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How the 2010s Technology Shaped our Teenage Years

How the 2010s Technology Shaped our Teenage Years

In the beginning of 2010, I was about to turn 12. I resisted the ubiquity of Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and Ugg boots. I upgraded my blue disc walkman for an iPod (either a silver Shuffle or an orange Nano), but still used the silver-and-blue CD player in my room to blast James Morrison and Corinne Bailey Rae. The Black Eyed Peas, Taylor Swift and Kesha were everywhere and I would soon have to learn the anthem of sixth grade, “Dynamite,” on marimba for a middle school band concert. Swoopy-haired Justin Bieber, thanks to the “Baby” video (including a Drake cameo), was about to steal the hearts of tweens watching on YouTube. I followed season 1 of Glee as it aired week by week. I was a nerd.

I have always been a bit behind technology’s cutting edge, curiously watching cultural reactions unfold. Now, 10 years later and six months away from college graduation, I’m alternately awed and nonplussed about how technology transformed while I grew up.

Pokémon Go brought gamers outside for a brief, shining summer. We were briefly obsessed with hoverboards that didn’t actually hover. Elon Musk tweeted about Tesla’s funding and was sued by the SEC, smoked on air with Joe Rogan, shot a Roadster into space and produced a rap single honoring Harambe. Transform, it did.

Attempting to create a relevant summary of the cultural impact of technology in a decade jam-packed with unicorns, stunts and scandals, I decided to write about the tech that fundamentally impacted the adolescent experience of myself, the 14 East staff and much of our audience. I asked some of our staff about the technology that shaped their decade and included their responses.

Here are the decade’s tech phenomena that changed our teenage years.

Snapchat, Instagram and the curated social aesthetic:

Instagram debuted in October 2010 in a world where compact digital cameras and smartphones were replacing film and disposable cameras in popularity. The app, designed for users to filter and share square snapshots of their lives, accumulated one million users in two months and 10 million in a year, according to Inc. When Instagram launched its Android platform in 2012 it was downloaded a million times in less than a day. Soon, pretty people who could perfect captions and appeared to lead interesting lives became early influencers, like the now infamous Caroline Calloway.

A year later, Snapchat launched as a mobile-focused, time-sensitive photo messaging app.

Co-founder Evan Spiegel wrote in the company’s first blog that contrary to Instagram, “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.”

Snapchat also quickly attracted users and added new features like 24-hour profile stories, video sharing, drawing, geofilters, Bitmojis, emoji status indicating streaks of daily messaging and a Snap score based on usage volume and frequency. Snap scores are viewable to mutual friends. A list of a user’s eight most-snapped friends, complete with emojis, is constantly updated on an individual’s profile.

Instagram parroted several of these features, and both became extremely popular at my high school. Snapchat was used to pass the time and keep up with your clique and Instagram was used to show off without input from parents or wayward aunts. Because they are visual mediums, Snapchat and Instagram are both ways to construct your image and be influenced by others. The presentational feed of Instagram especially inspires curation and is easier to build a following because it’s more public.

Dating Apps change romance:

Dot-com era dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony were popularized in the 2000s as internet use increased, pairing user profiles with specific people thought to be compatible. IAC, the holding company that owned Match.com, formed a conglomerate of dating technologies called Match Group. By last February, the group had acquired many dating apps targeted at young millennials, including Tinder, OkCupid, PlentyofFish and Hinge.

These apps expose users to more people at a time than a typical dating site and give users a choice on matches. 14 East’s Editor-in-Chief, Marissa Nelson, contends that these dating apps are popular because — like social media — they are fun to use and a way to pass the time. She started to use them when she entered college in 2015 to meet new people and made some connections.

“That’s a reason I think dating apps can be really helpful: they either introduce you to new people or show you that someone you already know is interested in you. No one likes rejection and dating apps save you from a little bit of it,” Nelson said.

Tinder, which launched in 2011, is both lauded and reviled for its reputation of promoting hook up culture, like its slightly older counterpart, Grindr. This might be because they present users with images and proximity first. However, Nelson thinks the service of dating apps depends on the app and the intentions of the users, noting that Hinge is geared for longterm relationships. Most dating apps have LGBTQ+ settings.

“I think dating apps are just one way we are evolving the way we live our lives with technology. Dating apps typically get a bad reputation for their orientation toward hook ups, but from my experience (and my friends’) people are increasingly using it for dating,” Nelson said.

Streaming and Competing — Netflix, Spotify and more:

Music and video streaming can be argued as the trend that most defined in the 2010s because of technological advancement and consumer need, but its legacy begins before that.

Netflix existed in a different form long before it began producing original content like Stranger Things. Many might remember using the website to rent newly released DVDs in the mail in the aughts. Initially planning on releasing a hardware box that could be used to download films, Netflix saw YouTube’s popularity and launched web streaming of TV shows and movies to subscribers in 2007. Subscribers could stream one hour of content per dollar in their monthly plan (17 hours for $16.99), until they made streaming free in 2008 to compete with Hulu.

