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Social media: The biggest stories of 2012

Here are the top five ways we embraced social media this year.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
4 min read
Illustration by James Martin/CNET

Social media hit new heights this year; Facebook reached 1 billion users, many people in developing nations are logging in to social networks as soon as they get Internet access, and the companies behind these digital communities are starting to make money off the sites.

The big players of social, namely Facebook and Twitter, are ubiquitous in everyday life. Mainstream news outlets cite the social networks as sources of information and commentary on live events. The Olympics, the presidential election, disasters such as Hurricane Sandy -- social media has become an integral part of how such events are recorded and how communities respond. Along with those big events, social networks continued to shape how people work and play, with this year's biggest news showing the latest ways social media has entwined itself in our lives.

1. Social shopping comes of age
In 2012, shopping sites relied heavily on social media to build communities around retail, while social-media sites started making money off users shopping. Though sites like fashion-centric Polyvore -- which hit a new financial milestone this year -- have long understood that user-generated content is the best type of advertising when selling products, companies like Fab and Fancy took social retail to another level this year.

Fab, a flash-sales site, closely wove social media into its shopping experience -- the company said it was gaining 1 million users a month, with 50 percent of its member sign-ups coming from Facebook referrals. The Fancy, a Pinterest-like site that lets users bookmark things they like and then links those items to online stores for purchase, builtits commerce services on top of a social experience. Then there's the big daddy of social media, Facebook. The company launched its Facebook Gifts gifting service this year, letting users send real-life gifts to their Facebook friends without needing their addresses, and opening up a new way to make money.

2. Waking up to mobile
Every year, those in Silicon Valley declare that it is finally the year of mobile. This year, mobile usage reaching its tipping point, the lure of mobile dollars had social-media companies taking action. The veterans of social -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Zynga, made major acquisitions and overhauled their mobile apps to up their mobile game.

Facebookretrained all its engineers in mobile, completely revamped its slow, unpopular apps, and purchased Instagram, the photo-sharing network that started as a mobile-only app. Twitter made a huge push on its mobile presence as well, redesigning its apps to promote a better mobile experience and, in turn, bring in more money. LinkedIn also redid its mobile app, touting a 13 percent increase in user activity from the previous year. Zynga continued to acquire mobile companies, likeOMGPOP, the creators of the wildly popular Draw Something game, and launched a mobile-only game initiative by partnering with third-party developers.

3. Pinterest seeks world domination
Pinterest saw explosive growth in the beginning of 2012, jumping from 11.7 million site visits in January to 17.8 million in March. Though the rate of growth has slowed a bit since -- the number jumped 42 percent, to 25.3 million, from March to September -- Pinterest's adoption by mainstream society increased tremendously overall. The visual-bookmarking site created social-media stars -- pinners who collected millions of followers based on the content they curated. In addition to gaining a reputation for attracting a large number of women to its site with popular pinning in categories like recipes, arts and crafts, and beauty, Pinterest also became a law enforcement tool. Police departments used the site to display their most wanted lists, offer safety tips, and show off their successes.

Although there was some speculation over whether Pinterest actually had a plan for how to make money, the company took advantage of its growth byopening up its ranks to get more users, introducing a "Pin It" button to sit alongside Facebook's and Twitter's icons on Web sites, and finally giving brands businesses tools.

4. It's all about the visuals
Facebook has always known that its users love sharing photos (photo-tagging was what set the social network apart in its early years), but social-media companies paid special attention to visuals this year. The social-video space got crowded, and social-media users flocked to networks like Pinterest and Tumblr in order to create visual collections of the things they like. And then there was Instagram.Instagram became the most popular photo-sharing network, amassing 100 million users and finding prominence during events like Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election.

Instagram's popularity spurred other social media to follow suit. Twitter tweaked its app to add the ability to take photos and add filters, fueling a filtered-photo war. Facebook decided to just buy Instagram, but also added filters to its camera function and introduced a new feature that automatically uploads photos from your iPhone to a private album on your Facebook profile.

5. Google+ screaming its way into the conversation
Oh, and then there was Google. The tech giant made sure to put its social network front and center this year by linking Google+ to its search results. But despite those efforts, Google+ didn't cause many waves for most of this year -- having people call you a ghost town will do that -- until recent weeks, when it clawed its way into headlines.

Google+ chief Bradley Horowitz publicly took aim at Facebook -- a social network that has about 10 times more users than Google+ -- and described it as the social network of the past. Google then made a point to release that Google+ now has 135 million active users, and it added group functions to encourage more activity.