For creating a hypercute cultural powerhouse. In Japan, the mobile messaging app known as Line is so pervasive that young people swap Line IDs instead of phone numbers. Worldwide, the app has more than 181 million active users a month. Though that leaves it smaller than Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Tencent’s WeChat, Line has excelled at something that’s arguably tougher than racking up hundreds of millions of users: It’s become a pan-media, pop-culture phenomenon. The app started the craze for stickers—oversized emoji-like graphics that convey emotions and ideas that might be tough to tap out on a smartphone keyboard. These critters have proven so popular that Line is opening up retail stores that sell everything including stuffed animals, T-shirts, and a $3,200 Swarovski crystal Cony (Line’s rabbit character). The company also has a thriving business charging marketers such as Toyota to distribute free sticker packs and otherwise engage with consumers. Games, paid stickers, marketing deals, and merchandise add up to real money: 2014 revenue totaled $656 million.
For recognizing that spending money can be social. This peer-to-peer wallet app connects directly to a user’s bank account, letting them exchange payments with friends via a smartphone. It is free to use and pleasantly simple, and eliminates the awkward credit-card juggle that comes with splitting the dinner bill. Plus, Venmo has harnessed the social element of spending money with its Venmo Newsfeed. Users don’t have to make transactions public, but the vast majority do, and they open the app even when they don’t have cash to spend purely for the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing who’s paying who for what. In 2014, it introduced the “Venmo Nearby” feature, letting users pay people around them without needing to be friends. And because Venmo becomes more useful as more friends join, its evangelical users make for rapid growth. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the company handled $906 million in mobile payments, a nearly 370 percent increase from the year before, and a number that is expected to reach $90 billion by 2017.
For doing its part to prevent self-harm. It remains to be seen whether anonymous apps are a fleeting trend, but what we do know is that they’ve become a platform of expression for people suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Whisper, which allows users to share anonymous confessions, took note of this, referring more than 40,000 of its users to suicide hotlines. To take it one step further, in August, Whisper launched a digital platform for its nonprofit “YourVoice” that lets users post videos, talk about their struggles, and get access to helpful resources. Founders Michael Heyward and Brad Brooks put $1 million toward the project. The Whisper app itself sees 6 billion messages shared each month and raised $36 million in new funding in May, bringing its total to $60 million.
For thinking outside the idiot box. HBO knows many millennials can’t (or don’t want to) pay for huge cable packages to watch their favorite shows, so the network often uses social media to bring the shows to them. It put the first two episodes of Girls’ third season on YouTube and gave the zeitgeisty show its own Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram accounts. Lengthy segments of shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver also go on YouTube, where they get shared on Facebook and other platforms hundreds of thousands of times. And season four of Game of Thrones dominated the Twitterverse, with help from HBO’s spot-on hashtags like #TakeTheThrone and #RoastJoffrey. With more than 18 million viewers, the series was crowned the network’s most-watched show ever.
For honoring the artist. VSCO bills itself as being “by creatives, for creatives,” and so far it has delivered on that promise. The company’s advanced photo editing app makes old-school photographers feel right at home on a smartphone interface. Last year, it launched its own in-app social network, called Grid, that features highly curated photos—no tone-deaf ads or shameless selfies to be found. And unlike Instagram, Grid doesn’t allow likes or comments. “We wanted to create a platform where people were celebrated not based on merit of followers or popularity but based on the quality of content,” says cofounder Joel Flory. Being featured in the Grid is a big deal for artists. “People put it at the top of their resume,” Flory says. And then there’s VSCO’s Artist Initiative, a scholarship fund aimed at helping creatives launch projects. Initially the fund started at $100,000, but after a $40 million series A investment from Accel Partners, the company expanded the scholarship to $1 million and received more than 2,000 applicants in the first 48 hours. “We see ourselves as part of this creative community,” says cofounder Greg Lutze. “We’re not outside of it, and we don’t view the creative community as a commodity. We are it. That changes how we do everything.”
