Boom & Bust: From Bitcoin to Bike Share, the Biggest Booms and Busts of the Past Year

After a week of reporting and writing on booms and busts—everything from the economy of big oil boomtowns to the growth of the mental-health counseling field—Jamie Wiebe considers five of the biggest booms—and five of the biggest busts—of the past year.
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Who hasn't used a bike share? (Photo: hans engbers/Shutterstock)

Who hasn't used a bike share? (Photo: hans engbers/Shutterstock)

Sussing out what’s actually on a meteoric rise or a catastrophic fall can be a tricky art, especially as everyone on the Internet declares themselves amateur trend meteorologists. To be certain, things are changing, as they always have: Waves are rising and falling, and the masses are finding new things to love and despise. Determining where those crests are—where the peak is, whether something still grows or if it has finally begun to wane—is more of an art than a science.

Some things will always be debated, like whether 3-D TV is about to hit its big break, or finally disappear to let the rest of us just keep watching American Idol the way we’ve grown accustomed to over the year. Researchers and experts and longform trend pieces will fall on one side or the other, with varying degrees of accuracy. Some things are obvious, backed by numbers and maps and charts: The rise (and fall) of Bitcoin, the paranoia over fracking, the sudden demise of Blackberry. Others are discovered through mere intuition.

With that in mind, here are some of the things that have boomed and bust over the past year.

BOOMS: THE INTERNET OF THINGS

If you believe Google (and by now, you might not), interest in the Internet of things has more than doubled over the last 12 months. For some it’s surveillance; for others, it’s one step closer to the singularity. For most, it’s just a way to make life more convenient.

It isn’t just BlackBerry—no one can compete against the double-edged sword of iOS and Android, keeping our smartphones, like our government, exclusively two-party.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, think Smart House, the 1999 Disney made-for-TV movie starring Katey Sagal and Kevin Kilner: The Internet of things, at least as represented by Disney, promises an automated home, with your coffee maker and television all connected to the Internet and to each other, accessible from your smartphone, and eager to learn your preferences, likes, and dislikes.

The Washington Post reports that the Internet of things drew a whopping $1.1 billion in investments in 2013, and Google bought smart-house company Nest, which makes self-learning thermometers and smoke detectors, for $3.2 billion earlier this year. It’s easy to see why Google was interested—reports indicate their “learning thermometer” is shipping 40,000 units each month.

BOOMS: BITCOIN

It’s hard to talk about booms—or busts—without mentioning Bitcoin, the king of them both. Born in 2009, Bitcoin shot to the forefront of our collective consciousness in mid-2013, when the Feds shut down Silk Road, the underground Amazon-like site where purveyors could use Bitcoin to buy and sell anything from drugs to hitmen to AK-47s.

Mark T. Williams, former Federal Reserve Bank examiner and Boston University School of Management professor, says to “beware of Bitcoin”: “Bitcoin is over 7 times as volatile as gold and over 8 times as volatile as the S&P 500,” he writes on his blog. It seems no one can decide if Bitcoin is a boom, or balancing on a bubble, but for every analyst predicting a bust, there are 30 people on Reddit buying Bitcoin right now.

BOOMS: BIKE SHARE

Municipal bike sharing programs, nearly non-existent in 2004, are omnipresent today, with New York City’s giant new Citi Bike program the capstone to their tremendous growth. But the best programs aren’t in the U.S.: Look to Shanghai and Mexico City’s highly effective programs if you want to be impressed. Both offer more than 30 bikes and 130 rides per 1,000 residents.

Looking at the graph on Treehugger’s article cited above, it’s easy to see where bigger cities can get tripped up: Providing sufficient bikes to reach a significant percentage of a large metropolis’ population is an expensive and difficult proposition. But in the U.S., look to smaller metros like Denver and Madison, where successful bike shares can offset some of the car pollution endemic to poor public transportation.

BOOMS: GROWLERS

With the craft beer explosion came eco-friendly ways to bring your craft beer home—most notably, 64-ounce growlers, which contain the equivalent of four 16-ounce beers and retail for anywhere from $10 to $30, depending on the beer. That’s more than you’d pay for a six-pack in all but the priciest cities, and yet they’re popping up everywhere: New York City’s Walgreens-owned drugstore chain Duane Reade has growler-filling stations in their flagship stores, and breweries from coast to coast offer fill-ups.

Growlers have boomed so much that they could be on the verge of a bust; I’ve heard even the biggest beer enthusiasts complain about the mark-up, short shelf life, and how annoying they are to clean. But when you live at the intersection of eco-friendliness and craft beer, you’re not going anywhere soon in mid-2010s America.

