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Tech

13 Tech Things We Tried In 2015 And Recommend

Apps, hacks, and social media accounts that we recommend for 2016.

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Each month, the BuzzFeed Life team recommends interesting beauty/craft/ recipe/lifestyle products, tricks, and apps its editors tested out in their own lives. It's always one of my favorite things to read – real, honest endorsements of some small thing that made someone's life a little better.

Monthly product recommendations aren't really what we do here at BuzzFeed Tech, but for the end of the year I asked our team to recommend things that made their lives a little better in 2015 (that's the idea of technology anyway, right?). Things that aren't life changing products or gadgets – perhaps a way of using something that already existed a little differently, or a website that we enjoyed or a social media account that cracks us up.

Here's to making 2016 a little better, in tiny ways.

1. The Mushroom Identification Forum Facebook group

This has been the year that Facebook groups have completely changed my view on Facebook. I started signing up for weird groups, and all of a sudden, Facebook is this fun awesome place with lots of interesting new people chatting and posting pictures of specific things, and not just a place for my high school friends' baby photos or political rants. Groups have made Facebook fun again for me – something I thought was literally impossible.

Of the weird and wonderful groups I've joined, the Mushroom Identification Forum is by far the best. It's huge for Facebook group standards: about 51,000 members currently. The group is exactly what it sounds like – people post photos of mushrooms they see out in the wild, and ask for help identifying them. I've been incredibly impressed by the deep knowledge some members have for fingering fungii (or "mycology", as the study of mushrooms is known). I had no idea that mushrooms were a ~thing~ people were into as a hobby. I'm a birdwatcher, and I can see how it's pretty similar, and you rack up knowledge pretty fast just by looking out while on a walk in the woods and maybe browsing a few guidebooks. The slightly geeky obsessiveness of amateur mushroom sleuths is very recognizable to me.

I just love seeing these people from all over the country posting a photo of some strange thing they saw while on a hike in Ohio, or growing on a piece of wood in an urban yard of San Francisco. It's a little bit funny, like the kid asking "can I eat it?" but also genuinely sweet and innocent. I've added several friends to the group, and they love it as much as I do.

Perhaps the best use of Facebook is not as place to connect with friends, but a place that when you see some weirdass shroom growing in your yard, you can ask someone "what the hell is this?" –Katie Notopoulos

2. The @kylizzlesnapchats Instagram account

Instagram: @kylizzlesnapchats

This Instagram account is the best way to keep track of Kylie Jenner and her rotating satellite of baes. It posts Snapchats from Jenner's account, as well instances where she shows up in Snapchats posted by her friends. If you can't be bothered by Snapchat, it's the best way to follow the saga of casual wealth in Calabasas in doses and from many different angles. It's also a black mirror into The Selfie's next frontier. Whoever runs this account, please call me. You are very industrious and I want to know more about your methods. –Nitasha Tiku

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3. De-Quantifying My Exercise

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Above: miserable after a trying to beat my times while jogging.

In theory I love the idea of tracking myself. Seeing my daily behavior at scale is fascinating and I hold out hope that by doing something over and over again and logging it, I'll gain some sort of deep insight into myself and, in turn, ~optimize~ my life. So when I started really getting into running, I immediately started logging all my sweaty miles with the Nike+ app. At first it was brutal and embarrassing, but it quickly became fun and addicting as I got marginally more in shape. I started lightly obsessing over milage and time, often precariously glancing down at my phone during runs to check my progress. I pushed myself to go faster and farther, which, at first seemed great — Nike+, my personal running coach!

But as the months went on it, like so many other trackers/gadgets, became a source of anxiety. The weather turned nice and, instead of focusing on the gorgeous scenery as I ran through New York, I was focused on some arbitrary fitness goal. Any run slower than the day before it was a failure instead of what it really was: a little victory. I also found myself bothered by lots of small little injuries, no doubt because I was doing pushing myself too much on days when I should have taken it easy.

So I stopped. I deleted the app and went out for runs without my phone. It was hard at first and I felt like I'd given up. And then, a week or so in, I started to feel great. I let my mind wander. I focused on listening to my body, rather than relying on an app. I had more time to let my mind wander. Running, this thing that felt like a daily punishment, was almost kind of fun.

Working out regularly is so goddamn hard and basically took me 27 years to do so with any frequency. Doing any kind of exercise is a victory and should be celebrated as such, and anything that gets in the way of that has got to go. –Charlie Warzel

4. This.

This. (with the period in its name) is new site that emails you 5 curated links every day from people on it. (It also has a site you can browse, though I tend to use that less.) Members are only allowed to submit a single link a day, which means the selection is excellent.