I was on top of Hulu from the beginning, largely because I didn’t have a phone, iPod Touch or cable TV. The main way I could connect to the cultural world was through the family HP, and Hulu’s free streaming with ads was what 11-year-old Meredith could afford. Intrigued by the Alec Baldwin ad during the 2009 Super Bowl, I checked out the service, which hosted TV shows from NBC Universal and Fox. Consumers and critics were skeptical of the free model, but it gained traction. WIRED noted in 2008 that most consumers had broadband access, but many weren’t comfortable with pirating, making Hulu an appealing way to stream.

Netflix added over 23 million subscribers in the United States by April 2011 and started charging separately for DVD subscriptions and streaming later that year. Original content premiered in 2013 with House of Cards and Lilyhammer. I remember streaming Arrested Development on Netflix in my basement on our green sectional.

I used Hulu to keep up with episodes of TV that I missed or explore new shows like The Mindy Project. Hulu Plus, the original paid subscription plan, officially launched in 2011 and the company phased out free streaming in 2016.

SoundCloud, Bandcamp and YouTube all offered forms of music streaming before the decade began, but none were ideal for primary music listening. In 2011, Spotify launched free accounts with ads and paid subscriptions in the U.S. I learned of it sometime around 2014, at which point Apple was discontinuing my beloved iPod and Spotify was an easy way to share playlists with friends.

The appeal of music streaming is that it offers unlimited access and music range because the music is stored in the Cloud instead of needing to be downloaded, like iTunes or pirate sites. Spotify faced wide criticism for paying artists royalties based on the percentage of streams instead of one-time purchasing fees used for physical records or MP3s, as have other streaming services like Apple Music. Spotify, like Netflix, tracks user data and uses algorithms to produce recommendations like its Discover Weekly playlist. It’s now the dominant music streaming app with over 140 million users by 2017.

At the precipice of a new era, with Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime and more upcoming subscriptions of company-owned content, the streaming world might soon look more like a cable TV package. That’s why we might forever remember this decade as the Golden Age of Streaming — despite its many flaws, we had so much at our fingertips in so few places.

 

Consumer Data mining and privacy leaks:

With the advent of Cloud-based storage and increased use of social media platforms, people put more and more of their lives online in the 2010s. Now, personal data is more susceptible to selling and sharing by tech giants and vulnerable to hacking and manipulation.

Google and Facebook have the most well-known examples of leaked personal data. At the beginning of the decade, Google Buzz, the company’s attempt to compete with Facebook by using scrolling social media, left Gmail contacts viewable to the public. Google was connected to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) public surveillance PRISM project and failed to inform people when it discovered a Google Plus flaw that exposed private data of 500,000 users in 2018. It accessed the health data of millions of people through the Ascension network, also without telling the public.

Facebook settled the Federal Trade Commission’s eight-count charge of consumer privacy violations in 2011 with promises to change. The app allowed the data of 87 million users to be mined by Cambridge Analytica in the lead up to Brexit in the U.K. Facial recognition and tagging, false advertisements, lack of delete functions and access to Messenger have also gotten the social network in trouble this decade.

There were also some prominent hacks like Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Sony hack by North Korea this decade. Even LinkedIn makes most of its money from charging employers fees to see information on potential employees, according to The New Yorker.

None of this has caused usership of tech giants to drop, even though some of the results are scary. Edward Snowden kicked off the decade by revealing the NSA’s universal surveillance of U.S. citizens through technology, but people are still willing to buy home listening and filming products like Amazon Echo and Portal. Like most people I know, I’m worried about the extent tech giants know about me and the risk they’ll use or expose my data dangerously, but find these services too ingrained in my life to remove.

Podcasts Go Mainstream:

The true origin of the podcast is difficult to trace. Matt Schichter made his celebrity interview radio show The Backstage Pass available for dial-up streaming in 2003, before the term joining “iPod” and “broadcast” had been created. Adam Curry’s show Daily Source Code in 2004 was also a pioneer, inspiring more people to bring their best NPR voices to the web after Apple added support for podcasting in 2005.

I started listening to comedy podcasts my brother had found, like Comedy Bang Bang and Doug Loves Movies, in middle school because I could get them on iTunes. I remember learning what a bit was as I was doing my laundry. Though some of these shows started to break through prior to the decade, the 2010s is when they became a household name.

Jenni Holtz is our staff illustrator and former host of 14 Speaks, as well as a podcast creator (see: Gaywatch Podcast) and guest. They started listening to podcasts in 2015.

“I started by listening to them while cleaning or doing other monotonous activities,” Holtz said. “It was very sporadic and casual — I’d listen to an episode here and there but wasn’t devoted to any particular shows.”

