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The decade, explained

From Instagram to the rise of strongmen, these were the era’s 23 defining moments.

A collage of the White House, a Facebook protest, Amazon boxes, and other images from the 2010s. Graphics: Zac Freeland/Vox, Photos: Getty Images

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Part of the Decade Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

When Vox’s editors sat down this fall to determine which events of the 2010s have reshaped who we are, we knew one thing for sure: The election of Donald Trump tugged us toward opposite poles. It unnerved us. But many other, perhaps more subtle shifts had made it possible.

So much happened this decade that it birthed a running joke: A month now feels like a year, or maybe a week — it’s hard to say anymore. In particular, the past three years have, like so many members of the Trump administration, come and gone at a dizzying pace.

But the true milestones of the 2010s have had long arcs: We took our first Uber rides. We shared our first belfies on Instagram. We started talking about systemic inequality, and canceled some objectively terrible men.

There were disappointments, too. Thanks to the seemingly narcotic grip of social media, we stood idly by as disinformation ushered in mistrust of medicine and trust in cruel strongmen. Climate change worsened. Children died — many of them — but we never could get our act together on guns.

Being on the brink of a new decade provides a certain clarity, even amid so much tectonic change. These are moments of the 2010s that broke through the noise.

The “gig economy” was born, and it seemed so promising ... at first

“If you live in San Francisco and you haven’t tried UberCab yet, do it,” reads one of the many glowing articles written about Uber around its debut in summer 2010.

The app was revolutionary, eliminating the hassles of trying to get a ride in a city where people had long complained there weren’t enough taxis on the streets, and where tech elites were happy to pay 1.5 times a normal cab fare for the convenience.

In the following years, Uber fought for — and ultimately won — the right to operate in city after city. The company’s bold defiance of the law, and its all-out war against the entrenched taxi industry, defined the company’s narrative for the next decade. As it became the market leader of the gig economy, joined by peers such as Lyft and Airbnb, the baggage associated with it grew. In 2017, its founder and CEO resigned in disgrace after a series of scandals over the company’s harassment of female employees, hard-partying culture, and public disregard of drivers’ concerns.

Now, California’s new AB 5 law could force Uber to provide an hourly wage and full employment benefits to its tens of thousands of drivers in the state, potentially threatening not just its business model, but that of the entire gig economy, which, many argue, succeeded for too long at workers’ expense. Uber transformed the way 75 million people around the world get around. Now, it lies at the heart of the debate over the future of work for millions more.

—Shirin Ghaffary

Instagram killed our sense of reality

On July 16, 2010, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom uploaded the first photograph to the platform (which had launched in October). It’s of a stray dog he met in Mexico, sort of blurry with a blueish filter, and altogether not exactly a sparkling example of great photography. The caption: “test.”

A decade later, Instagram has altered the human digital experience as we know it, democratizing fame and birthing a new creative class — influencers — who would change consumer culture and the nature of celebrity. Now with more than a billion users worldwide, Instagram is facing an existential question: How should we view an app whose perfectly curated aesthetic makes its users feel depressed and anxious? Those retro filters that were once the defining characteristic of Instagram have, in the decade since Systrom’s post, bled into a full-on assault against “authenticity,” from FaceTune to fake followers, so that people increasingly believe that what they see isn’t real — on Instagram and IRL, too.

—Rebecca Jennings

A revolution proved contagious

A 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest the casual cruelty and unchecked authority of the rich and well-connected.

His desperate act of defiance sparked nationwide uprisings that spurred Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country. Inspired, protesters in Egypt took to the streets to demand that their own longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, step down. (After 18 days of protests, he did.) The Arab Spring, as it came to be known, was contagious: Within a year, two more dictators fell — Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen — and pro-democracy uprisings had broken out across North Africa and the Middle East.

A fragile democracy was born in Tunisia. But elsewhere, the Arab Spring proved much bloodier: It produced a brutal counterrevolution and coup in Egypt, a devastating civil war in Syria (which helped give rise to ISIS), a civil war in Libya, and the war in Yemen. These conflicts have killed hundreds of thousands, produced millions of refugees, and rage on to this day.

Jennifer R. Williams

Occupy Wall Street changed the way we talk about wealth

In September 2011, around 1,000 people gathered in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to protest the rich. It was a couple years after the Great Recession, and the banks responsible had gone largely unpunished. “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out,” chanted demonstrators. Afterward, those remaining stayed for the night, erecting an illegal camp that would last for roughly two months.

