Top 10 biggest social media stories of 2009

Facebook, Twitter, and the rest

Technology trends and news by Ronny Kerr
December 14, 2009 | Comments (15)
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Since Friendster's founding in 2002, social networking sites have changed quite a bit. Through the rise and development of more and more networks--MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and beyond--we have seen time and time again that social media is a constantly evolving entity, one that's difficult to pin down easily. 2009 was no different. From the enormous valuations and market-changing acquisitions down to the small ways in which social networking is affecting our lives, 2009 rocked the social Web. Here we look at the ten biggest social media stories of the year. 

1. Twitter valuation at $1 billion

In case you missed it, Twitter blew up this year. It was just a small sign of things to come when the site noted 5x normal tweets per second on Inauguration Day on January 20th. For the first half of the year, the micro-blogging service experienced a rocket-ship trajectory. Twitter received so much media attention that in June it was calculated that the site had received $48 million in free media coverage. Growth of the site reached such incredible heights in the first six months that CEO Evan Williams had to assure everybody that the growth plateau in the second half of 2009 was only temporary. The Twitter noise may have reached the peak of its crescendo in September, wtwitterhen, in anticipation of the startup's closing of a $100 million Series D funding round, rumors swirled that investors valued the company at $1 billion. On top of everything else, the Global Language Monitor named "Twitter" the top word of 2009:

"In a year dominated by world-shaking political events, a pandemic, the after effects of a financial tsunami and the death of a revered pop icon, the word Twitter stands above all the other words," said a Global Language Monitor spokesperson.

2. Facebook buys FriendFeed

Facebook goes cash-flow positive (September). Facebook hits 300 million users (also September). Facebook shares rise 42% in four months (November). Facebook hits 350 million users (December). There were a lot of notable Facebook stories this year and most of them simply reiterated the same thing in different words: "Facebook is still growing. A lot." One story, however, underscores how Facebook is becoming a notable and viable acquirer. In August, Facebook made a combined $15 million cash and $32.5 million stock purchase of microblogging site FriendFeed. To the dismay of FriendFeed fans, Facebook was motivated simply to purchase the staff behind the technology at FriendFeed, leaving the service to see no future development. Though we have not yet seen any tangible results from FriendFeed developers moving over to Facebook, for now we can only assume that they are working on something awesome.

3. EA acquires Playfish for $275 million

As the Web continues EA + Playfishto evolve, it seems like social media is changing the way we do just about everything. The video game industry, which for years has pushed towards the biggest, loudest, most powerful consoles yet, got a bit of a wake-up call in early November when Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest third-party game publishers, paid $275 million in cash for a little social gaming company called Playfish. If Playfish meets certain criteria by the end of 2011, Playfish's former owners could receive another $100 million. That's a lot of money for a company that designs poker and restaurant games, free games that collect revenue via the sale of virtual goods, solely for social networking sites like Facebook. EA foresees mobile and online games will continue to make up more and more of the gaming industry in 2010. In attracting one of the most well-known game publishers and in reaching nearly 60 million monthly active users worldwide, Playfish is proving that social games like Pet Society, Restaurant City, and Country Story are here to stay.

4. Zynga worth $1 billion

A couple of weeks after EA's acquisition of Playfish, speculation arose that Zynga - a Playfish competitor and the leadingFarmVille social gaming company today - was worth about $1 billion, since EA paid 3-4 times the revenue generated by Playfish. With incredibly popular games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille, Zynga sees 100 million monthly unique visitors and has registered over 200 million active users. FarmVille, the most popular social networking game ever with almost 75 million monthly active users, has been expanded by Zynga to a stand-alone site, where users sign in with Facebook Connect. Despite some controversy over scam offers made via advertising in Zynga games, which the company has since made efforts to diminish, Zynga is yet another example of social gaming on the rise. [Note: Zynga CEO Mark Pincus is presenting a keynote at Vator Splash on February, 4, 2010 in San Francisco. Mark your calendars.]

5. MySpace acquires iLike for $20 million
ILike's sale to MySpace underscores that it's a hit or miss world out there. While iLike had significant traffic of some 55 million users, and had grown to be one of the most popular social music discovery services with applications on Facebook, Orkut, hi5 and Bebo, it only fetched $20 million in a buyout by MySpace. The sales price puts iLike in a stark juxtaposition to Zynga - which is estimated to be worth $1 billion, and underscores the uncertainty of a startup's future and exit when there is no monetization plan in sight. While iLike appeared to be on the road to greatness with its 55 million users, its exit valuation clearly signaled that unless a company knows how to monetize its users, the market won't pay up.