For keeping nostalgia alive. Some apps, once downloaded, are immediately forgotten. Timehop isn’t one of them. It shows users what they posted on social media on this day in previous years, and is opened 4 million times a day. The app’s limited scope is strategic and really smart: If you want to know what tomorrow looked like last year, you’ll have to come back tomorrow. And users do. Whereas ephemeral apps like Snapchat capitalize on a desire to leave no trace, Timehop proves we still love looking back at where we’ve been. The company raised $10 million in series B in 2014, bringing its total raised to $14.1 million. It took a chance and eliminated its beloved daily email in favor of a standalone mobile app—a risky move, but one that paid off. The app gains 50,000 new users a day and has climbed swiftly to the top of the App Store, frequently overtaking other freebies like Twitter. “Looking at the past and reminiscing is a quintessential experience in every culture,” says Timehop CEO and cofounder Jonathan Wegener.
For keeping social media honest. Fake news travels fast, especially on social media. Storyful, a five-year-old Dublin-based company, uses a potent combination of human and machine fact-checking to separate news from noise. It analyzes everything from asinine viral videos to hard international news, doing a social media deep dive to source and verify news. “There’s never been a better way to spread a hoax than social media,” Storyful founder and CEO Mark Little has said. “But there’s never been a better fact-checking desk than social media.” After being acquired by News Corp for $25 million, in early 2014 Storyful partnered with Facebook to launch FB Newswire, which finds newsworthy user-generated content and runs it through the ringer, posting only the credible stuff. There is clearly an appetite for real news there: Site embeds of Facebook news posts increased 50% in just four months following the launch. Now Storyful is helping fund an initiative aimed at creating industry-wide guidelines for how news organizations treat their social media sources. “People who create content, whether they’re just people who are witnesses randomly to an event or professionals, deserve credit and in certain cases compensation,” says Little.
For creating meaningful social media metrics for regular users. After a successful crowdfunded launch in early 2014, ThinkUp’s founders, ex-Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani and entrepreneur Anil Dash, spent the year honing their mission, settling on the tagline “Analytics for humans.” ThinkUp subscribers get a daily digest of their social media behavior in the form of bite-size factoids. It won’t tell you how many clicks your tweets got, but it will tell you that 24% of your tweets contained the words “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”, or “myself” in the last week, or that they get the best response between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.The goal, says Dash, is to make it easy for everyday social media users to better interact with their community. ThinkUp emerges out of beta with more than 2,000 subscribers willing to shell out $60 for an annual membership. Most are individuals, but heavyweights like Nike and a few government agencies are also on board, Dash says. “They’re learning a lot about how to more meaningfully engage.”
For taking back its reputation. The TSA no longer wants to be known for invasive pat-downs, long lines, and seemingly arbitrary rules on banned liquids. So, the agency has taken to social media to change the conversation with its popular Instagram account, which racks up nearly 2,000 new followers a day. By posting pictures of recently confiscated weapons and contraband—including loaded guns and lipstick tasers—using the hashtag #TSACatch, the TSA’s social media team brings a human touch to a seemingly impenetrable organization, and reminds travelers that airport security measures aren’t for nothing.
For showing the power of the push notification. What was originally dubbed the world’s dumbest messaging app has evolved quickly into one with the potential to change how we communicate. The hypersimple tool does little more than send a two-letter push notification: “YO.” But those notifications can be triggered by anything. Want to know when your favorite band has a new video on YouTube? There’s a Yo push notification for that. This gives brands direct access to a user’s homescreen without needing to build their own app. Of course, users have to opt in to receive notifications, providing a bit of a buffer. And it’s not just for brands. A more powerful example: In 2014 the app was used to alert Israelis to incoming Palestinian rocket attacks. Yo received $1.5 million in seed funding in its first two months, is valued at around $10 million, and has more than 1 million users. And even if it does flare out, Yo was a bold experiment in simplicity.