BOOMS: FRACKING

Matt Damon can’t stop the world from spinning and he certainly can’t stop gas companies from fracking their way across New York and Pennsylvania, Texas and the Rockies. Search “fracking” and the top result is DangersofFracking.com; there’s an undeniably compelling argument against the process—also called “hydraulic fracturing”—that involves releasing water and chemicals into the rocks around wells to release more oil and gas. But no matter the backlash, it’s growing exponentially: It’s behind the massive growth in North Dakota and the oil booms in Texas. In short, it brings in money, and that’s not something people will give up, no matter how many damning websites you create.

BUSTS: SUPERNATURAL ANGST

It came in like a wind after Harry Potter: Wizards were out and supernatural high school kids were in. Edward Cullen and Bella Swan earned Stephenie Meyer $170 billion for her Twilight series, but publishers haven’t been able to repeat the magic (or lack thereof) with similar series. Not that they haven’t tried: Harry Potter fan-fiction writer turned novelist Cassandra Clare attempted to strike it big with her Mortal Instruments series, but the books were never a huge success and the first book’s movie adaptation made just $9 million on opening weekend, which Forbes called “a full-blown disaster.” Par for the course in young adult fiction as the tastes of each generation twist and change, but when books like Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games push their fan-bases into full-blown hysteria, the knock-offs and hangers-on (see: Divergent) look all too cloying and the subgenre’s implosion all too precious.

BUSTS: TRUSTING GOOGLE

Google as an omniscient, all-knowing overlord came on suddenly, heralded by many but acknowledged by few until everyone was looking for a way out. It’s not just that the National Security Agency has back doors into everything—although that’s certainly not helping. It’s more that people are finally realizing how many pockets Google’s got hands in, and how little the company seems to care about your personal data.

“Don’t be evil”? We aren’t so sure anymore. It may be easy to ignore Google’s probing eyes when they’re scanning your email for key words—so what? I don’t have anything to hide. No one likes advertising, but it was a cheap price for a great messaging service. When they’re scanning every part of your life, from the ambient temperature in your home to what you see as you walk down the sidewalk, it’s hard to be less certain. “Google doesn’t care about you,” is how Fast.Co sums it up. “It cares about your data. Act accordingly.”

BUSTS: KICKSTARTER

It’s not that Kickstarter’s gone bust, per se—it’s still handing entrepreneurs with a good idea and a great video camera thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars per project. But avid Kickstarter backers are starting to feel a little bit, well, used: After Veronica Mars successfully raised $5.7 million for its post-series movie, released earlier this year to a $2 million opening weekend, celebrities from Zach Braff from Spike Lee decided they wanted a little of the pie.

And even when non-celebrity projects get big, backers get hurt. More than 9,000 backers funded Oculus Rift, only to see it bought out by Facebook with zero return on their investment (never mind that Kickstarting a project isn’t really an investment, but more like a donation). Luckily, backers are wising up to money-grabbing schemes: When Girls star Zosia Mamet asked for $32,000 to make a music video with her sister, only 80 people bit, earning her just $2,783 and an unsuccessful project. Melissa Joan Hart failed even more spectacularly, cutting off funding for her $2 million film after receiving only $50,000 in donations.

BUSTS: ANY OPERATING SYSTEM OTHER THAN IOS & ANDROID

The bust has been coming for BlackBerry for a while: Since the iPhone’s arrival in 2007, it has been in a downward spiral, throwing desperate shots into the ring just hoping that something would hit gold. It wasn’t to be: This March, they confirmed the re-release of the BlackBerry Bold 9900, one of the gems of the BB7 era—the company’s last successful OS.

But it isn’t just BlackBerry—no one can compete against the double-edged sword of iOS and Android, keeping our smartphones, like our government, exclusively two-party. Windows Phone failed miserably, too. ReadWrite puts it bluntly: “The real reason why Windows Phone has failed because there is no good reason for it to exist.” That goes for BlackBerry, too: Unless someone adds something new to the smartphone ecosystem, third-party developers will see their creations fall apart one by one.

BUSTS: GUN CONTROL

Definitely don’t consider gun control busted forever, but for now, in the post-Sandy Hook era, gun control is as good as gone. Sure, you’ll hear journalists or left-wing talking heads saying otherwise: President Obama’s 25 initiatives “cannot be blocked by the powerful gun lobby,” according to National Journal. But when all’s said and done, the moment has passed for regulation, because at its core, regulation requires changing America, and that’s a battle not easily won. It’s all about approach, and supporters of gun control got it wrong this time: “Many gun-control advocates tried to shame rather than persuade, as if the ‘correct’ position was obvious to everyone save retrograde idiots,” The Atlantic chides. Better luck next time.

We’re telling stories all week on the theme of booms and busts. What’s on the edge—of becoming a big thing, or of falling off the radar? Read the entire series here.

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