Our Most-Read Stories of the Year (and a Few Personal Favorites)

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I'm proud of our team here at The Atlantic Technology Channel. Our writers and editors have grown the site's impact by an order of magnitude since we launched back in September of 2010. More importantly, I think we've told stories that are unique in the technology blogging realm. We've looked at technology as an inextricable part of human relationships and social movements and landscapes.

In the coming months, we'll be doubling down on some strategies and moving away from others. With the addition of the very talented Megan Garber and the continued deft editing and hardwork of Becca Rosen, we're going to deliver more reporting, better narratives, and closer attention to the most important stories. Expect to see more profiles of technology creators and users, too. We want to call attention to what people do with technology, not just that it exists.

But I shouldn't get ahead of myself here. There's a whole 2011 to celebrate first. Here are our ten most-read stories of the year and then seven of my favorites down at the bottom. If you like what you see here, you should also know that we have a special low-volume, high-signal category that you can find here.

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  1. The Situation Room Meme: The Shortest Route From Bin Laden to Lulz. This story came out right in the thick of our team coverage of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It tracked (and probably helped create) the spread of the Situation Room meme in which various characters were Photoshopped into that iconic photograph of President Obama's inner circle in the midst of the raid on Bin Laden's compound. It was easy to see the lulz in inserting low-culture into such a mythologized photograph, but we saw a different kind of cultural work in action. "An image this dramatic almost seems taken in a parallel world, one removed from our cubicles and trips to the dry cleaners," we wrote. "Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time before the photoshoppers went to work on the iconic image, using it as grist for the always-grinding humor mill of the Internet... The Situation Room has been colonized. It is part of our world."
  2. Osama Bin Laden's Compound Already Mapped on Google. Our second biggest story of the year also came out in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Nick Jackson was the first to spot that people were trying to map where Bin Laden's compound had been located. They initially stuck a pin on Google Maps right in the center of Abbottabad, though that location was eventually updated to the correct address outside town.
  3. Antarctica, 1961: A Soviet Surgeon Has to Remove His Own Appendix. Our third-most read story celebrated Leonid Rogozov, a Soviet doctor who, when faced with an acute case of appendicitis, cut our his own organ. The case study on which we drew featured large portions of his journal. It read almost precisely as you might expect: "It hurts like the devil!" he wrote. "A snowstorm whipping through my soul, wailing like a hundred jackals." Rogozov survived the surgery and lived another 39 years. (If you're interested in traffic flows, this story took off when it hit the Reddit frontpage out of a todayilearned entry, then got flooded with 10,000 Facebook likes.)
  4. Picture of the Day: Capturing a Full Day in a Single Photograph. This quick hit by our social media editor, Jared Keller, highlighted the work of Chris Kotsiopoulos, who managed to take a photograph of his entire day with a custom-built rig. It's hard to explain, though, so just take a look at the image, you'll get it.
  5. How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code. Next up, we have the young and talented James Somers' personal essay about learning to program. Like all of Somers' stories, it is distinguished by his incredible eye for detail, candid introspection, and perfectly balanced prose. Go read it. (The story took off when Hacker News nerds found it and voted it up to over 330 points; it sat atop the page for quite some time.)
  6. Crazy: 90 Percent of People Don't Know How to Use CTRL+F. This next story came out of a conversation I had with Google search anthropologist, Dan Russell. While we were talking about another piece, he casually mentioned that 90 percent of people didn't know how to search a document for a specific search string. I thought that was an amazing factoid, and wrote up the story just so I could use this headline. It cut both ways I figured: if you were in the 10 percent who did know, you could share it like, "Duh!" and if you were in the 90 percent who didn't, you learned something and could share it as, "Here's something helpful." (This one took off within five minutes of hitting publish, almost solely on Twitter, though it did end up with 11k Facebook likes.)
  7. The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks. During the early part of this year, there was a lot of abstract debate about the role of social media in the Arab Spring (and other protests). But this piece was about reporting how people were using these communication tools to amplify events on the ground -- and what that meant for Western companies who were watching their apps used to agitate for serious change. It's also amazing to think that this story came out before Egypt or Libya or the protests in Madrid and London or Occupy Wall Street. What a year.
  8. Revealing the Man Behind @MayorEmanuel. Oh, this was a fun story to report. Back in February, the identity of @MayorEmanuel, a brilliant satirical Twitter account had gripped Chicago. The real Rahm Emanuel had even offered a five-figure donation to charity in exchange for its creator to come forward. As the election drew to a close, I decided to try to get @MayorEmanuel to out himself to me. It was a 25-email game of push and pull, but Dan Sinker finally agreed to do it. I spent the next 24 hours in a blur of reading and rereading the feed, trying to understand how it had transformed into one of the greatest uses of Twitter we've seen yet. An hour after the story came out, Sinker (who I'd now call a friend) had news trucks on his front lawn. Late this year, an annotated volume of the tweets came out. At the back of the book, Sinker included a detailed story of how he decided to talk to us instead of another outlet. I gave him permission to use any of our email exchange to tell the story, so if you want a strangely revealing look inside our brains, go pick up the The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel.
  9. What You Shouldn't Post on Your Facebook Page If You Want a Job. Some stories are all about the headline. This one is one of them. All we did was pull a chart out of slide deck in which employers described why they'd rejected candidates after viewing their social media profiles. Basic stuff, but something that people clearly have on their minds.
  10. My Favorite Photo Ever: A Military Dog Jumping Out of a Helicopter. You may recall Foreign Policy's War Dog gallery. I simply plucked what was obviously the best one and posted it. I mildly regret the headline, but figure that 'ever' has acquired a new meaning for bloggers that actually means, "ever this news cycle."

