If you could name the web’s most useful development over the past year, it might be “Web 2.0,” which, for the uninitiated, alludes to a relatively new breed of websites-slash-applications that help people more easily accomplish things they are trying to do online (e.g., share photos, keep track of to-do lists, manage bookmarks).
But “useful” is not what the web is, at least not entirely. It’s also a wide range of rich, interesting sites that inspire us with their content and creativity. In fact, the year’s very best sites are often both time-savers and time-wasters, enlightenments and entertainments, and even a few that are just plain strange. Here, then, are the very best of the year.
Favorite Way to Find the Safest Fastest Way Home From Bushwick
Even jaded, cynical, bitter, evil-souled longtime New Yorkers in black jeans and leather jackets can get lost on the subway sometimes. Enter Hopstop! Punch in your starting address and your destination (and your preference for more or fewer transfers, more or less street walking, etc.) and Hopstop pumps out an easy-to-follow, Mapquest-y subway and bus guide for your route. There’s a mobile version, too, and beta sites are also available for Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—though who wants to go to any of those places?
Favorite Daily Comedy/Political/Ducky Show
We’ve always been skeptical about video-blogging. The thinking was, aren’t bloggers awful enough? Do we really need to see their faces? Then walked in Ze Frank (who may have invented the internet during second grade) and his new amazing, 50-episode-strong daily program, “The Show,” in which he skewers politicians, sings about his hangover, makes fun of airport signs, and tries to bring about world peace with two slices of bread. Possibly our favorite web “thing” of the year.
Favorite Love/Hate Relationship With Site Design
We’d hate to see the inbox for firstname.lastname@example.org after the New York Times redesigned her website, but let’s be fair: Most of the hate mail had a point. Gone was the traditional “most important story goes on the upper right-hand side” design rule of modern newspaper front pages; gone was any calming white space, lost to a site-wide asteroid field of unclear hierarchies; gone, seemingly as a general rule, was “average user” ease-of-use; and a big hello to tiny type and the nearly always uninteresting Times video segments!
But that syncopated horizontal panel of stories to break up the scroll? The new international reporting segmentation by region? The improved image galleries, the considerably better article layout with bigger pictures, the Eric Asimov beverage blog? These are smart, not-unbold improvements for a big paper—especially considering that when the Los Angeles Times redesigns its website, all you seem to get is a horizontal fading blue bar above the headline. So though we’re sticking with the Times as the goldest-standard paper available, nevermind on the web, we don’t blame friends who’ve switched their bookmarks to the Journal or the Washington Post—we just read all three.
Favorite Food Blog That Strives to Be More
The posse behind Tasting Menu can’t seem to shake its ambitions. You get the daily updates talking about restaurant management, food trends, recipes, and so on—but then you also get gorgeous PDF cookbooks, food conferences, and excellent site-wide photography. We raise our glasses with hearty cheers and with hopes they’ll continue to up the ante.
Favorite Musician’s Life We Like to Follow Too Closely
We’re lucky Helen Radice can write in addition to playing the harp; otherwise, we wouldn’t have her open letters to composers, the insider’s charming stories from within the music halls, and her happy compulsion to put the asterisks in f***ers. Not many blogs are this enjoyable to track, particularly if you’ve got an ear for contemporary classical music.
Favorite Not-Necessarily-Computer-Geek Movement
Being organized—being over-the-top, multi-system, many-to-do-list organized—is the mantra around TMN for keeping our minds clear and our publishing schedule plump. You could say we like to Get Things Done, and no one GTD like 43 Folders, a site that’s headquarters for a small movement to make lives more organized, better focused, and less encumbered by email. If you’ve got a college student graduating this spring, sneak into her laptop and make 43F the default home page on her browser; someday, with a small, meticulous notebook in her back pocket, she’ll thank you.
Favorite Mallplan of the Future
Eight zillion independent quirky shops below 14th Street and all you need is a decent jacket—not the biggest concern, given our collective responsibility for massive failure in Iraq, but still…Refinery29 lays out select, cool stores on department-store-style maps (e.g., women’s, men’s) and then offers the kind of reviews you might see in New York magazine, minus the sneering attitude. A valuable index if shopping’s your bag.
Favorite Irregular Innovation
Even the Moriarty groupies can agree, Stanford’s Discovering Sherlock Holmes—Community Reading Project is a terrific example of using new technology to rehash old stories: Stanford designed and printed pulp facsimiles of the Strand magazines in which many Holmes stories appeared, complete with illustrations and shoddy paper, which you could choose to receive in the mail or download as PDFs (still available). Keeping the master green, indeed.
Favorite Podcasts We Hope Appear in a Woody Allen Movie
Museum tours on your iPod are the current Kool-Aid in curatorial circles, and in New York City it’s the Museum of Modern Art’s podcasts that are leading the way in swapping those showerhead audio tours for your little white earbuds. With guides for the exhibitions and the permanent collection, plus tours for kids and “visual descriptions” for visitors with visual impairments, they’ve been quick to embrace the movement. MoMA aside, though, it’s worth recognizing that lots of other museums (e.g., SFMOMA, the Brooklyn Museum) are also doing terrific things with technology at a fast pace.
Favorite Audio Blog Featuring Long Essays and Wide Taste
Audio bloggers tend to have an easy time finding songs and a hard time writing about them; Moistworks, a collective of record hoarders more or less edited by Alex Abramovich, not only features treasures, sound-wise, but scholarship and writing that’s articulate in telling good stories with a variety of voices. Recent highlights include a well-informed (and -sourced) tribute to Grant McLennan, much and frequent Abramovich love for the history of calypso, and some emotional Mother’s Day poetry. Consistent excellence.
