San Francisco and New York garner the lion’s share of attention for their digital media start-ups and innovations, yet Canadians here and abroad have played central roles in this industry. The names Michael Cowpland, Marshall McLuhan, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie are well known, but more often our innovators, business leaders, researchers, developers and artists have not been recognized for their achievements. In gaming, software, Internet security, Web development, social media and online broadcasting, Canadians have made huge contributions.
Just as Canada’s Walk of Fame honours Canadian achievements in entertainment, this list recognizes Canadian leaders in digital media. Fifteen Canadians have been highlighted here to represent the diverse and prominent ways Canadians have made their mark. There are, however, many more Canadian contributions to digital media noted in the longer version of this list—Who's Who in Canadian Digital Media and Technology
One of the world’s most popular Web sites, Flickr was launched in 2004 in Vancouver by Canadian Stewart Butterfield and his ex-wife Caterina Fake. Butterfield took the existing model of online photo sharing and greatly improved users’ ability to share, organize and network. He achieved this through pioneering features such as user tagging, RSS feeds and user groups. An early darling of the Web 2.0 movement, Flickr was sold to Yahoo! in 2005. Butterfield oversaw Flickr until 2008, when he left to start a Vancouver-based gaming company.
Many Internet companies share similar beginnings—university friends toiling in their dorm rooms until the wee hours. Web site discovery and collaborative filtering service StumbleUpon began this way but charted a novel path to its success. Garrett Camp started working on it in 2001 as a University of Calgary student, then moved with co-founder Geoff Smith to San Francisco in 2006 and quickly secured investors. Within a year, eBay bought the company for US$75 million. Unhappy with eBay’s stewardship, Camp and Smith bought it back in 2009. Again a start-up with Camp as CEO, StumbleUpon is now a leading social media company.
Traditional entertainment companies were notoriously slow to embrace the Internet. But not television executive Bill Craig. In 1999, he launched ICraveTV.com from Toronto and offered one of the first Internet television broadcasts. Picking up over-the-air broadcasts, Craig then streamed these live online, including football games and The Simpsons. American and Canadian networks weren’t fond of his approach and forced him out of business within months over perceived copyright infringement. It would be almost a decade after ICraveTV before networks offered TV over the Internet.
Five-year old Torontonian Cassie Creighton may be one of the youngest people to have a hit online game. Creighton created Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure this past spring with her father Ryan, owner of indie game studio Untold Entertainment. Cassie provided artwork, stories, game elements and a voice track, while her father provided the gaming engine. Garnering critical praise and popular success, the game is raising money for Cassie’s education. It also provides proof of the possibilities of digital media with which anyone—including children—can create as well as participate.
Modern political warfare and espionage plots are increasingly conducted online. University of Toronto professor Ron Deibert is leading the charge against these attacks. Deibert and his team have exposed politically motivated hacking and government surveillance. Among their most prominent findings was 2009’s GhostNet, widespread Chinese hacking that compromised online systems in 103 countries. Deibert has also led efforts to provide software for unfiltered Internet access to citizens in repressive regimes. Through his research and advocacy, Deibert has brought attention to this issue and pressured governments to respond.
Social media has been pivotal in this year’s “Arab Spring” of democratic reform. One of the earliest leading figures in this social media revolution is Iranian-Canadian Hossein Derakhshan. He began blogging in 2001 about conditions in Iran after moving to Toronto. As blogging software did not support Farsi, Derakhshan devised and shared a solution to enable others to participate. These efforts and the immense popularity of his blog earned Derakhshan the moniker “Blogfather of Iran.” His controversial views resulted in his 2008 arrest in Tehran and a 19.5-year sentence.
e-Learning software has become a mainstay of universities, colleges and corporate trainers for both online-only programs and support for in-person classes. The first successful program was created by University of British Columbia faculty member Murray Goldberg in 1996. His software, WebCT, offered an integrated, consistent suite of tools customizable per course. This let institutions deploy online learning in an environment students could grasp with little training. WebCT grew quickly internationally and Goldberg sold it in 1999. Goldberg’s software and model were central to the rapid expansion of e-learning and have redefined education. He continues to teach and develop online educational products.
