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From Upworthy to Edward Snowden, these are the people who mattered on the world’s largest social network.
Early next year, Facebook will officially turn 10 years old. And although it’s certainly showing signs of its age, eschewing start-up hipness for mainstream financial success, in 2013 the social network proved it was still relevant. From spammers and social traffic magicians to Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage, Facebook continued to play a huge roll in our collective dialogue.
Here are the people that mattered most on the world’s biggest social network in 2013. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments—or on Facebook.
1) Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, cofounders of Upworthy | Masters of social psychology
I never thought masters of click-bait headlines would be the most important group on Facebook this year. But I was wrong, and the reason why shocked me.
Like chain emails from your overenthusiastic progressive friends, Upworthy is simply unavoidable on the Internet. Whether you actually follow Upworthy on Facebook is immaterial. That’s because, more than nearly any other content producer on the Web, Upworthy has cracked the code for social viral success. In just 21 months, the site has grown into a multimillion-dollar click machine. The website ranks 104 on the most-visited sites in the U.S., according to Alexa. And the Atlantic reports that the site had 50 million unique monthly visitors in October, making it perhaps the fastest growing media company in history.
The success of founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley (former employees of MoveOn.org and the Onion, respectively) is built upon crafting headlines that people almost can’t help but share on social media. The goal? Pique the audience’s interest just enough that they’re compelled to click. The style is ripe for parody, but when a headline like “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular” can garner more than 17 million views, there is no arguing with the success of the formula. It’s the endless copycats, however, that tryuly suggest Upworthy’s enduring, and dubious, legacy.
2) Anastasia Khoo | LGBT champion
You may not know her name, but if you went on Facebook anytime in late March—when the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on two separate same-sex marriage cases—you’re no doubt familiar with Anastasia Khoo’s work.
Khoo is the director of marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, the group behind a viral project that encouraged millions to change their Facebook profile pictures to a Red Equal Sign in support of marriage equality. The sign became a ubiquitous signal for a cause that saw major gains. In June, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which had prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. At least one person in every single county in the United States changed their profile picture in support of the campaign.
“It started from my simple idea for a campaign that could harness the power of Facebook,” wrote Khoo in a recent op-ed for the Advocate. As many as 10 million people adopted the logo.
3) Elise Andrew | Your friendly science overlord
I Fucking Love Science, the brash, humorous, and informative Facebook group bringing science to the masses may have got its start in 2012. But 2013 was its breakout year. The page went from just a million likes in September of last year to 8.9 million today. It’s pro-science postings are among the social network’s most viral content. Garnering comparisons’ to the work of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other pop-culture ambassadors of science, the page is credited with bringing interesting factoids to millions, even as its been criticized for dumbing down science into pop-culture sound bites and accused of content theft on a broad scale.
Defying the expectations of some misogynistic commenters, the page’s administrator, Elise Andrew, has become one of the most prominent female voices in science.
“There aren’t that many female role models in science,” Andrew told MacLeans in an interview. “There are a couple of women, but mostly you’ve got Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss—they’re all guys. Bill Nye the Science Guy. I love that guy, but it’s all guys. When we think of scientists, we hear a man’s voice.”
4) Parents | The scourge of teens
Though Facebook’s relevance is unquestionable, there’s no denying that it’s lost some of its hip factor. It came into 2013 just months after passing the billion-user threshold and has seen continued growth. But with younger social media users flocking to sites like Tumblr and apps like Snapchat, there’s no denying the simple fact of the matter: Facebook is getting older.
That’s not to say young people are gone from Facebook entirely. According to Business Insider, 83 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who use the Internet are on the site, but now they only make up 67 percent of the total population on the social network. That’s because the 45- to 54-year-old demographic has become the fastest growing age bracket on the site. From the end of 2012 to November, these middle-aged users have grown by 46 percent.
This demographic swing has taken away the exciting exclusivity of Facebook’s early days. But Marcus Messner, an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Mass Communication, said growing up may be just what Facebook needs to survive. “Being hip does not make money by itself,” he told the Daily Dot in June. “And social media companies can only run for so long on venture capital. They have to grow up at some point, as disappointing that might be for some users.”
5) Stylish Eve, Teen Swag, and the social spammers | The seedy content underground
In 2013, Facebook was forced to deal with one of its greatest threats: Its own success.
The social network’s ability to become such an integral part of users’ daily, online lives has made it one of the top sites on the Web. Of course, digital real estate that prime can’t help but turn into a juicy target for spammers and advertisers. But their presence on the site threatened to turn away users who wanted to connect with their friends–not brands or image memes.
Some of this was Facebook’s own doing. The site has worked hard to court advertisers to engage in the social process, with the addition of features like “pages” and “promoted posts.” But this year, things reached a critical mass as spammers found sneaky and innovative ways to take over newsfeeds. These purveyors of lowest-common-denominator fluff took over the “people talking about” list, eventually forcing Facebook to modify its algorithm to try and put more “high quality” posts in front of people’s faces.