Occupy Wall Street, which inspired protests in 951 cities in 82 countries, would grow into one of the most consequential movements of the decade.

“We are the 99%,” Occupy’s slogan against the billionaire class, became campaign language for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and later, Elizabeth Warren. It would influence labor and underpin a national $15 minimum wage fight, advance the narrative around student debt and the notion of free college, and create a sea of savvy organizers across movements.

For years afterward, it was cast as disorganized and lacking a coherent message. Today, it’s clear that Occupy helped to shift American left-wing politics toward a more radical class struggle.

Karen Turner

A TV show killed off its hero — nine episodes in

Longtime fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books knew what was coming when the sentencing of Ned Stark began in “Baelor,” the ninth episode of Game of Thrones. But those who were only familiar with the TV show were caught entirely off guard in 2011 when its protagonist was sentenced to death by spiteful and sociopathic teen king Joffrey.

Ned’s shocking beheading transformed the entire TV industry, which soon became addicted to big moments and reveals, sometimes effectively (as with Game of Thrones’ own blood-drenched Red Wedding a few seasons later) and sometimes less so (as when House of Cards’ Frank Underwood pushed a main character in front of a train). By decade’s end, it had become a common practice for diehard TV fans to try to outguess shows, thanks to a cottage industry of badly deployed twists that made less sense the more you thought about them.

Emily VanDerWerff

Streaming gave us a world of music, at the expense of musicians

Swedish streaming startup Spotify’s US launch in 2011 placed it in a market crucial for the company and for artists, and it would quickly come to dominate music streaming.

Instantly, everything about modern music seemed obsolete: After years of illegal downloading, the notion that music must be purchased was totally gutted. Pop stardom was also democratized as artists, including Cardi B, found audiences without the machinery of record stores and radio plays. Even the charts didn’t make sense anymore: A new math to calculate streams as “sales” had to be devised.

But Spotify’s lasting legacy may be that it has paid artists a fraction of what physical music sales earned them before — a fraction of a penny per song, in fact setting off a war with artists: In 2014, Taylor Swift was the first major star to pull her music from the service, arguing in the Wall Street Journal that “music should not be free.” (Rapper Jay-Z followed, moving his solo music to his own service, Tidal, and promising artists more compensation.) Swift eventually returned, but as the once-mighty industry tries to recover from the disruption, it’s clear the war over what music is worth is hardly over.

—Lavanya Ramanathan

A photo illustration featuring a marijuana leaf.

States saw green

When Colorado and Washington state voters opted to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012, they provided a model not only for how other states might pack their coffers with tax and tourism dollars (Colorado says it has reaped more than $1 billion in taxes since sales began in 2014), but also for how they could undo the legacies of the drug war.

The result? As the decade ends, 11 states and DC have now legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Gummies, giggly adult dinner parties and “Cali sober” lifestyles are markers of a weed culture that has gone mainstream, and now we’re reconsidering our long-held beliefs about LSD, ecstasy, even ketamine.

But the handwringing over marijuana is hardly over: While the new “green goldrush” has attracted speculators from Silicon Valley to cosmetics companies and Big Pharma, critics say black entrepreneurs are increasingly shut out.

Some states, including Colorado, report that marijuana arrests still predominantly affect people of color. And data from the nearly 900 people affected this year in a spate of vaping illnesses and deaths suggest unregulated THC vape cartridges may have been at fault — a sign the combination of spotty legalization and growing interest has helped a dangerous black market thrive. Legalization was supposed to move us in a progressive direction. It’s also revealed how much we have left to sort out.

—Lavanya Ramanathan

Women became a target for simply being online

Two years before Gamergate systemized misogynistic online harassment, a modest Kickstarter campaign became a lightning rod — and predicted all that Gamergate would become.

Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian had spent several years making a YouTube series for Bitch magazine called Tropes vs Women, which examined sexist narrative tropes across pop culture. But in 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign for a subseries focusing on video games, and unearthed a new kind of hell.

Male gamers harassed Sarkeesian online and in person, sent bomb threats to schools she spoke at, and doxxed and threatened her into fleeing her house for weeks. Since then, Pew has confirmed what Sarkeesian’s ordeal already taught us: Women are twice as likely as men to report being targeted due to gender. And without a clear idea of how to fight it, aggression that intense could only scale up.