Canadians have a knack for creating virtual worlds for children. Club Penguin, founded in Canada, sold to Disney for $350 million. Its rival, Webkinz, is still owned and operated by the Ganz family from Woodbridge, Ont. The company, founded by Holocaust survivor Sam Ganz in 1950, began by creating plush toys. Howard Ganz took over from his grandfather and pioneered the concept of plush toys with access to virtual counterparts. Marketing to children is not without controversy, but parents appreciate the sheltered environment and non-violent game play. Webkinz continues to grow and lead in virtual worlds for kids.
Not content to wait for governments to offer online services, do-it-yourself developers like Cory Horner are creating innovative new services. In 2005, the then 24-year-old Kamloops, B.C., native used raw parliamentary transcripts from the federal government’s Web site and built an interface showing the voting, speaking and attendance records of MPs. He used this to build HowdTheyVote.ca. Using Horner’s work as inspiration, more recent DIY efforts, such as Openparliament.ca and VisibleGovernment.ca, continue to improve government transparency and encourage open access to government data. Horner may have done more to improve democracy in Canada than many veteran officials.
Access to media has never been easier, thanks to the Internet and mobiles. Yet code and design practices can thwart users with disabilities, despite fixes known since the early days of the Web. Donna Jodhan, a visually impaired McGill MBA graduate and Toronto resident, tried to apply for a federal government job but the application Web site was inaccessible. Jodhan successfully sued the government in 2010 to require it to improve accessibility. The first such Canadian case, it sets a precedent for future legal and business decisions. Jodhan now consults and advocates on making the Internet accessible.
As an art student in Nanaimo, B.C., Deidre LaCarte had no idea she was creating an Internet phenomenon or novel marketing strategy. Her creation, HampsterDance, started as a competition in 1998 with friends to see who could get more traffic. LaCarte’s dancing hamsters Web page became one of the earliest and most popular Internet memes. Subsequent popular Canadian memes include Quebec’s Star Wars Kid and Alberta scene-stealing Lake Minnewanka squirrel. Learning from such memes, marketers have grown increasingly sophisticated in trying to create and benefit from such viral power.
Mafiaboy (Michael Calce)
When Michael Calce was 15, he brought down Web titans from his Montreal home. Known as mafiaboy, Calce launched denial-of-service attacks in 2000 against Amazon, E*Trade, Dell, eBay, Yahoo! and CNN. The resulting downtime caused damages worth up to a billion dollars. By so prominently demonstrating Internet vulnerabilities, Calce inadvertently spurred companies to take security more seriously. After serving jail time, Calce now works as a security advisor. Despite the passage of time, Calce warns users that the Internet is not substantially more secure than when he launched his hacks.
British Columbia made news in 2010 when it became the first North American jurisdiction to legalize an online casino. Regardless of such legitimacy, online gambling was already big business in Canada and worldwide. Central to this growth is gambling technology inventor and online casino pioneer Andrew Rivkin. His company, CryptoLogic, founded in his parents’ Toronto basement with his brother, provided the underlying software for many prominent gambling Web sites. Later, Rivkin co-founded FUN Technologies from Toronto with Lorne Abony, launching highly popular prize-based and casual games.
Born in Sarnia, Ont., Sid Meier is considered the father of computer gaming. In the early 1980s, Meier began by developing some of the first flight and military simulation games. His move into PC “god” games such as Civilization and Pirates brought phenomenal success. Meier does not rely on violence and instead offers compelling narratives, historical elements and strategy. Now a billion-dollar industry, gaming was an industry short on respect until Meier’s success demonstrated a lucrative market. Gaming studios such as Canadian-based Bioware and Ubisoft are indebted to Meier’s influence.
Online privacy hasn’t typically overly concerned Web site users. It also appears it hasn’t historically concerned companies either, until Canada’s federal privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, became the first such officer in the world to launch a formal investigation in 2008 into the privacy practices of Facebook. Stoddart pressured Facebook to make its use of user data more transparent and to educate users on its privacy settings. Stoddart currently pursues privacy ramifications of new technology, such as her commission’s recent investigations into Canadians’ usage of mobile devices.
The longer version of this list: Who's Who in Canadian Digital Media and Technology