The truth is, though, that my favorite stories rarely become the huge hits. They tend to do well, but not 250,000-uniques well. So, here are seven stories that really define what we like to do on The Atlantic Tech Channel.



  • Why We Should Stop Asking Whether Bloggers Are Journalists. Becca Rosen has a very sharp analytical mind and she loves to turn it onto tech and legal issues. This piece showcases that talent through her investigation into the origins of 'free speech.' She shows how a historical lens can clarify today's issues, too. Thomas Jefferson, who framed American's notions of a free press, could not have known a professional journalist because they didn't exist. So, when we try to define who is and isn't a journalist, we're actually misinterpreting Jefferson's ideas about what should be protected.
  • The 3 Big Advances in the Technology of the Pizza Box. This is the ultimate low-high play (and the opposite of the high-low Situation Room meme post). We took an everyday object -- the pizza box -- and ran through its important technological milestones with utmost seriousness. Drawing on the practical theory of Duke's Henry Petroski, the patent literature, and the excellent pizza mobility research of Scott Weiner, we pulled together a mini-history with a moral: technology and innovation are everywhere.
  • How to Build the Pixar of the iPad Age in Shreveport, Louisiana. This longform story chronicles the trip that my fiancee, Sarah Rich, and I took to Moonbot Studios, the makers of stunning e-books for kids. It shows a side of our blog that I want to emphasize more next year: deep, reported encounters with the creators of the new. How do people who make or use technology in awesome new ways work? What makes them tick? Expect more of that.
  • Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later. By happenstance, Olga Belogolova, a reporter for the National Journal (which sits a floor above The Atlantic in the Watergate) was walking by my desk a couple of months after the disaster at Fukushima. We got to talking and discovered that she'd been born in Kiev, the closest city to Chernobyl, shortly after the worst industrial nuclear disaster in history. She agreed to write up the story of her birth and I think it's a gripping tale of the uncertainty that surrounds nuclear problems. The photos of her family emigrating to the US in the wake of the disaster are a nice bonus, too.
  • What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library. In a world where almost all of our reading and writing is mediated by technology, technology writers like myself have a funny position. We're both creators of stories and the research arms of our institutions, probing for what might transform our industry next. Last summer, I got a feeling that the New York Public Library might have some secrets, or at least lessons, for the big media companies. It seemed like everywhere I turned, I saw some other cool project they were involved in. These weren't big redevelopment schemes with mission statements. No, they were numerous and startupy. Something special was going on. So, I did something I want to do more of next year. I went to the NYPL and said, "How are you doing what you're doing?" Then I thought about how to apply what they said. Basic storytelling, I suppose, but when you have a rich narrative, you don't need much adornment. (Also, check out the lion theme in the art for the story. I was particularly proud of it at the time.)
  • A Guide to the Occupy Wall Street API, Or Why the Nerdiest Way to Think About OWS Is So Useful. We came late to covering Occupy Wall Street, but not out of lack of interest. We followed the events closely and finally one day, I felt I had something to say. My point in this story was to think through the idea that Occupy Wall Street could be a platform for protest more than it would be a single movement. The formula was simple: apply network thinking (through the API conceit) to a modern protest.
  • What We've Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer. As record-breaking floods hit the Midwest last spring, I wanted to understand how they were actually happening. Following the news coverage on various flood-control strategies, I found myself lost in the technical detail, but also confused by a basic definitional problem: what was a river? From everything I was reading, the Mississippi did not sound like any river I'd ever dreamed of. So, I sat down to explain (first to myself, then to readers) what we'd done to the Mississippi and how we'd made it bionic. John McPhee obviously got there first, so I used his work in combination with archival maps and footage to talk about the river as a human technology rather than as a "natural" feature of the land.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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