Aja Romano

Children were killed in a school shooting. And another. And another.

The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six adults dead felt so appalling that many hoped it would spark “meaningful action.” It has not. The number of school shootings has only risen: In 2018, there were nearly 30, more than three times the number in 2012.

Instead, the tragedy ushered in the era of heightened school security and mass shooter training for students as young as 5. Public awareness of the deadly capacity of high-powered rifles grew. Relatives of the victims pushed for gun legislation reform, and last month, the Supreme Court cleared the way for them to sue the makers of the AR-15-style rifle that was used by the shooter.

The shooting also marked the start of an increasingly politicized, “thoughts and prayers” response from politicians. That apathy inspired the survivors of the next major school massacre: Six years later, when a shooter would kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students would take to the streets, taking the demands for change into their own hands.

Karen Turner

An epidemic went global

Ebola was once a rare disease, relegated to remote and rural areas in Africa, affecting only a couple thousand people since it was discovered in 1976. Everything changed in December 2013: A 2-year-old boy picked up Ebola from bats in a Guinean town that borders Sierra Leone and Liberia, and what was a small outbreak snowballed into the world’s first Ebola epidemic.

By the time the epidemic was declared over in 2016, it had spread to seven more countries, often through air travel, and took the lives of more than 11,000 people — making it the largest epidemic in history. As humans have urbanized and travel and trade have increased, any pathogen can quickly become a pandemic threat, meaning hospitals have to be prepared for emerging pathogens such as Ebola and vaccines have to be ready for development. Seeing a once rare virus move that far changed how we respond to emergencies, and how people think about the health risks of our globalized world.

—Julia Belluz

A photo illustration featuring protestors wearing stickers over their mouths that read “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe,” and millions watched in horror

It’s been more than five years since a video of the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of a white New York police officer went viral, and his gasps of “I can’t breathe,” all 11 of them, are no less haunting. Protesters took to the streets in cities across the country, chanting Garner’s last words; a few weeks later, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the dissent escalated, continuing for days.

In the following years, the deaths of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and many others killed by police violence received national attention, thanks to activists, social media, and cellphone footage that made evident the unjustifiable actions of police officers. While there has been no shortage of racist police violence in America, footage of Garner’s death as he was accused of nothing more than selling loose cigarettes galvanized a building movement around black lives. It also forced a sheltered swath of America to face what people of color have always known: That dark skin alone can get you killed.

—Jessica Machado

Serial convinced everyone they need a podcast

In 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood all but created the true crime genre. And then, in 2014, This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig decided the case of a Baltimore high school student convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend needed a second look, and reinvented the form.

With its high production values, real-time episodes, and personable style, Serial transformed podcasting. It single-handedly created podcast junkies, set off an explosion of growth in the industry, earwormed listeners with piano jingles (you’re welcome, Succession), and spawned endless parodies.

Serial also changed true crime. Before it, serious deconstruction of individual cases was relegated to niche internet forums or the occasional prestige documentary. After Serial, everyone was a web sleuth, and every crime documentary was an event, renewing interest in cases such as those of Amanda Knox, Making a Murderer’s Brendan Dassey, and Curtis Flowers.

Though Serial’s first-season subject Adnan Syed remains behind bars, its investigation of his case has undeniably affected our notion of justice — and what a podcast can do.

Aja Romano

The GOP took a surprising hard-right turn

Virginia Republican Eric Cantor was the No. 2 guy in the House in 2014 when he was unexpectedly chucked out in the primary in favor of Dave Brat — a Tea Party-backed non-politician — over the vague sense that Cantor and the rest of the GOP leadership weren’t conservative enough and were soft on immigration. That loss, the first for a sitting House majority leader since the position was created more than a century earlier, was a sign of the increasingly anti-establishment minds of Republicans and the hardening of partisan stances — a harbinger of the Trumpening to come.

—Caroline Houck

A joke called out a powerful man, and women did the rest

Allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby had been public for years, yet the actor continued to get adoring treatment in the press.