6) Justin Carter | Unintentional free speech martyr
This Texas teen spent five months in jail earlier this year after making what law enforcement officials deemed a terroristic threat. Carter’s Facebook comment about shooting up a kindergarten classroom just two months after the Sandy Hook massacre was in poor taste. But he says it was all in jest—part of a conversation with a friend about a video game. Regardless, the 19-year-old found himself in jail until mid-July, when an anonymous donor posted his half-a-million-dollar bail. Now he awaits trial, where he could face eight years in prison if found guilty.
Carter’s case comes at a time when Americans are grappling with heady questions arising at the intersection of free speech, security, and privacy. A Change.org petition filed by Carter’s mother said the Texas officials pressing her son’s charges are setting a worrisome precedent.
“The authorities’ over-reaction is ruining Justin’s life,” Jennifer Carter wrote. “And it’s setting a dangerous example trying to punish kids who often say strange things that I believe are protected under freedom of speech.”
7) Khalil Shreateh | The good hacker
You may not instantly recognize the name, but chances are you still remember the man brazen enough to hack Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.
Shreateh wasn’t acting out of malice when he took over the Facebook founder’s own page. The unemployed white-hat hacker was trying to bring the company’s attention to a potentially devastating bug he discovered in the website’s code. Rather than selling the information in a Deep Web black market, Shreateh opted for the less profitable route of serving Facebook’s bounty program.
But when the social network’s technical team ignored Shreateh’s warning in an apparent miscommunication, he decided to grab their attention by using the bug to take control of Zuckerberg’s page. Facebook worked quickly to fix the bug but denied Shreateh his bounty, claiming he’d violated the terms and conditions.
8) The creators Of Bitstrips | Leaders of the great comificaton of Facebook
If there is one thing Facebook can do reliably, it’s annoy us. This year saw a grand inheritor of the Farmville and Someecards legacy: Bitstrips.
The customizable comic strip app allows users to make their own simple cartoons and post them to Facebook. It’s actually been around since 2011, when the cartoons were part of a minor anti-bullying meme. Once the Internet at-large got ahold the figures however, they quickly blossomed into absurd, hilarious, and offensive directions (depending on the author). Bitstrips’ popularity exploded this fall when new iPhone and Android apps enabled easier Facebook sharing. Bitstrips has just confirmed that in the past two months, 30 million avatars have been made by users.
While it’s certainly popular, Bitstrips are hardly most welcome addition to newsfeeds across the globe. The app has been criticized for lowering the bar of webcomics, allowing anybody to lazily through together a comic that is at best not funny and at worst utterly offensive.
9) The working class | The “we’re not gonna take it anymore” generation
Though the massive Occupy Wall Street protests seem to be fading into the rearview mirror, the questions it raised about America’s growing income disparity was front and center this year. Protests led by fast-food workers and Walmart employees highlighted America’s wealth gap and pushing for an increase to the federal minimum wage, which has not gone up a penny since the last increase to $7.25 in 2009.
Underscoring this issue, on Facebook and other social media sites, we saw just how some of the nation’s lowest paid workers are treated by the very people they serve. The trend started with an Applebee’s server being stiffed on her tip by a pastor who wrote “I give God 10 percent—why do you get 18?” The waitress was fired, sparking a Facebook-fueled backlash against chain.
Since then, similar stories have cropped up repeatedly, with cellphone pictures of receipts spreading virally with the help of social media. But the trend may have reached its apex after one notable instance was revealed to be a hoax: New Jersey waitress Dayna Morales was recently let go from her job for lying about being denied a tip because of her sexual orientation.
10) Edward Snowden | The whistleblower
It’s true that Edward Snowden’s bombshell leaks about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying operations go much further than any single social network or tech company. But in a year where Americans began to ask tough questions about how much information they are sharing online, it’s hard not to consider its ramification on a social network that’s been so good at getting us to share so much.
Several months after Snowden went public with the details of the NSA’s PRISM program, the Pew Research Center presented new data that showed American’s are now trying to get back some of the privacy they’ve given up over the past decade. Their poll found that 86 percent of Internet users have “taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” That same poll found that 41 percent of users have done so by deleting or editing an earlier posting.
Facebook suffered substantial legal consequences this year for privacy violations. In August, it agreed to pay $15 to some 614,000 users whose likenesses were used in “Sponsored Stories” ad campaigns on the site. The site also faced heavy scrutiny for failing to disclose its involvement with the NSA spying activities revealed by Snowden.
Illustration by Jason Reed
Tim Sampson is a reporter who focused on the technology, business, and politics beats. He's also an established comedy writer, with work on Comedy Central and in The Onion and ClickHole.