and what was left out – of the end of year round-ups?
Apple’s end-of-year App Store charts show that new apps and games can still break through: witness strong sales for family game Heads Up! or lip-sync app Dubsmash outgunning some big social apps in the free iPhone app charts. Casual game Crossy Road made a big impact too, with tens of millions of free downloads.
Apple’s top-grossing charts make it clear that when it comes to actual spending, the old guard still dominate: Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga and Game of War – Fire Age in particular. The main new arrival in this chart was Candy Crush Soda Saga, which was hardly a bold new innovation.
iOS has also become a big springboard for music-streaming service Spotify in 2015: the tenth-most downloaded and third top-grossing iPhone app, for example, out-earning Game of War without needing Mariah Carey to shoot any dragons. And remember: every time someone pays £12.99 for a month’s Spotify subscription within its iOS app, Apple gets a £3.90 cut.
What’s missing: Understandably absent from Apple’s end-of-year lists were any of the 250 apps pulled from the App Store in October for siphoning off people’s private information; not to mention the 300+ apps infected by the XcodeGhost malware in September.
Apple also removed a smaller number of ad-blocking apps from its store, including the popular Been Choice, after the tactics they used to block ads within apps like Facebook were deemed hazardous to users’ security by Apple. An iOS bug enabling anyone to crash an iPhone by sending it a certain string of characters, discovered in May, also needed quick patching by the company.
Apple also attracted mixed reviews for its Apple Music streaming service, having nearly launched it with a free trial that wouldn’t pay artists and songwriters, until the intervention of indie labels and Taylor Swift. In November, meanwhile, Apple executive Jimmy Iovine apologised for claiming that women “find it very difficult at times” to discover music.
Facebook’s Year In Review sends out a clear message: this is no longer the social network that would rather deluge you with ice bucket videos than tell you about the Ferguson protests.
Its review includes a list of the “most talked about” events in 2015: the Paris attacks, the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis; the Nepal earthquakes, Charlie Hebdo, Isis, Baltimore protests and issues such as marriage equality.
“The moments we shared in 2015 affected us all. They shocked, moved and inspired us to take action,” claimed Facebook’s review: a pitch for the social network’s role as a place for serious debate and activism.
What’s missing: The recent debate about whether Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic ambitions are as good as they sounded came too late to break into the most-talked-about topics. 2015 also saw Facebook taking a central role in a legal battle over whether it could transfer European users’ data to its US servers while guaranteeing their privacy – a case that ultimately saw Europe’s safe harbour law invalidated.
Facebook has been criticised for a lack of transparency on its climate impact and emissions; ordered to stop tracking non-members by a Belgian court; attacked in Germany for its approach to hate speech on its platform; and made headlines in the UK when it emerged the company had paid just £4,327 corporation tax in 2014.
There were also arguments about censorship, from Facebook banning a “degrading” sight-loss ad by a charity for blind and partially sighted people; to not banning a controversial “baby yoga” video that was accused of depicting child abuse; through to the ongoing debate about its policies on nudity.
The company also had to water down its controversial “real names” policy, while attracting criticism for disabling the account of a woman who really was called Isis, and fending off a hoax from a man who, as it turned out, wasn’t called Phuc Dat Bich at all.
YouTube’s Rewind chart of “top trending videos” is based on a mixture of views (and view time) shares, comments and likes. The Google subsidiary says its top 10 videos were watched for more than 25m hours this year.
Trends? Four of the top 10 videos come from TV, including three from US chat shows, from Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart lip-sync battling with Jimmy Fallon, to James Corden’s carpool karaoke with Justin Bieber and Barack Obama reading out mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel’s show.
These shows have entire sections devised with YouTube in mind – a trend that’s spreading elsewhere in the world. YouTube’s top 10 is crafted to show the diversity on its service though, with stunts from Roman Atwood and the Slo Mo Guys to more dancing and lip-syncs. Meanwhile, the fact that YouTube’s 10 most popular music videos were watched for “over 37,000 years” in 2015 hammers home its status as the biggest music-streaming service by far.
What’s missing: From BPI boss Geoff Taylor claiming British labels earned more from vinyl than YouTube in 2014, to Thom Yorke comparing YouTube to Nazi art-looters, the music industry had plenty of YouTube critics in 2015. Even if their inability to deliver these attacks in a dance routine or from within a giant water-filled condom meant they were doomed not to make its end-of-year chart.
2015 also saw controversy sparked by the launch of the YouTube Kids app for children, with US campaigners calling for regulators to investigate whether its videos were all child-safe – a potty-mouthed Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street video figured prominently in their complaints – as well as scrutiny of its advertising policies.
YouTube also had to face claims by European researchers that its parent company’s AdWords advertising platform was charging brands for fake views, as well as discussion about whether its takedown policies could be abused by companies stifling criticism: including games firms Konami and Digiplex Games and even the Guardian.