Then, in 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress started telling audiences a joke, which contrasted Cosby’s squeaky clean image with a series of assaults he’d been accused of — “I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns,” Buress said. It went viral, triggering widespread media coverage. The bit drew attention to other beloved men whose alleged sexual misconduct went ignored for decades, paving the way for a reexamination of the careers of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, and more.

Meanwhile, women began speaking out about their experiences with powerful men. In 2017, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and producer Harvey Weinstein lost their jobs after public allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Soon, the Me Too movement led to accusations against hundreds of other powerful men from multiple industries.

The fact that the allegations against Cosby (who was eventually convicted of sexual assault in 2018) only became front-page news when they were questioned by a man was not lost on many women. But part of the impact of Me Too has been the way it forced many men to think about sexual assault. Perhaps Buress helped pave the way for this recognition, helping men hear what they’d long been able to ignore.

—Anna North

A photo illustration featuring Caitlyn Jenner wiping away a tear.

A star moved the needle on trans acceptance (but it was so problematic)

The mid-2010s were a watershed moment for trans identities in the US. The presence of Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black and the show Transparent introduced trans narratives to American television in a way they never had been before, and even the cover of Time magazine celebrated “the transgender tipping point” in 2014.

Caitlyn Jenner, a Keeping Up With the Kardashians star who had achieved substantial fame as a gold medal-winning Olympian in the 1970s, stepped into the middle of this conversation. In 2015, she came out as a trans woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer, then announced on the cover of Vanity Fair that her name was Caitlyn. Her mere presence as (still) the most visible trans person in the world made her a groundbreaker.

The moment wouldn’t last. A fatal car crash involving Jenner and her once-vocal support of President Trump — who has championed the rollback of rights for trans Americans — tarnished her reputation as a spokesperson in the trans community. The fact that she was the most visible face of trans issues in the US made transition seem like something frivolous, undertaken only by the rich. Her coming out marks, almost perfectly, the moment when the “transgender tipping point” tipped over into backlash.

Emily VanDerWerff

A made-up shopping holiday upended retail

With Prime Day, launched in July 2015 to mark Amazon’s 20th anniversary, the e-commerce giant set out to add another shopping holiday to the retail calendar — one that would disrupt Black Friday’s sales power — by discounting a vast array of products for Prime members, from groceries and Instant Pots to at-home DNA testing kits and “smart” home devices. Customers ordered a whopping 34.4 million items, and this year, they purchased 175 million more.

As discussions around the human cost of Prime’s speedy shipping have heated up, labor unions and activists have urged shoppers to boycott Prime Day specifically, citing labor rights violations and Amazon’s tech ties to the Department of Homeland Security. Yet Prime Day is here to stay: It has cemented customers’ symbiotic relationship with Amazon as a reliable destination for literally anything they might need, but it also hints at the outsized role Amazon will play in influencing our shopping habits, and expectations, in the years to come.

—Terry Nguyen

The world briefly shook hands and agreed to fight climate change

After more than two decades of stops and starts, and mounting alarm from scientists, representatives from 196 countries gathered in Paris in 2015 to sign an agreement on climate change. Critics argued that its terms were tepid and that it was destined to fall apart. But the Paris climate agreement marked the first time almost every country in the world agreed that human activity is heating up the planet — and that every country in the world has an obligation to act.

Today, many nations are falling short of their pledges, and the US is now backing out of the accord. But the Paris agreement’s effects continue to be felt, having spurred a worldwide wave of innovation investment and climate research. Climate change has also grown in the public consciousness: A global youth-led activist movement has gained momentum, and politicians face mounting pressure for aggressive actions to limit warming. Though scientists warn that the prospects of curbing climate change have only become bleaker, the Paris climate agreement remains the best framework for global action to fight climate change.

—Umair Irfan

The Supreme Court swung right. Republicans made sure it would.

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, the stakes of a deeply partisan battle over his succession were set: President Barack Obama was constitutionally empowered to nominate his replacement, but in a presidential election year, Senate Republicans were dead-set on resisting.

Within a month, Obama nominated moderate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, hoping he would have bipartisan appeal. But Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, balked: The Senate would never hold a hearing or vote on Garland in the remaining 10 months of Obama’s tenure. Donald Trump would go on to win the 2016 election and nominate Neil Gorsuch to the nation’s highest court. With that, and the later confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, the GOP secured a 5-4 conservative majority for the foreseeable future that could make landmark decisions on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and much more.

