December 12, 2019

The 12 most innovative content formats of the 2010s

The 12 most innovative content formats of the 2010s

The first six items in this listicle originally appeared in the December 5, 2019 issue of The Content Technologist with the email subject line "Which content tech innovations defined the 2010s?" and a review of form-builder Typeform.

The final six items originally appeared in the December 12, 2019 issue of The Content Technologist with the email subject line "The #1 content innovation of the 2010s is on fleek" and a review of  conversion optimization software VWO.

Congratulations! We’ve almost made it to the end — not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. The 2010s were our culture’s digital adolescence, a mobile bonanza and a major shift in how we consume and produce content. Open digital culture was swiftly commoditized, distributed, abused and reconsidered. We’ve ended 2019 with digital ideals of eliminating tension in user experience at loggerheads with old business models.

You'll see all kinds of marketing- and tech-focused 2010s wrap-ups, mostly all of them leading to “we need to break up big tech” (yes but yes and). Our online interactions are shifting from big social to back to small networks. We’re seeing the scariness of scale but still craving more. But hey look! In content tech there’s been some cool shit.

Please join me in putting aside our justified quibbles with the algorithms, with the bad data management, with the drain and sag of late capitalism. Let’s instead consider what keeps us going: the bits of content that make our world delightful and useful — the top innovations in content tech from the past ten years.

This list considers content types that are tech-enabled. What won’t make this list: storytelling techniques that existed before (i.e., old radio/tv conventions that are now thriving on podcasts or live video); innovations that came into their own but weren't invented this decade (all virtual reality); features that don’t directly enable new forms of creation (the Facebook like / Reddit upvote).

But I could write thousands of words about all of the innovations below. Here we go, the first of a two-part series:

12. The sharable playlist

If this were 2003 and I had a crush on you (romantic, platonic or otherwise), I would have made you a mix cd. Mostly I would want to show you the music I liked, but I'd also want to signal my feelings. My vibe.

These days I would make you a playlist. And if it were any good, I’d share it with more than just you. The sharable playlist crumbles barriers to sharing not only your taste in songs but also your whole vibe. Playlists remind me of tuning into community or college radio stations, where you're gleefully at the mercy of the dj for as long as you want to be, but without the awkward breaks or potentially embarrassing vocalizations in between.

Sharable playlists are a curated personality 90 or 900 minutes long. Hear from your favorite music critics or just friends. Make your own and include the weirdo songs you like alongside the poptimist favorites. You don’t have to listen to either Fleetwood Mac or illuminati hotties. You can have both. You won't get any weird viruses on your computer. You can skip right over the shitty songs that you hate.

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" [gif]

Today, as I'm grooving to Spotify’s algorithmic and brilliant annual Wrapped series, I want to raise a glass to shared entertainment, the biggest reminder that the digital cultural economy is lively, delightful and social. (Here’s my curated best of 2019, meant to be shuffled, still being amended until the year’s end.)

11. The Twitter auto-thread

One-liners are brilliant, but we’ve learned this decade that context is key. In 2017 Twitter took a cue from its users and Storify who were piling their Tweets together in long streams and finally made it easy to thread your thoughts. Tweet threads are brilliant when used properly. Although authorship can be confusing, it’s much easier to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts into essay-cum-conversations that suit the way most of us actually communicate.

Sometimes we want to say a little. Sometimes we’re thumbling our play-by-play narration of the scenes around us. Sometimes we think of something hours later that we want to add. Your thoughts can be simultaneously pithy and thorough. Just put it in a thread.

Hanna Horvath from Girls types on her laptop and hits "send" [gif]

10. The viral illusion

I’ve never seen white and gold and I’ve never heard “Yanny.” But I'm into the way that mundane digital illusions offer something for everyone. I don't really understand how viral illusions pop up, but I know that they can’t be manufactured. I know that the popularity of these illusions scares even Facebook, according to Jonah Peretti. The reason they're popular: they're proof that digital truth is slipperier than we ever imagined.

A blue-and-black dress that looks like The Dress [gif]

9. The Buzzfeed quiz

Despite asserted individuality and yelling at the world “don’t put me in a box,” many of us don’t mind being categorized. Over and over again.

This decade Buzzfeed transformed the one-note print personality quiz into an experience that’s a bit like the villanelle poetry form: its formal complexity belies its thematic simplicity. Buzzfeed understands its audience’s tastes and cultural currency and builds interactive tests that don’t feel sinister. Before the platform laid off its director of quizzes this past January, the quiz page was a multigenerational smorgasbord of tastes and styles: checklists, would you rathers, sliding scales and multiple choice quizzes that contained a deep complexity and understanding of their audience, a true melding of content and tech innovation into a digital content that other platforms can only dream of.

If we were killing time while traveling, my partner and I would pull up Buzzfeed quizzes and watch what the other chose. Those quizzes connected us, collecting only the most insipid data, killing time, providing a view into how we’re digitally classified. For whatever reason we trusted Buzzfeed. Other quiz providers can’t even come close. Buzzfeed showed us all how to do it right: developers, designer and editors need to listen closely to their audiences and collaborate. Too bad they stopped making their secret sauce earlier this year.