In December 2015, Twitter may be the venue for the Donald Trump / Katie Hopkins love-in, but the company’s end-of-year review highlights its status as a liberal-leaning western platform.
#BlackLivesMatter; #HomeToVote and #LoveWins for marriage equality; #RefugeesWelcome and #IStandWithAhmed were all picked out by Twitter as important hashtags in 2015, while Caitlyn Jenner and Edward Snowden were among the “new voices” showcased in its recap.
Also note the fact that half of the 10 most-retweeted tweets came from current and former members of One Direction: Twitter remains a seething cauldron of activity around the boy-band. The appearance of a tweet in that top 10 from King Salman of Saudi Arabia hinted at Twitter’s popularity in that country too, though.
What’s missing: Twitter wasn’t quite so keen to shout about the fact that #Isis was its third most-trending news hashtag: the company has been under scrutiny this year – in fairness, like all social platforms – for its policies regarding accounts set up by Isis to spread word of its beliefs and activities.
But Twitter’s bigger problem in 2015 was one of growth: its failure to add lots of new users may have done for CEO Dick Costolo, who stepped down in June. At the end of September Twitter had 320 million active users, up 11% year-on-year.
Meanwhile, the company has risked the wrath of its hardcore users with changes to make it more mainstream: most recently with its experiments with a non-chronological timeline, but before that with hearts replacing likes. And Twitter also continued to face questions about how it deals with harassment on its service – Guardian writer Jack Monroe quit Twitter in April saying “the hate/vitriol is suffocating and don’t feel this is a safe place to be”.
Spotify’s end-of-year report is big on big numbers: its 75 million users listened to more than 20bn hours of music in 2015: 267 hours per user.
Judging by its claim that its most popular artist Drake was streamed 1.8bn times this year, Spotify’s own public data on average payouts suggests that the Canadian rapper’s label and publisher should have been paid just under $13m – a handy guide to the absolute top-dollar earnings for an individual artist on Spotify, even if Drake’s share of that loot is unknown.
The predominance of current artists like Drake, Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, Kanye West, Major Lazer, Avicii and Meghan Trainor in Spotify’s biggest-in-2015 charts show its youthful nature, while its chart of the top five playlists is a reminder of the growing importance of Spotify’s in-house curators: top-ranked Today’s Top Hits has 6.6 million followers, giving it real clout in helping to break new tracks.
On that note, the news that Spotify’s clever Discover Weekly playlist – which is different for every listener based on their tastes – had generated 1.7bn streams in its first five months was a reminder of another way Spotify is trying to get new music into the ears of its users.
What’s missing: 2015 has been a bruising year for Spotify on multiple fronts. It has faced public criticism of its “freemium” model from major labels – Universal Music’s Lucian Grainge in particular – with pressure building on the company to get more people to pay for its premium subscription.
And then there were artists criticising Spotify and its business model, from Björk (“This streaming thing just does not feel right. I don’t know why, but it just seems insane”) to Joanna Newsom (“A villainous cabal of major labels. The business is built from the ground up as a way to circumvent the idea of paying their artists”).
Plus deteriorating relations with Taylor Swift (“The startup with no cash flow reacted to criticism like a corporate machine”) are unlikely to have been improved by one of her songs appearing on Spotify credited to Lostprophets – yes, that Lostprophets – although in fairness, it also appeared on iTunes, Deezer, Google Play and other rivals.
Instagram is the light and fluffy social network: #love was the top hashtag on the app for the third year in a row, for example. And while Swift may still have shunned Spotify, she continued to be a big hitter on Instagram, accounting for five of the 10 most popular images in 2015, alongside three from the Jenner sisters and one apiece from Beyoncé and Selena Gomez.
Instagram has quietly become a haven for female pop stars: Justin Bieber was the only male in its top 10 artists alongside Swift, Gomez, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna – these 10 stars alone had 420 million followers between them at the start of December.
Instagram’s year-end review also emphasised empathy and inclusion: behind #love its most popular hashtags were #jesuischarlie, #caitlynjenner, #PrayForParis and #InstaPride – the latter being a campaign run with Miley Cyrus to celebrate transgender and gender-fluid people.
What’s missing: Love wasn’t the only emotion on Instagram in 2015. One of the platform’s burgeoning ranks of “influencers” Essena O’Neill made headlines in November when she deleted her account and criticised the culture of “contrived perfection” on Instagram.
“See how relatable my captions were – stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention,” she wrote in one of her posts explaining why she was sick of social culture.
Instagram also spent 2015 trying to navigate the leap from free, no-ads service to something that makes money for its parent company Facebook. Despite early promises of beautiful, made-for-Instagram ads from brands, by the end of 2015 you were just as likely to see the same promo videos for mobile games that were in your Facebook news feed.
Finally, Kim Kardashian may not have actually broken the internet with her famous cover-shot for Paper magazine posted on her Instagram account, but she did manage to break advertising laws in the US by endorsing a morning-sickness treatment in an Instagram post without adding the (required) information about its risks.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Saturday 19th December 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010