6. MOL acquires Friendster

Friendster, the first mover and pioneer of social networks, made the last big social media news of the year (unless something else happens in the next two weeks) by being acquired by MOL Global, a Malaysian online payments company. Though financial details have not been disclosed, there are estimates that MOL paid up to $100 million in the deal. Though you may have forgotten all about Friendster, the 2002-founded social network is still huge in Asia, where it has 75 million registered users--90% of the entire site's membership. Having raised just over $45 million since its founding as the original social network, this Silicon Valley darling may have led us to expect more from its exit. Nevertheless, MOL, already having implemented various payment systems into Friendster, will certainly enjoy the benefits of owning the actual network.

7. Citizen Journalism
citizen journalism
When that US airways plane crash landed into the Hudson River in January, Twitter was the first one to let us know. And in June, when masses of demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran to express anger at a questionable presidential election in Iran, we only heard the dissent's oft-censored voice because its community managed to find ways onto social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. We can only guess at how many people first heard about Michael Jackson's death through a status update. As social sites grow in popularity, they become more powerful hubs of communication, and so it is only natural that in 2009 we experienced the rise of a new era of citizen journalism. YouTube even launched a Reporters' Center to teach the basics on reporting the news. While there have been some less pretty side effects (like businesses jumping on trends for free advertising or uninformed "reporters" kindling false rumors), citizen journalism has the awesome potential to give a lot of power back to the people. Why else would censorship-heavy countries like China be so preoccupied with blocking social networking sites?

8. The Rise of Augmented Reality

Smartphones are very powerful devices. So powerful, in fact, that the tech industry has coined a phrase, "augmented reality," to refer to an emerging form of reality, made accessible, supplemented, and molded by mobile applications. Aloqa, for example, notifies you through your mobile device of nearby hotspots, Facebook friends, or interesting events. Gowalla, which raised $8.3 million this year, is another location-based social networking service all about sharing and discovering new and interesting places in the world. Similarly, Aha Mobile informs users about traffic conditions in real-time. Another app called HearPlanet lets you discover what's around you. Probably the most popular augmented reality app is FoursquareFoursquare, an application available for iPhone, Android, and other devices that has slowly been building a dedicated community of users obsessed with finding and sharing the coolest locations within cities. These technologies, just now emerging, signal the start of a new era of mobile social media.

9. Google + Bing go real-time

If you still think Twitter and other social sharing sites are just noise, then you'll have to explain why Bing and Google are all about incorporating real-time in search results. Bing went there first, creating a branch off its main search engine called Bing Twitter, where users can search the Web via Twitter's real-time updates. But Google took it one step further when it announced last week that relevant real-time updates would be implemented directly into Google search results. Not only that, but while the page remains open, the stream will automatically update in real-time. Coupled with an October update which includes forum posts in search results, these updates show just important user-generated content has become.

10. US Government 2.0

Partisan politics aside, we can probably all agree that the current administration's ability to take full advantage of social media capabilities is a good thing. From Facebook to Twitter, President Obama's fleet of advisers and assistants have created profiles to keep the public constantly updated about the goings-on at the White House. Videos on YouTube and Vimeo of presidential speeches, photos of meetings between diplomats, and a constant stream of executive updates made available across multiple sites may have made this administration the most accessible that it has ever been. Similarly, the US Army has gone to great lengths setting up multiple accounts across all the most popular social networking sites in order to get the most direct access with possible recruits. On the other hand, troops have had to deal with mixed and confused orders over the use of social networking while serving, as policies teetered constantly between full access and an all-out ban. Still, the government's embrace of social media is just one more sign (as if we needed more) of the massively growing influence of online networking.

Feel free to comment on what you think is the most interesting social media story of the year.

Related companies, investors and entrepreneurs

Description: Playfish is a social games company that creates games for people to play together. Founded in October 2007 by casual and mobile games v...
Description: Aloqa has solved two problems for mobile users: it takes away the need to type search terms into browsers or other mobile applicat...
Description: iLike is the Web's leading social music discovery service and the dominant music application on Facebook Platform®, Bebo, and Hi5. With...
Description: HearPlanet turns your cell phone into an audio guide to the world. Get iPhone App Here: Get Android App Here:...
Aha Mobile, Inc.
Description: The Aha experience starts on your phone with the app. Easily access and organize your favorite content from the web into personalized, li...
Description: Zynga is the largest social gaming company with 8.5 million daily users and 45 million monthly users.  Zynga’s games are avail...
Description: What is Twitter? Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweet...
Mark Pincus
Founder and CEO,

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Ezra Roizen, on December 14, 2009

Good stuff Ronny. I thought #1 would be "Vator announces company updates!" ;-)

Ayden Oliver Alberry, on December 14, 2009

Awesome list guys! I found this one on Mashable and while it isn't necessarily the 'biggest' social media story of 2009, I thought it was one of the most helpful for startup businesses.

