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30 December 2015

The best and worst of the internet in 2015

A (semi) definitive ranking of the year's online highlights. 

By Barbara Speed

Like any tool, the internet is really just a reflection of those who use it. Of course, it’s also one of the most powerful tools human have been given to date – which means it’s capable of allowing us all to do truly terrible, or truly great things.

Below are some of the things done on or with the help of the internet this year, ranked from worst to best. Some are silly. Some are great. Some are depressing. Some are uplifting. Here’s to a similarly tumultuous 2016.

Hackers leaked adulterers’ details (but loads of them weren’t real)

This was probably the most multi-layered internet disaster of the year. First, a group of hackers calling themselves “Impact Team” stole a large amount of customer data from Ashley Madison, a dating site which enabled its users to have affairs, and threatened to leak it unless the site was shut down.  

When this didn’t happen, the hackers leaked 9.7GB of customer data onto the dark web, and users’ wives and husbands found out what they had been up to. In a bizarre twist, it then turned out almost all the women on there were fake; planted by the company to lure men to sign up. 

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(Postcript: This list of the most-used passwords on the site also made us despair of modern masulinity. As did this film script written by the Ashley Madison founders.)

Reddit faced a user rebellion (and was forced to confront its prejudiced underbelly)

Linksharing site Reddit got a new interim CEO at the end of last year, and its users didn’t like her much. Over the summer Ellen Pao shut down the site’s most controversial (read: borderline illegal) subreddits like “fatpeoplehate” and “transfags”, following a statement in May that the site would not aim to be a totally “free speech platform”. Under mysterious circumstances, the moderator of the popular Ask Me Anything subreddit also left, prompting hundreds of thousands of users to sign a petition calling for Pao’s resignation and scores of subreddits closed by angry moderators. Many complaints from users were laced with misogyny and racism

Eventually, the site did get a new CEO in its founder, Steve Huffman, who now has the unenviable job of filtering out the less palatable elements of reddit’s free-for-all model, while keeping its current users on board. 

We all panicked about Peeple 

A site allowing friends, lovers and colleagues to rate and review you, in public, on the internet, was never going to go down well. And it didn’t: we all rose up in panic at the idea that people from our past could trash talk us on a profile made without our consent. As a result, the makers promised to take these criticisms into account before Peeple’s release next year. Will they tone it down? Was the original plan just a ploy for publicity? Watch this space. 

iPhones can now use adblockers 

Apps which block ads from appearing on your mobile are now available on Apple’s app store, though one, which hit number one in the charts shortly after launch, was removed by its creator because he saw it would do “harm” as well as good. 

For mobile users, this means a quicker, less data-guzzling experience. For those who rely on ad revenues – including, um, journalists – it’s not such good news. Many adblocking companies, however, seem determined to inspire better ads, even showing some pre-approved ads from paying partners, rather than kill them off altogether.

We all became really interested in the science of colour

At 9am on what would come to be known as “Dress Day”, we were all met on arrival at work or school by someone brandishing a phone in our face and asking, half-maniacally: “What colours do you see?”. The rest is history. 

The internet started trolling Isis using duck memes 

A wave of memes replacing Isis fighters with ducks in propaganda images began on 4Chan earlier this autumn and spread across the internet. Anonymous even held a special day of Isis-trolling on Twitter under the hashtag #Daeshbags. It may not bring Isis to its knees, but it’s a start. 

It was the year of the social justice hashtag 

#DistractinglySexy spread news of scientist Tim Hunt’s sexist comments. 

#BlackLivesMatter was used around the world to promote civil rights and bring attention to everything from police brutality to racism on campus. 

#ilooklikeanengineer undermined stereotypes about people working in STEM profressions. 

#IStandWithAhmed exploded in response to a US schoolkid’s arrest for bringing a homemade clock (not bomb) into school. 

Caitlin Jenner joined Twitter 

…and became the fastest account to hit a million followers. Jenner’s experience of transitioning didn’t exactly mirror those of most trans people around the world – piles of money and a secluded Hollywood home do tend to make things a little easier – but her announcement, Vanity Fair cover and subsequent TV show were all victories for trans visibility.  

Emoji took over 

Diverse emoji! Emoji passwords! An app that translates your normal words into emoji so you can communicate with young people! Kimoji! Even the word of the year was an emoji. Approximately half of these examples were marketing stunts, but what better indication is there that something is popular than that people use it as a cheap ploy for attention? 

The internet sent 300 people to a little boy’s birthday party 

Back in the summer, Camden Eubank’s mum was worried that no local kids were planning to come to his tenth birthday party. Camden, who lives in Virginia, suffers from Apraxia (a condition which delays speech) and has trouble making friends, but had been planning his big party (and its centrepiece water balloon fight) for months. 

In desperation, his mum turned to social media. She posted an open invitation to the water balloon fight on Facebook, which was then linked to on reddit. Soon, the post – which explained Camden’s situation and gave some background on Apraxia – had thousands of likes. On the big day, cards and presents turned up from people all over the world (including President Obama), and over 300 people came to join the water balloon fight. 

Here’s Camden at the party, #happy: 

Image: YouTube screengrab.

Now, the Facebook page has been transformed into the social media page of a new website, CamdensFriends.org, which shares the details of children having a hard time who could really do with a birthday (or Christmas) message or gift. 

What? No, that’s just something in my eye. Have a happy New Year, everyone.