Gillian Anderson says, "That is interesting. I am Fox Mulder" after taking a Buzzfeed quiz. [gif]

8. Pokémon in the park

Was there any weekend more digitally and collectively joyous and social than the week Pokémon Go came out? Even if you weren’t playing, you knew where the monsters were. AR has been difficult to introduce to wide audiences with this one giant exception, which drew strangers into public spaces together, a fantasy of event planners and community organizers.

John Travolta is lost in the park looking for Pokemon [gif]

Nintendo/Niantic’s map of the world is impressive and terrifying, but as long as they’re just filling it with tiny monsters, I guess I'm ok with it.

7. The interactive feature

At the beginning of the 2010s, digital longreads surged into popularity, but the heavy load times of images and videos made it difficult to recreate the holy grail of the print feature well. Still reeling from post-recession layoffs and steeply declining revenues, legacy media brands spent the first few years of the decade holding up the iPad app and the digital flipbook so they could just upload the print designs and corresponding ads, not taking into account the fact that people read content very differently on print and digital media. Only large media properties like The New York Times were able to throw development dollars at digital features, first striking a chord with Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

Remember the first two... or maybe five... years after Snow Fall? When everyone was saying “we want to do a Snow Fall” but no one had the design, editorial and development collaborative chops to really make it happen?

Charlie Brown and Linus watch the snow fall. [gif]

The widespread development of high-quality interactive features rose to prominence after tools like Ceros not only provided the technology but also built example after example of how a feature could be done. Other tools focused on making data visualizations more accessible. Edward Tufte and Scott Berinato outlined best practices for incorporating data into static visuals; development teams followed suit with movement and interaction. Popular Javascript frameworks like React and Vue make more complex visuals and interaction points far more accessible on all devices.

My favorite part: interactive features require intense collaboration among multiple creative minds. It’s completely inefficient to separate the editorial from the design and production on interactive features or data visualization. As with a feature film, no interchangeable parts truly exist with an interactive feature. It’s impossible to succeed without the collaborative process.

6. The Pinboard

If you’ve gotten married, had a baby, decorated a home or entertained guests in the past decade, it’s likely you’ve used the Pinboard.

The real brilliance of Pinterest lies in its understanding of a completely different form of human browsing behavior that has almost nothing to do with digital social interaction and everything to do with translating digital ideas — and online commodity fetishism — to the real world. Pinterest found a digital way to represent that nesting behavior, rewarding saving, hoarding, collecting, keeping the gems in the digital rough.

A list of links fails visual thinkers, and not everyone wants to get lost in a website to find their one idea. It’s far easier to extract that single perfect visual in the massive Martha Stewart oeuvre and save it for later. Some people say that Google and Facebook brought about the death of ad-based print. I’d argue Pinterest did far more damage to the content of “aspirational” and “lifestyle” print publications, which could only reflect but not represent mass taste. With Pinterest, users could blend the DIY with the affluent in a single aesthetic collection, all at once. Magazine readers didn’t have to wait for the fall issue publication to get a head start on fall decorating trends. With Pinterest the aspirational didn’t have to be so out of reach or astounding as it did in print — which, for millennials at their brokest in the wake of the recession, reflected the real world far better than magazines.

Michael Stipe says, "I love tassles" and Amy Sedaris says "I love tassles too."

The blocky, modular Pinboard changed web content design worked. It inspired people to try to build their “own” vision of the world, brilliantly or messily.

5. The open graph tag

“What does ‘og’ mean?” every content manager set out to discover at some point in their initiation. OG has nothing to do with 90s rap and everything to do with ensuring your link autopopulates correctly on Facebook.

Facebook autopopulated text of "Amazing photo shows mice 'fist-fighting' at London Underground station

Back in the old days of 2009-2013 or so, you used to have to attach your own context when you shared a Facebook link. Like, you had to actually read the page and then write something to your friends that reflected your understanding of the content. Technically, as an individual, you could misrepresent the page or go off brand. Luckily, intrepid publishers embraced the social open graph data, metadata attached to a webpage that would help content creators control their vision of content on social channels.

With the open graph tag, website owners could specify the exact context and visualization of how they wanted their content to appear on Facebook. And publishers definitely used the open graph tag as it was intended, to give users a clear explanation of what they would find on a specific web page.

Facebook text autopopulated as "Man whose deadly farts 'can kill mosquitoes hired to create Mosquito Repellent made from his intestinal gas' Yep. It's an open graph tag about mosquito-killing farts

Just kidding: no one did that. Most publishers modified Facebook open graph tags to optimize for the clickthrough.

Did open graphs change digital content for the better? Clearly my opinion isn’t sunny. But they standardized how links were perceived across social media.

In the same vein, let us celebrate the featured snippet, that “quick answer” that appears on the top of Google results and provides easy solutions for those in a hurry or utterly lacking curiosity.

A Google featured snippet for "How to create high-quality content."
Creating quality content is just that easy. Definitely just eight easy steps.