In 2014, the minds behind adored radio show This American Life released Serial, an episodic podcast following reporter Sarah Koenig as she investigated a 1999 murder in the present day. As Sarah Larson notes in The New Yorker, Serial reached the top of Apple’s podcast chart before it officially dropped. It propelled a phase of true crime podcasts that hooked listeners. Podcasts like Reply All started using the immersive, conversational format to explore niche topics or trends that appealed to people because of their oddity.

“When I started working more and having less free time, podcasts started to feel like relaxing even though many I listen to are about horror movies or true crime. They became a comfort and way to keep from getting bored. Then, I started to listen to them on my commute and at work,” Holtz said.

When The New York Times started The Daily in 2017, many great news podcasts were out in the ether, but lots of news consumers weren’t aware they existed. People I knew who didn’t listen to podcasts started listening to The Daily because of the big media name and Trump aftermath, lending the format new listeners and legitimacy. Celebrities and other big names launched their own shows.

Soon, podcasts began to invade other mediums. The Los Angeles Times’ series Dirty John was turned into a series starring Connie Britton — my aunt just told me the show was great. Pod Save America and 2 Dope Queens both produced HBO limited series. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, Bronx natives (ah ah ah) and hosts of Bodega Boys, rose through the ranks of Complex and Viceland before landing a Showtime late night show where they have interviewed Megan Rapinoe and Chadwick Boseman. The McElroy brothers (of My Brother, My Brother and Me) had a six episode TV show AND landed voice acting roles in Trolls: World Tour by creating a podcast to campaign for them.

In 2019, two controversial magazine cover stories debated if podcasts were starting to burn out or pop. They noted the positives — the relative cheapness, the format flexibility, money making from sponsors — and negatives — the chance that no one will care or a show will get buried under hundreds of others. Whether the podcast market continues to grow or not, they turned casual listeners into committed fans this decade.

“I find that it helps me concentrate to listen to a podcast and at this point, I listen to at least 3 hours of podcasts a day,” Holtz said. “Often, it’s more than that since I play them near constantly, almost like background music.”

 

Vine to TikTok:

Vine gave my generation quotable videos, new voices of culture and a creative hobby that its creators never intended. Originally pitched to Twitter in 2012 as a video version of microblogging, Vine’s six second time restraint was thought to be akin to the character limit. Once the video looping service started being used, it became a place for goofy storytelling instead of mundane life updates.

Similar to podcasters, social media influencers, YouTubers and SoundCloud rappers, Viners were self-made but were focused almost exclusively on using the time limit for comedic advantage. Gabe Gundacker and Casey Frey gaining followings there years before “Zendaya is Meechee” and “Get tf out my way type way” were Twitter sensations. It also gave us Logan Paul.

Struggles to grow the audience, add new features, differentiate from other video platforms and make money led Twitter to shut down uploads to the app in 2016. Vine left us with some of the decade’s greatest memes that continue to proliferate on other mediums, along with “RIP Vine.”

Merry Chrysler” lives on as a holiday Instagram caption. Several groups of my friends who live together quote “and they were roommates” endlessly.

In 2017, TikTok emerged from Chinese company ByteDance as a new player to step into Vine’s shoes. They had already produced Douyin with the same model for the Chinese audience and gained 100 million users in a year. Two months after they launched internationally, they bought Music.ly, another lip-syncing/dance app with a large U.S. following, and merged their accounts in 2018. I frequently saw ads for both Music.ly and TikTok in the last few years.

Now, TikTok is Gen Z’s favorite app and has produced cultural moments like VSCO girls and dancing to toxic voicemails.

14 East Associate Editor and TikTok scholar Patsy Newitt has been following the app’s rise.

“There’s a level of it being a really good way to deal with and address issues that I don’t think any other app has ever really reached, especially with how tech savvy Gen Z is,” she said.

She notes that people can get called out on the app for being problematic, but she is also worried about its addictiveness. Much like Vine, people can sit and scroll through videos endlessly, but the up-to-1-minute format means that people are more likely to waste hours at a time.

“There’s an insane amount of subcultures that really thrive on TikTok and it’s become this awesome place to make connections,” Newitt said.

Adults have joined in on the app, with celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon trying to be trendy and establishments like the Washington Post using it both to produce memes and connect its work to a younger audience. TikTok, as a more recent trend, will likely hold popularity into the next decade, but for everything else, we’ll have to wait to see in 2020.

The New York Times wrote that the 2010s is “The Decade Tech Lost Its Way.” It’s true that there have been a lot of ethically ambiguous corporate decisions around tech and several start-up flame-outs in recent years, which are scary. However, many innovations supported public creativity, and many more are aiming to actually improve human life on earth.  As we move forward into the 2020s, people who have had broadband internet and smart devices for most of their lives are entering the workforce and beginning to lead. The 2010s teens may have learned some lessons about technology, but the world won’t know until we try to change them.

Header illustration by Jenni Holtz, 14 East