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The Worst of 2010: A Horrible Year for Technology, the Internet and Humankind

crying baby by jill greenbergDecember is the month that marks Christmas, Boxing Day and Emily Dickinson's birthday. It's also the time of year that we face endless Year In Review lists, posted across every form of media. Most of these lists focus on The Best, The Greatest, The Most Memorable. Well, isn't that cheery?

But, you see, 2010 was a horrible year, and it doesn't deserve self-congratulatory pats on the back. Sure, we've seen worse, but we've probably seen better, too. We're not talking about the earthquake in Haiti, or even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill -- two gut-wrenching disasters to which the digital (and real) world responded admirably. No, we're not talking about the major catastrophes that spawned international outpourings of sympathy, those statistical spikes that are more or less bound to occur in a given year. We're talking about the small stories, the ones you read, obsess over and promptly forget. Taken in all at once, they paint a bleak vision of 2010.

We're talking about the Florida woman who killed her baby because it interrupted her game of 'FarmVille.' We're talking about the Michigan woman who taunted a 7-year old with a terminal condition, and made fun of her dead mother on Facebook just to "rub her ass raw." We're talking about the Iowa woman who traveled 200 miles with a gun in her hand, with the intent of murdering a mean Internet commenter. We're talking about the Minnesota man who was successful in using fake online personae to encourage at least two people to kill themselves. His lawyer argues that he's protected by free speech.
As in other years, criminals went online to boast of their crimes -- but they also used the Internet to brag directly to their victims. (Sure, some were dumb enough to immediately give themselves away, but does that make anyone feel better?) So far, the wilds of the Internet are unpoliced by codes of civility and social mores, which is why this was the year to kiss a fair trial goodbye. Jurors couldn't stop updating their Twitter and Facebook accounts -- sometimes resulting in mistrials -- while a convicted triple murderer has cited journalists' overuse of microblogging during his own trial as the reason for his pending appeal. Meanwhile, Florida judges had to be told that they couldn't "friend" attorneys.

Perhaps most tragically, cyberbullying made national headlines thanks to the widely-covered case of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge after his roommate and a friend secretly set up a webcam to film him while he was getting intimate with another man. And, sure, it's never too late for Clementi's death to inspire reams of new anti-cyberbullying legislation, but it was perhaps too late to help prevent the waves of suicides by adolescent gays this year, who inspired the unfortunately necessary 'It Gets Better' viral video campaign. A school board member from Arkansas actually used his Facebook page to encourage gay teens to kill themselves, while a Michigan Assistant Attorney General set up a blog to malign a young gay man as a "radical homosexual activist." No wonder LGBT teens need encouragement.

It was an especially bad year for digital addiction -- which is a bona fide thing now -- even for young pro athletes. Those Internet and video game addiction rehabs used to seem quaint or terrifying, but they (may) appear reasonable when you find out that Web-addicted teens are more likely to be depressed -- as are addicts of all substances, we imagine. But then you have people who meet the extremes of that addiction, like the Pennsylvania man who ran his girlfriend off the road to get his PlayStation back, or the Korean teenager who, having gotten in a fight over his video games, killed his mother and then himself.
Even the tech we've grown to love is probably killing us slowly. Every week, we've read articles alternately telling us that cell phones are and aren't giving us cancer. (Your cell phone provider may have told you, in very small print, not to put your mobile in your pocket. You know, just in case.) But, even if they don't cause cancer, cell phones may make pregnant moms give birth to little Antichrists. We also found out that laptops were literally burning us alive by toasting our skin and roasting our testicles.

Google grew greater -- both in breadth and brass. Our love-to-hate-him Chief Executive Creep Eric Schmidt scared the hell out of us, and more than a few others, when he told the Wall Street Journal that he believes people want Google to know what they need before they know it themselves. (He later admitted that Google tries to get "right up to the creepy line," but isn't working on brain implants -- yet.) Meanwhile, Germany led the pack of Street View-rejecting countries, due to the fact that Google's cars had "inadvertently" gathered personal data, along with snaps of naked children, dead dogs, fake dead kids and horse people. (Schmidt recently said that if people aren't happy with Street View, they can always move.)