I'm on a lot of social networks, receive a million newsletters and am basically saturated in news, so at first, was reticent to add another thing to my life. But the limitation on what you can submit, and simple, no-frills presentation of the site made it super compelling to me. It's kind of like starting Twitter from scratch in terms of finding out what people you respect are reading — news sites, as well as a lot of influential journalists, are all on there now. –Sapna Maheshwari

5. Spotify's Discover Weekly playlist

Stephanie Lee / BuzzFeed News

This is my giant head deep in thought as I listen to Discover Weekly , a feature that Spotify introduced in July. Its algorithms analyze the songs you save to your favorites list and, every Monday, spits out a playlist of songs it thinks you'll like. There are all kinds of ways to find new music online these days, from Pandora to Apple Music, but Discover Weekly is by far my favorite tool. (I say this as someone who isn't musically hip and has a hard time breaking out of ruts.) It gives me something to look forward to every Monday, which isn't the happiest day of the week.

Each playlist is a manageable size of about two dozen songs, and the fact that it disappears a week later makes it feel special — gotta get it while it's here! The best thing, of course, is that Spotify's recommendations are uncannily spot on (ha) and I almost always end up saving a song or two from bands I'd never heard of. –Stephanie Lee

6. Using the "Do Not Disturb" function on my phone to unplug

Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day I am hyper connected. In addition to the run of the mill, text, email, social notifications I also have Twitter and Facebook notifications set up for specific people, publications, and companies — this means I get a notification literally every time so and so "completed a 2.1 mile run with RunKeeper. Check it out!" or posts a picture of their unborn child on Facebook. Not to mention all of these notifications are accompanied by a fun little haptic buzz on my Apple watch.

Suffice it to say, it is exhausting and not just because of the constant, never ending slew of notifications but also because these notifications almost always pique my interest and almost always result in me opening my phone and looking at the tweet, and then checking Facebook, and then checking my email, and rinse and repeat. So this year I have started to try two things: First, I scheduled Do Not Disturb to automatically switch on at 10 p.m. every night and second, I try to delete the Twitter and Slack apps every Friday and download them again on Sunday night.

The 10 p.m. cutoff has been amazing, to be honest. I don't look at my phone before bed anymore because I almost just forget about it. And I am not worried about missing anything because I set up the do not disturb mode to allow my phone to buzz or ring when someone is calling me — so if it's really an emergency people know to call me. It's also given me a time limit for using my phone. I obviously can still pick it up but there's not this little reminder every couple of minutes that things are happening on the net right now! Things are always happening on the net so it's been nice to not feel this incessant need to pay attention to it.

Also, deleting Twitter and Slack on weekends has been great because I use Twitter and Slack largely if not entirely for work-related things. Not being plugged in on the weekends has made it a lot easier to be my friend, I hope. But at the very least, it's made it easier for me to come to work refreshed on Monday because it doesn't feel like all I've been thinking about was work-related things during the weekend. –Johana Bhuiyan

7. Snapchat

I started using Snapchat this year, over the past few months. I had avoided it because it seemed fundamentally creepy, and also because I'm jealous of the founder, who is wealthy, handsome, and dates Miranda Kerr.

After a few months of use, I like it. I like it not on its merits: It is hard to use and its various features don't seem connected by any specific philosophy or goal. I like it because it enables me to communicate with people who are younger than me, who freaking love it. I also like it because it is an easy way to check in with people and let them know what's going on, even if what's going on does not rise to the level of an Instagram post.

It's for, like, inside jokes and maintaining fun relationships with your friends.

I approve. –Joe Bernstein

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8. Using Siri on the new Apple TV

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I already owned a 5 year old Apple TV, and since it worked just fine I was skeptical about upgrading. The big new features like video games (which I hate playing) or Siri (which I never use on my phone) didn't seem like things I needed. However, John Paczkowski's very practical review of it for BuzzFeed convinced me it was worth it.

I thought Siri for Apple TV seemed like it would be one of those fun gimmicks you try a few times and never use again, like sending my heartbeat through the Apple watch to a friend. The act of watching the kind of things I use the Apple TV for (binging on Netflix shows or occasionally renting a specific movie through iTunes) don't require more than a few remote commands.

Then, I was desperate to find out what was going on Season 2 of Jane the Virgin. I toggled between Hulu, but only the most recent few episodes were available, leaving the first two out. So I flipped over to my cable system to see if the early episodes were on demand there, but they weren't. This meant I had to purchase the first few episodes, but I couldn't remember how many were missing from Hulu.

Switching between apps on the Apple TV is somewhat annoying. If you want to find a specific show or movie but aren't sure whether it's Hulu, Netflix, HBOGo, or iTunes, you have to search each app, laboriously spelling out the title on the dinky little remote.

So I just yelled at the TV, "SIRI FIND JANE THE VIRGIN!" and voilà – there was a screen with my show on all the options – season 1 was on Netflix, half of season 2 on Hulu, and the rest to buy on iTunes. It was by far 1 billion times easier than the annoying hunt.

