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THE BEST OF 2007 | THE WEB, ETC.

In the debris field

December 16, 2007|DAVID SARNO

A decade after the Internet's Big Bang, the online cosmos is expanding as fast as ever. Much more so than a year ago, we can now download or stream many of our favorite movies, most of the TV shows we didn't TiVo, and just about any song you want (Music lovers: I'm exaggerating for effect. Thanks). Larger, higher-resolution online video players are emerging. It won't be long before we think back bemusedly on how many clips we watched on that fuzzy miniature YouTube screen. Remember?

And social networking, now in its third generation thanks largely to Facebook, has achieved a degree of cultural permanence few of us fuddy-duddies over 21 were expecting.

But back to the early universe metaphor -- way back when everything was new, it took a few hundred millenniums for atoms to form, let alone big stars. Just so, in terms of Internet entertainment, this year did not see the birth of a thousand suns. A few stars blinked on, to be sure, but most of what was created was unremarkable debris.

Part of the lull is technological -- people may not be eager to watch a lot of Internet content until the Internet can support a higher-quality viewing experience. Another factor is the generally awkward efforts of the entertainment industry to adapt itself to a medium it doesn't appear to understand.

YouTube puts on weight. The world's No. 1 online video site completed its first full year under the auspices of the world's No. 1 search engine. With Google's guidance, YouTube grew like a supernova, opening home pages in 17 new countries so viewers could have access to what has become a massive global video database.

The last traces of YouTube's early maverick identity disappeared as corporate entertainment entities began to take over its most viewed lists. As of this writing, eight of YouTube's nine most-viewed channels of all time are held by major media outlets such as CBS, Sony/BMG and Universal Music Group, whose videos have a combined 692 million views.

The site also partnered with CNN to sponsor a series of presidential primary debates in which the candidates faced questions posed by YouTube users. The veneer of unmediated access -- where YouTubers were invited to ask candidates whatever questions they liked -- was almost invisibly thin, however. In the most recent GOP debate, candidates were thrown such hardballs as "What measures will you take to tackle the national debt?" and "Will you eliminate farm subsidies?"

Still, YouTube continued to spawn the homegrown, viral hits it's famous for and helped a few unknowns gain either note or notoriety. Esmee Denters, a Dutch teenager who started out singing karaoke into her bedroom webcam, became an international star, winning a spot on tour with Justin Timberlake and an appearance on "Oprah" (who, incidentally, also made her YouTube debut last month). Tay Zonday, a 25-year-old composer from Minneapolis, insinuated his "Chocolate Rain" tune into a million minds, and Lauren Caitlin Upton, a.k.a. Miss South Carolina Teen USA, put herself on the map with creative suggestions about enhancing global education.

Facebook's grand illusion. Facebook wins 2007's Internet buzz prize. With its series of game-changing innovations, the smart young social network made competitor MySpace look positively stodgy.

After abjuring its college-only roots late last year in favor of an open-door policy, Facebook opened up further by allowing, in essence, anyone to design mini-programs for it. The result has been a tidal wave of Facebook "apps," as they're called, allowing users to engage in a multitude of ostensibly social online activities. It's nice to be able to share music suggestions with friends, certainly. But once you've sent pals a few virtual cocktails or spent an hour attacking your cousin's zombie with your vampire, you begin to detect Facebook's central prestidigitation: That's your friend's profile you're hanging out with, not your friend.

Facebook had its share of bad press too. But worries about privacy and sexual predation pretty much go with the Internet territory.

Big players, little screen. Hollywood got a little wiser to the promise of the Internet. First, it boosted the number of television episodes offered online, either for free, as NBC.com did with "The Office," or for a small fee, as AMC did by offering $2 downloads of "Mad Men" from iTunes.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal closed up shop on YouTube in favor of its shiny new video site Hulu.com, a joint venture with Fox owner News Corp. Hulu will be a one-stop shop for titles from a variety of network and cable channels. "Simpsons"? Check. "Heroes?" Check. "A-Team"? Airwolf"? You won't be disappointed.

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