Despite earnest efforts by tech-savvy grammarians, Google's algorithms began to eat away at creative composition by reducing all phrases to statistical probabilities. The Internet basically killed the printed Oxford English Dictionary, but not before it infiltrated the OED's hallowed pages with jargon like "tweetup." All conventional language then began to fail. Wordz not membring lolz @Christmass asfkghjk. :(
Facebook. Just everything about it. The website that quickly took over every aspect of everyone's lives finally invaded theaters, even without Mark Zuckerberg's explicit approval. Despite constant scams, privacy breaches and minor design snafus (that sent obsessed users into apoplectic rages), the social networking site became the third most trafficked site online.

Apple continued to carve out its hardware and media empire, despite the fact that its CEO Steve Jobs has only grown into a weirder and weirder walking PR nightmare. He balked at effigies of his holy visage, got into an e-mail bitching war with a journalism undergrad, and flatly told everyone who spent $300 on an iPhone 4 that they were "holding it wrong." Apple's flacks probably encouraged him to appear more ingratiating to his loyal customers, so he held a special press event. Not only did he accuse other manufacturers of the same problem and try to dismiss the issue as a media-generated scandal, but he even forgot to apologize, too. Nice work, Steve.

All the cred that Twitter had built as an alternative news source during the Iranian "elections" of 2009 was soundly dashed as Ford Fiestas and Christmas Trees suddenly began tweeting for themselves. A thorough article by celebrity brainiac Malcolm Gladwell also dismissed the notion of Twitter as a locus of political action. (And, fine, there were plenty of well-worded rebuttals. But the fact that three separate Twitter accounts got network sitcomization deals this year maybe deflates the whole Twitter-as-communication-evolution angle, no?) Twitter co-founder Biz Stone came out to defend the value of his creation -- in a Stoli vodka commercial.
It was a really bad year for free speech. A cartoonist (who later apologized) started an 'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day' campaign that migrated to Facebook, in the wake of threats of violence to 'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker by Islamic extremists. The Facebook page grew massive, and then Islamic governments began to crack down. First Pakistan, then Bangladesh, blocked access to the site because of the 'Everybody Draw' campaign. Facebook eventually caved and banned the page.

A 20-year CNN correspondent got canned over a single tweet lamenting a radical Islamic cleric's death. A Chinese citizen faces a year in a labor camp for "disturbing social order" with a single re-tweet. YouTube removed videos of a radical cleric calling for jihad, a British politician used Twitter to call for the death-by-stoning of a Muslim writer, while a Palestinian man faces life in prison for declaring himself God on Facebook. A Chinese woman was arrested for supporting Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo on Twitter -- which is hardly surprising, considering that the Chinese government has blocked all online information about him. Egypt jailed a man for posting "defense secrets" on Facebook. (They were actually just instructions on how to sign up for the army.) Conservatives in the U.K. are trying to block access to Internet pornography.

The year only got worse. People got seriously (like, suicidally) depressed because the worlds depicted in 'Avatar' aren't real. The fainting goat kittens both died, while some suspected that the OMG cat was suffering from some kind of neurological condition. To the ire of 4chan vigilantes, a woman in England dumped a cat in the trash, while a Bosnian girl threw live puppies into a river, to their death, all on widely circulated video.
But was 2010 the worst year ever? Of course not. Some great, if not perfectly amazing things happened, and a year's worth of crime, intolerance, disaster and shame taken all at once will paint 365 days of horror. But let's all try to make 2011 a slightly less suck-filled year, okay? We can't necessarily stop the earthquakes, oil spills and political uprisings from the comfy confines of our ergonomic desk chairs -- but we can decide to be nicer. We can choose to not to use the Internet to bully other people, spread messages of hate, or engage in fraud and crime. We can act as responsible citizens of the vast digital world that we all inhabit. Let's all start now.

Tags: censorship, criminal, CyberBullying, roundup, TeenSuicide, top, ViralVideo, worst, WorstOf2010, yearinreview