Featured snippets assign authority and prominence to well-optimized easy-to-scan lists. Google’s intent in using featured snippets is to encourage users to remain on the search results page so they can see more ads. The idea of featured snippets, for me anyway, goes against the entire idea of the Google search engine, which is to present the complexity of information in an organized fashion. Featured snippets simplify.

I recently witnessed someone in an airport Google a medical question, read the featured snippet to their partner, take that answer as absolute truth, and move on to the next part of the conversation. Google Home and other in-home assistants do the same thing, providing one single answer to complex questions.

Regardless of how you feel about featured snippets, they’ve absolutely changed web content behavior for consumers and businesses. Your SEO team is probably optimizing for snippets right now.

3. The video game livestream

I can’t explain this one to you because I don’t understand it. I don’t! It makes me feel very Clint Eastwood out of touch. I have never spent more than about 30 seconds watching a gaming livestream. When I was a kid I watched my siblings and friends play video games, and I was always bored. I love many video games, but watching someone else play them is… unrewarding.

Other people don’t think so, and so I’ll keep my eyes on what they like and why.

I might not be into watching others play games but can’t deny it’s more than a trend, it’s massively influential, and it’s changing the way we consume content. They call it “esports” now. Electronic sports. Cool! I’m glad people are into it. I guess the CEO of FaZe Clan, a massively popular esports league, says, “There’s nothing a young male cares about more than gaming. It’s gaming first, and the distant second is oxygen.” Our culture has been optimizing toward young men’s taste for generations, so I’d better learn more about this hugely influential content movement. Yes, Twitch is the new MTV.

2. The Snapchat story

Let’s be clear: even if you have never used Snapchat, they had more influence on the content consumption behavior of the past decade than any innovation at Facebook. Facebook took all of Snapchat’s good innovations and co-opted them in the most vicious corporate style imaginable. Here’s what they took for Instagram:

  • Temporary, vertical stories
  • Small groups and “close friends”
  • Fun AR masks
  • Text overlay and commentary
  • Polling and stickers and gifs and more

They left Bitmoji for the snappers, wisely.

A woman on a TLC show demonstrates using Snapchat AR filters

In their early days, Snapchat (now Snap) recognized that more people will use digital communication tools more if the effects are perceived to be temporary. Hence, disappearing content. Hence, closed networks. Snapchat always laser focused on moments rather than memories.

And Snapchat realized that people were cool with using themselves — their true selves, or selves looking like a silly puppy dog, or selves in small groups — as the core content. People are generally cool with sharing themselves when they perceive they can control the audience. Without Snapchat, Instagram wouldn’t be where it is now. Without Snapchat, we’d have no TikTok, who brought the format to a new level.

And with that, the number one content format that defined our decade…

1. The looping video

As a teenager I attended a Flaming Lips concert at the Greek Theater in LA. It was part of the Unlimited Sunshine tour, where the Flaming Lips joined a number of rising indie bands and promoted their Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots record. To appeal to audiences who might not yet know their specific brand of weird, the Lips covered the contemporary hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, only their version droned more. Projected behind Wayne Coyne & company was a video on loop: a naked woman throwing a Frisbee over and over again.

Now, this was a Flaming Lips concert, the end of an all-day thing, so the audience was in varied and sundry states of altered awareness. Me, I’d been drinking rum and vanilla coke from a plastic bottle all day, but all I remember: that naked frisbee lady was fascinating. I could have watched her for hours.

I wonder if Dom Hofmann, Rus Yusupov or Colin Kroll, the founders of Vine, were in the audience. Probably not. They probably just saw the rise of high-quality gifs in the early 2000s and realized the potential for users to make their own versions of gifs.

The famous "Who Is She" Vine, made into a gif

Vine’s not around anymore, but the looping video they propelled into popularity is the foundation of comedy, of most Instagram content, of all TikTok content.

We’ve known for a long time that movement on repeat is mesmerizing — the news has always known that. Whether you grew up analyzing the Zapruder film or shocked into submission on September 11, 2001, you’ve long known that tiny moments provide hours of thought, of obsessive textual analysis, of deep consideration of intentional and unintentional news. Cable and tv news taught us that looping videos were dangerous and traumatic — an idea amplified this decade with the rise of Black Lives Matter and the global refugee crisis. Some videos we watch on loop to understand the horrific consequences of our actions.

What Vine, Instagram’s Boomerang, Snapchat & TikTok accomplished was normalizing the loop. The repeated action — in a row, over and over, ad nauseam — becomes a means for amplifying the content. Audio helps, although it’s not always necessary, as in the case of gifs. For comedy, loops are a running gag without having to write more than one joke. For everything else, looping videos are a way to dive into the absurdity and human delight of our actions.

A scene from The Black Panther references the What Are Those vine meme.
There’s that misattributed Einstein quotation about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again. The popularity of the loop shows us our comfort with that kind of insanity. A loop is proof that something happened with the absurd reaction caught in real time.

Until the video is deepfaked, I guess.


Related articles on The Content Technologist

The future of content | interactive | memes | web


Want more Content Technologist in your inbox every Thursday? Forever free for the first 1,000 subscribers.