The Decade in Review: Memes, Trolls and Smug Millennials

When the 2010s began, many had cause for optimism. Our recently elected president had campaigned on reaching across the aisle in order to inspire hope and meaningful change.

The mobile web made it seem as if the entire world was at our fingertips, and the companies behind this paradigm shift positioned themselves as benevolent visionaries intent on making the world a better place.

The new technological boom—Web 2.0, as some call it—helped to chase away the recession of the late aughts and usher in a new kind of media landscape. Twitter, Facebook, streaming video, push notifications and algorithms ensured we were seeing exactly what we wanted to see the moment we wanted to see it. What a time to be alive!

Then the bottom fell out.

Nefarious actors—both foreign and domestic, politically motivated and anarchic—regularly use the very technologies we once deemed so revolutionary to hack our bank accounts and spread disinformation. Even absent coordinated influence campaigns, social media has made us more siloed than ever before.

And on we go. If we can’t fix this mess, we’ll revel in it. To that end, here’s a look back at some of the trends that defined the decade.

The Decade When Reality Became a Niche

Did you hear about the lottery winner who shat on her boss’ desk before quitting her job? Or how the FBI confirmed that George Soros funded the migrant caravan? Both stories have gone viral, reaching millions of readers on Facebook.

And both, of course, are complete and utter fabrications.

The deliberate faking of stories to mislead or amuse is nothing new. But the advent of social media has proved the line oft attributed to Winston Churchill, that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Just a few years ago, the term “fake news” was meaningless. Today, according to a Pew Research Center study, Americans consider it a bigger problem than climate change, terrorism and racism.

Silicon Valley made it so easy to propagate false information and only recently began taking tentative steps to rein in the force it unleashed. But there’s a profit motive to maintain the status quo, which casts doubt on the lengths social media companies will go to make good on their promises. Facebook is free and generates revenue by selling ads, which are valued based on how many users arrive at pages. And nothing keeps users more engaged on Facebook than provocative clickbait about fluoride turning frogs gay.

But there’s more at risk than an uninformed electorate. While throwing the term “fake news” around damages public discourse here in the US, it poses an existential threat to people gathering news in Egypt, Turkey, Somalia, Cameroon and under other authoritarian regimes. As 2019 comes to a close, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are at least 30 journalists in jail worldwide on charges of “false news.”

The Decade of Memes as Mainstream Communication

The 2010s were the decade that memes became a mainstream form of communication. iPhones got built-in GIF keyboards. And any public figure who was snapped in a not so flattering light could expect to find their face plastered across the internet accompanied by a snarky slogan (think crying Michael Jordan or Elon Musk smoking weed).

The Decade When Tech Gave Us Hope

Online activism gets a bad rap for giving people the illusion that putting their name on a petition or signal-boosting a Facebook post makes a difference in the real world. But despite the slacktivism and clicktivism and viral awareness-raising campaigns, the internet galvanized some real movements this past decade. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter started with people on the streets, but the latter endured past its flashpoint with the Ferguson protests in 2014 by amplifying its message online. A few years later, #MeToo actually built up momentum through millions of coming-out stories of sexual harassment and assault and then poured into the streets at the Women’s March.

The Decade of Trolling

As 2009 rolled into 2010, we were entertained and outraged in equal measure by the upstart media startups who had mastered the new digital tools of storytelling. Platforms like Gawker and Vice tickled an entire generation’s cynical sensibility, getting a rise out of stuffed shirts and exposing the hypocrisy of political leaders in the process.

The Daily Show, which had long excelled in lampooning beltway bureaucrats, hit its stride, taking on a gravitas that scarcely could have been imagined when Craig Kilbourne first sat at the anchor’s desk.

But the sardonic, winking voice of publications like Gawker and Vice—which initially promised to root out the problematic structure of traditional point-counterpoint journalism—was co-opted by corporate brands, propagandist trolls and mainstream media itself. Comedy news, once primarily a tool of liberals, was adopted by conservatives, then by the far right.

In 2016, a man who launched his political career by trolling President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office of the land. Donald Trump is the decade’s biggest troll. A master of sticky, schoolyard taunts and brazen gaslighting, he continues to undermine norms and erode checks on executive power, dodging challenges at every turn with the troll’s familiar refrain: Just kidding. Why so serious?

The Decade of Millennial Self-Righteousness

Given that the oldest Millennials will soon be 40 years old, it seems appropriate that the decade would end with an increasing number of hand-wringing think pieces on Millennial Burnout, the looming ascendancy of the phone-addicted Gen-Z and the emergence of the patronizingly dismissive retort, “OK, boomer.” Turns out Millennials might be as self-centered as our elders would have you believe.

The Decade of Streaming Media

The past 10 years have been a particularly fast-moving time for the recorded media industry. Just as we finally gave up on CDs in favor of MP3s, traded in our DVD players for Blu-ray compatible machines and truly mastered our Netflix queues, everything was thrown out the window once more. The next generation of music fans will save serious hard drive space by streaming the majority of their music on services like Spotify.

Even iTunes, the Apple service that effectively killed compact discs, is being phased out to make way for streaming-only Apple Music. Fortunately, all that space we’re saving by donating our DVDs and Blu-rays will come in handy, since vinyl records continue to grow as an in-demand medium for listening to music at home. Go figure.

The Decade When Climate Reached a Tipping Point

The Doomsday Clock seemed to be ticking faster as scientists warned that the point of no return for global warming was quickly creeping upon society. California saw some of its deadliest wildfires in decades that left cities in apocalyptic ruins. While world leaders seemed to sit on their behinds instead of enacting greener change, youth—like 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg—stepped up.

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