Lorenzo Carver
Lorenzo Carver, on December 14, 2009

Nice story. I agree with Ezra about the Vator company updates :)

Mark Evans
Mark Evans, on December 14, 2009

1. Twitter, of course, is the biggest social media story of the year. The implications of it are beyond far and wide.

2. Augmented Reality is the second biggest story this year, maybe only in early adopter circles, but it'll be next year's biggest story for mainstream social media.

3. Maybe not a huge story, but certainly most heart breaking, Facebook buying FriendFeed; enough said.

Ronny Kerr, on December 14, 2009

Thanks for the feedback! @Mark: Augmented reality is certainly getting huge, and I don't disagree that it could possibly deserve a higher spot.

Jasmine Powers
Jasmine Powers, on December 14, 2009

I liked #3 because, I'm an addict to FB games. It totally makes since for EA to acquire Playfish.

Ronny Kerr, on December 14, 2009

@Ezra/Lorenzo: Vator company updates was definitely a runner-up!

Ronny Kerr, on December 14, 2009

@Jasmine: You are not alone! Millions and millions of people are addicted to Facebook games and I'm sure both Zynga and Playfish are adding thousands daily.

David Gehring
David Gehring, on December 14, 2009

Great post! I think #7 is actually the most important development this year by a large margin. The role citizen journalism will play over time will become foundational to our liberal democracy as traditional media company news continues to starve to death for lack of a viable business model. The implications regarding Editorial are scary. But this is the case whenever fundamental institutions in our society suffer such upheaval. Real-time search and news found through our social network is made more valuable as we rely more heavily for our news on citizen journalism.

Planet webfoot, on December 15, 2009

Great list here, I would have listed all of these as well. I have to agree with David, I also think number seven, citizen journal is one of the most important developments and also one of the most interesting even to the non computer savy types.

Twizz D. Ha, on December 15, 2009

Witness first hand how Twitter and Facebook was instrumental in promoting TEDxSV Innovation for Social Change
Forbes article
More than 100,000 individuals watched our UStream video and participated with us live
More than 45 countries around the world participated in our UStream and Twitter channels
Through all of the tweets about us we generated over 11.8 million social media impressions throughout the world (approx. based on avg follower per twitter-er)
We now have 1,701 new facebook fans on our facebook page! (second only to TEDxParis) All this from 30 or so followers less than 2.5 weeks ago!!

Ronny Kerr, on December 15, 2009

@David/Planet webfoot: I totally agree and have been keenly interested in citizen journalism from the beginning. It's just another excellent example of how the Internet and social tools in particular are providing the ordinary person with access to a brilliant array of power and tools previously only available to a limited few.

Bambi Francisco Roizen, on December 16, 2009

One story we forgot to add in this is the ever-increasing rise of content snippets, churned out as if they were products on an assembly line. Demand Media is giving rise to this -

Barry O'Gorman
Barry O'Gorman, on December 18, 2009

Very useful - had missed a couple of these acquisitions.

Sam Feuer
Sam Feuer, on December 23, 2009

Look for this to be in the top 10 for 2010 - New iPhone application lets you shake your iPhone for the
nearest restroom, and turn by turn guidance at the mall. Get deals,
remember where you parked with GPS, full community, crowd-sourcing and much more -

TV Commercial -

Site -

Go to iTunes and search FastMall

Happy Holidays, Cheers Everyone!

Rick Falls
Rick Falls, on January 8, 2010

Man, it is clearly an amazing time that we live in.

It's hard to get your head around some of the numbers
being paid for companies who have yet to be profitable.

It's especially difficult to swallow for those of us who are
"bootstrapping our way into being financially viable.

I find the farmville deal amazing.

Practically everyone that I speak to is struggling to find
enough time to get things done and here we have a bunch of people playing !

Real time search with gps capabilities is going to be HUGE too !

It's a brave (and fun) new world eh ?

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