—Emily Stewart

A bus, and a Boris, helped Britain vote “Leave”

The bus was big and red and plastered with a lie: “We send the EU £350 million pounds a week / Let’s fund our NHS instead.” Then, “Vote Leave,” the vehicle implored.

A strain of Euroskepticism had always thrived in British politics, but the global financial, European debt, and refugee crises gave it fuel. Then politicians such as Boris Johnson made false claims and the occasional racist appeal and helped take the idea of severing the United Kingdom from Europe mainstream.

In 2016, Britain narrowly voted Leave, defying expectations and a number of polls. The referendum was a precursor to populist victories that followed in democracies across the world — especially that of Donald Trump. But the campaign was also the testing ground for misinformation, social media manipulation, the allure of nationalist nostalgia, and for the entrenched polarization all that created.

Three years later, what the bus made sound so simple, has proven to be anything but. The UK is still stuck within Europe, the impending divorce instead cleaving the country apart.

Jen Kirby

A photo illustration featuring Goop founder  Gwyneth Paltrow.

Snake oil went mainstream

It’s only been a couple years since Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle retailer Goop started selling jade eggs for vaginas in 2017, claiming they could do everything from fix your hormone levels to help with bladder control. Since then, wellness consumerism has moved further toward the fringes of logic, and the Goop empire has expanded in influence.

A 2018 New York Times profile of Paltrow confirmed that Goop happily monetizes the controversy. It held its first health summits, secured a docuseries on Netflix, and launched a quarterly magazine, which will allow the brand to reach new and broader audiences. The jade eggs now feel like an omen: At a moment when science literacy is low and a deep mistrust of the medical system has seeped into society, shamans, crystals, and turmeric IVs are becoming the new normal.

—Julia Belluz

We considered unfriending Facebook

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was the world’s most lauded Harvard drop-out, helming a social network worth billions that had roots in a “prank” directory he coded to grade the attractiveness of his classmates online. (Dislike!)

Today, Facebook — with its own currency on the way — is much more than a social platform of 2 billion users (and growing). Zuckerberg helped forge Silicon Valley’s unique brand of chutzpah: a confidence that tech companies can, and should, do everything, while leaving regulation, privacy, and transparency an afterthought.

But the Facebook CEO’s infamous “move fast and break things” motto apparently included breaking public trust in his own platform, which we saw when news broke that the company exposed the raw data of up to 87 million unknowing people to Cambridge Analytica, a British political data analytics firm that assisted the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

When the scandal was exposed in 2018, it caught users’ attention — and Washington’s. But it was just one of many for the social media platform, which stored user passwords without encryption, allowed fake news to flourish, and even played a role in ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The list goes on. Remember when poking was the worst thing that happened on the site?

—Rebecca Heilweil

A photo illustration featuring Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Xi Jinping became China’s president for life

Both Democratic and Republican leaders in the US have long hoped that engagement with China — which has defined Washington-Beijing relations since the Nixon era — would encourage the country to become a more responsible player on the world stage, abiding by global cooperative rules as it gained strength.

But those hopes died on March 11, 2018, when China approved a plan to abolish presidential term limits — allowing President Xi Jinping to become dictator for life.

Now, Xi, 66, can pursue his nationalistic vision with few checks on his authority, even as he imprisons more than a million Uighur Muslims, rebuilds China’s military, enlaces its economy with that of nations all over the world, sides with brutal regimes, and challenges American power.

Xi’s rise underscores the global resurgence of strongmen, and his China may become the poster child of the worrying trend.

—Alex Ward

An eradicated disease returned, and it was all our fault

In May 2019, the US recorded the greatest number of measles cases in nearly three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By November, more than 1,200 people had been infected in 31 states, the culmination of years of lax vaccine policy in the US. Though 50 states have legislation requiring vaccines for students entering school, 45 allow exemptions for people with religious beliefs against immunizations, and 15 grant philosophical exemptions for those opposed to vaccines because of personal or moral beliefs.

The internet misinformation crisis has only fueled measles’ return, as anti-vax websites and groups have flourished online. The US already nearly lost its measles-free status this year, following several other countries, and may still be on the brink of a crisis with a disease that was successfully eliminated less than 20 years ago. The outbreak is proof that in medicine, as with so much else, progress doesn’t keep a straight line.

—Julia Belluz

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