Once I was caught up with Jane, Rogelio, Petra, and the gang, I went to catch up on the other of "my" shows. This time I didn't even fuck around with searching, I just yelled "SIRI SHOW ME YOU'RE THE WORST" (I have since been informed you don't need to say "Siri" but whatever, it feels good). –Katie Notopoulos

9. The Shade Room celebrity gossip Instagram account

Instagram: @theshaderoominc

ShadeRoom is a glorious source of up-to-the-second gossip, mostly focused on black celebrities, and delivered to you in one Instagram account. In the New York Times magazine Jenna Wortham compared it to TMZ: "It feels like an Internet-native Star Magazine sprinkled throughout your feed." (Read Jenna's article, it's excellent, like absolutely everything else she does. )

The native part is key. Unlike, say, Snapchat stories, which feels like adults impersonating millennials, awkwardly shoved into an app, Shade Room talks to you just like you would talk to your friends. It's very intimate. Many of the posts are screenshots of fights or flirting happening on Twitter or a celebrity interaction with a fan buried deep in the Instagram comments. The speed at which it surfaces all these unguarded little social media dramas means you're getting the opposite of what Instagram has become. Instead of careful curation of your best self, it's unguarded and vulnerable. So you don't even need to know the person to get sucked in.

Shade Room's obsessive monitoring of celebrity relationships also feels very conversational. It's everyone's stalker ex-girlfriend. I also love that Shade Room has become such a presence that famous people now mention it in social media posts... which then get screenshot and put on Shade Room. 2015!!! It was a year!! –Nitasha Tiku

10. NFL Sunday Ticket

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Until this year, I spent nearly every fall and winter Sunday drowning myself in Guinness beers at local sports pubs to bear witness the steady decline of the New York Football Jets and their fallen hero coach, Rex Ryan. I was always happy entering the bar, but dragging myself out after a few hours of postgame crying in the bathroom was never pleasant.

This season, the Jets got a new coach and I decided to try a new future-of-media strategy for watching the games. I signed up for a NFL Sunday Ticket, a cord-cutter's dream that, in exchange for money, lets you watch all the games from the comfort of your home. Right on your own damn computer! No more asking barkeep to please turn down the volume of Pittsburgh Steelers game. And c'mon, nobody likes Ben Roethlisberger anyway. The future is nice.

I give the streaming tech a B. It's often choppy and frequently reminds me that the internet has not yet surpassed good ol' TV for many viewing experiences. But considering my mental health, wallet and the person who mops floors at Halfcourt Sports Bar, this has worked out great. That's about the most you can ask for in this holiday season of giving and inspiration. –Alex Kantrowitz

11. Hoverboards

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Anyone who says a overboard isn't a hoverboard because its wheels don't touch the ground is a humorless scold who has never had the pleasure of riding one with any degree of competence.

Our office is littered with them and at the beginning, I was mostly scared. Not scared of being hurt, but scared of looking like an idiot. My first two attempts of riding it made a newborn colt look like Secretariat. But then, one night as I was waiting for edits, I got back on, knowing there were none of my friends at work to laugh at me if I stumbled, started to finally….hover.

And then I was hooked. I can't stop gliding. I still chug coffee to power through the afternoon doldrums, but a quick spin (actually two wheels spinning with their own motors that allow you to turn effortlessly just by slightly shifting your weight) is nearly as refreshing. If you're lucky enough to have an office with enough space and a lax enough culture, you should move like this as much as you can. Screw standing desks, hover around your deskbound colleagues. –Matt Zeitlin

12. Naming group chats and sending voice memos in iMessage

Being able to name group chats on iMessage is cool as heck because it's a fun + creative way to solidify a friend group. Whether it's a group of girlfriends from across the country talking about everything from Tinder to salary negotiations — aka "🌑 Coven 🌑" — or four new friends making plans to hang out — "quad goals" — the naming feature is an easy way to cement your clique. It's also just way easier to look at in your contacts than a bunch of numbers.

I don't know how long iMessage has allowed people to send and receive voice messages, but I only started doing it regularly in 2015, which was also the year I moved to California. A lot of the people I love are still on the east coast, and I want to keep in touch, but I've never been one for phone calls with friends. (Snake people, amirite?!) Voice messages have the intimacy of a phone call — you can hear someone's voice — with the all the asynchronous perks of texting.

There are some problems with the voice message feature; devotees are all too familiar with the feeling of recording a two-minute long missive, only to have the screen go dark or the thumb holding the record button slip and lose the whole thing. There's also a sort of strange aspect of voice messaging, in that the messages permanently disappear within two minutes unless you choose to "keep" them, which can be a bit disconcerting, and even tragic if you forget. But it's also true that, if you're like me and send dozens of them every day, you would likely eventually start to run out of space. –Caroline O'Donovan

13. "DILFs of Disneyland" Instagram account

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No explanation required. –Ellen Cushing

Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.

Contact Katie Notopoulos at katie@buzzfeed.com.

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