Favorite Fashion High-and-Low Lights
This award’s shared by the best two workday diversions when you’re locked in a conference room with no windows and you can’t look down on Midtown for people-scanning: Go Fug Yourself, the watchdog of ugliness, and The Sartorialist, keeping tabs on good style in New York. One’s snarky, the other’s sincere, but both, if you believe what we wear says at least a smidge about who we are, offer decent studies on why we shouldn’t wear jeans every day.
Favorite Copyright Infringements
Though YouTube’s popularity (and business model) can be directly tied to rampant copyright abuse, don’t all the very best things on the web flourish in the shadows of legality? BitTorrent and Napster, anyone? And in the same way they changed how everybody—including the MPAA and RIAA—thinks about intellectual property in the digital age, YouTube has forever altered how people expect to find their video. And here “video” refers to SNL skits and Stephen Colbert, not you and your friend funny-sexy dancing to Nas—that’s a home movie, and should history be any lesson, people will always hate your home movies.
Favorite Third Use of the Internet
If George Constanza was onto something when he said the internet was only good for stock quotes and porn, then he was only almost right: It’s also good for buying plane tickets—good, but never great. Finally, Kayak changes all that. Querying multiple airlines at the same time is nothing new, but un-checking the airlines you refuse to fly, using nifty sliders (and a calendar that actually works) to hone in on departure/arrival times, and accessing trip details without having to hit the “back” button to return to your results are. And before you call your neighborhood venture capitalist about a great idea for a start-up, yes, they do the same thing with hotels and rental cars, too.
Favorite Way to See How the Other Half Lives
Though many New Yorkers may be content with a lifetime of tenancy, people elsewhere buy houses—and if the news reports are to be believed—often and at out-of-control prices. Zillow takes the address of any house and shows you an aerial view of what the neighbors paid and, based on that as well as information on amenities, floor plan, and additional variables, spits out how much the house is really worth. All you need do then is double it to find out how much you’ll really end up paying.
Favorite Bevy of Ephemera
The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society is more relevant than the AP wire and the New Yorker combined. Whether it be on the pitfalls of investing in tulips or the predictive powers of the Shass Polack, it is news you can use…to win lots of bar bets from people that don’t believe a centipede can eat a living mouse.
Favorite Way to Hunt and Tag Celebrities
For years, readers of Gawker have been sending the New York gossip blog their star sightings from around town for its regular Gawker Stalker feature. (Lindsay Lohan dines on human flesh at new eatery Donner! Benicio del Toro browses girdles at Soho Bloomingdales!) Now, with its creepy Gawker Stalker Map—which pinpoints the latest celebrity sightings on Google Maps—Gawker has turned celebrity-spotting into sport. But we have to wonder: Does George Clooney have a point? Should becoming a celebrity mean you have to trade in your right to privacy? As we approach the decade mark in reality-dominated television, it should be obvious that many feel it a small price to pay.
Favorite Antisocial Networking
Another day, another social networking/bookmarking/video-uploading site opens its doors. There’s assuredly great stuff to be found, but how can you remember where you should look for the buzz? PopURLs displays the most popular items at Del.icio.us, Digg, Furl, Metafilter, Newsvine, Reddit, Shoutwire, Tailrank… and though the list goes on, more importantly, PopURLs is always expanding the number of sites from which it feeds.
Favorite Way to Hang in There
More photos of puppies, kitties, and bunnies than you could shake a stick at—as if you’d ever want to shake a mean ol’ stick at these lubby-wubby nubbin-bubbins! For those who want the cockles of their hearts quickly warmed, there is Cute Overload. The site also has a particular fondness for Cats ‘n Racks™, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Favorite Way to Cut to the Chase
The very best mp3 blogs combine great writing, exceptional taste, and, of course, free and easy mp3 downloads. If you’re only in the market for the last part, however, mp3 blog aggregators such as elbo.ws and The Hype Machine let you search for the bands everybody’s blogging about—and tell you whether or not there’s goods for the downloading. (Though endlessly helpful for music hoarders, they’re no substitute for the commentary and exposure you’ll get by reading the blogs sans-aggregator.)
Favorite New Form of Refreshment
From what we’ve heard, obsessive-compulsive behavior is ingrained in the genes of successful bloggers, who chant refer logs and can quote, in the middle of loud party conversation, their traffic at any moment—down to the very page-view. For everyone from stat-nuts to cat bloggers, there is Shaun Inman’s Mint. Unbelievably easy to install, exhaustive (or not, it’s up to you) in detail about your visitors, referring sites, most popular pages, etc., and darn good looking to boot, it’s the only stats program we’ve ever been satisfied with. All that, and it’s constantly being expanded with new features (aka “Pepper”) through a vast online developer community. We, in particular, like the graphs.
Favorite Way to Further Degrade the Publishing Industry
Publishers hate Google’s Book Search—and who can blame them? The selection is ho-hum and the interface clunky (both at the request of the publishers’ lawyers, surely); it makes you sorry you were interested in reading in the first place. Amazon’s newly redesigned “Look Inside This Book” feature, however, has the right idea: Responsive page-flipping and an intuitive navigation (and search!) give enough of an edge over the real-world bookstore browsing experience that you’ll think more about buying the book than wondering why you have to log in to see another page (thank you again, counsels). Fact-checkers and copy editors worldwide, rejoice.