A New Media Year

Columnist Eric Hellweg looks at the biggest stories of 2005 surrounding the convergence of media and technology.

Only eight more days are left to the halfway point of “the aughts” decade. And what a year it’s been in the converging worlds of technology, media, business, and entertainment. There was a new videogame console from Microsoft, new iPods from Apple, great gains in online video, and the blogosphere finally came of age.

In 2005, big media decided to play along with the Internet, offering video clips online free of charge and putting entire television show episodes up for sale on Apple’s iTunes store. Meanwhile, ever-expanding Google launched a map service, a satellite imagery service, an all-encompassing database program, and other software engineering feats.

Another hot name: Apple. The crew from Cupertino continues to impress with its music players. In case you’ve been living in a self-imposed retreat, the video iPod and the nano both premiered this year, adding more revenue to the company’s coffers.

So, without further ado, let’s recap some of the biggest stories of 2005 from the nexus of technology, media, and business.

Wikipedia’s awkward adolescence. Last week, I wrote about the clumsy coming of age of Wikipedia (see “The Wikipedia War”), the online user-generated encyclopedia project, and how some of its founding tenets, notably, anonymity and openness to all, are bumping up against its popularity. Since I wrote the article, an independent study by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia was about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nonetheless, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has also recently come out in favor of some measures that would make the site more accountable. He’d better. Larry Sanger (who was also interviewed for my earlier story), has teamed up with the deep-pocketed, deep-thinking Joe Firmage to launch a new online encyclopedia project, called Digital Universe. For four years, it’s been Jimmy Wales against Encyclopedia Britannica. Now, Wales finds himself with some online competition as well.

Online video booms. This fall, I wrote about the major networks pushing more of their television-based video onto the Internet and also making that video free for users (“TV To Go”, “Must Surf TV,” and “Small-Screen Sea Change”). It’s hardly a magnanimous gesture, though: ads sold around video clips are the most lucrative online advertising. The news snippets are perfect for online carriage, with each rarely lasting more than a couple minutes. And moving the content online can also bring unexpected benefits. YouTube.com, a video-repository site for anyone who wants to upload video content, struck pay dirt when it hosted the video clip “Lazy Sunday,” a rap-skit from last week’s Saturday Night Live episode. The clip became the most popular in YouTube’s history.

Blogosphere’s rise to prominence. When Hurricane Katrina struck in August, it was the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the United States. The political fallout – with allegations of cronyism and incompetence – was the backdrop for the blogosphere’s coming out. It was a defining moment. The potent combination of TV newscasters actually being on the ground coupled with the blogosphere’s near-instantaneous fact-checking capabilities created a groundswell of anger over the government’s slow reaction to suffering in the Gulf Region. Bloggers dug up former FEMA Director Michael Brown’s dubious employment history and the federal government’s decision to delay levee reconstruction, which gave grist for on-the-scene television reports. Katrina coverage is regarded as the moment the national press core finally got its edge back – but much of the sharpening came from blogs (see “Katrina: A Defining Moment for Blogs”).

Mobile music tops the charts. Cellphoners jumped all over ringtones in 2005, and the cultural impact was enormous. When the handlers behind Coldplay were deciding how to break the band’s first single off their most recent album, they chose a decidedly unorthodox route for exposure: a ringtone (see “Coldplay Calling”). A short snippet of “Speed of Sound” was offered to Cingular Wireless subscribers before the general release of the album. It was a wise move. “We’ve been floored,” says Mark Nagel, director for entertainment and downloadable services for Cingular. What’s more, the “Crazy Frog” song, which was created as a ringtone, debuted at number one on the U.K. pop charts. Madonna also released the first single off her new album as a ringtone – making some observers wonder if cell phones will be the next staging ground for new musical acts.

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