A decade of memes, streams and data harvesting machines

The last decade has seen such a bewildering series of changes in culture, media, politics and every branch of the modern world, it’s bracing to consider just how and where these changes have had the greatest effect. From the proliferation of memes, the redefinition of celebrity, all the way to the corruption of elections, and the reshaping of music, TV and film.

As we break into the third decade of the millennium, here are five of the most culturally significant tech trends of the twenty-teens.

‘Internet famous’ isn’t a thing any more

While web notoriety was once a subset of more general fame, “internet celebrities”, be they professional gamers, YouTubers or Instagram personalities, are now just celebrities in their own right. 70 per cent of all internet use is devoted to streaming services such as YouTube and Twitch, and streamers such as PewDiePie and Ninja now make more money and rack up greater weekly views than any comparable TV or Hollywood figure.

 Such success has also spilled over into the real world, where Logan Paul and KSI ditched the Fifa tournaments and unboxing videos for two boxing matches which drew over a million individual pay-per-view punters. Meanwhile, established celebrities have used Instagram as a primary focus for their careers. Kylie Jenner is reported to make as much as $1.3 million per sponsored post on the social media platform, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian coming in or around the $1 million mark.

At the middle-tier, however, there are signs of a boom turning bust, as the saturated market for influencers, brand-engagers and insta-inspiration peddlers has begun to generate diminished returns, and concerns among YouTubers over ad revenue have left more than a few content producers wondering just where it can go from here.

All our memes come true

Memes have created some of the most enjoyable and spreadable content on Earth, but have also carved out a second life as a near-impenetrable vehicle for information, counter-information and disinformation. The frothy silliness of the meme format, once the most forgettable medium of entertainment ever conceived, has now created some of the decade’s most lasting cultural icons, and Pepe the Frog, This Is Fine, Distracted Boyfriend and Galaxy Brain have proved every bit as enduring as worthier cultural touchstones from decades past.

Andrew Knight holds a sign of Pepe the frog, a conservative icon, during a rally in Berkeley, California in April 2017. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Knight holds a sign of Pepe the frog, a conservative icon, during a rally in Berkeley, California in April 2017. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

It was perhaps inevitable that their power would be used for more dubious ends, as this decade saw the rise of political slogans and bad faith arguments becoming meme-ified by increasingly sophisticated social media brands. Memes of 10 years ago lived on wackiness or charm, be they Sad Keanu, double rainbow, or endlessly lamentable viral wedding dance videos. Fast forward just six years and anime figures and cartoon frogs were being weaponised as fascist propaganda on the world’s biggest social media platforms.

We used to laugh at dowdy politicians mangling cultural references to seem cool; now it’s so inherent in political discourse that meme techniques are winning elections and being taught in political science degrees. We’ve come a long way since Piano Cat.

Islands in the stream

The spread and consolidation of streaming TV, film, podcast and music platforms has created an unlikely paradox in entertainment. Cinema attendance and TV viewing figures have cratered, meaning the typical cultural reference points have shifted away from the traditional outlets and toward decentralised pockets of content; a development with which the established media has been slow to keep up. As you’ll have noticed after that endless spiral of dinner party conversation ( “Have you seen this show?” “No, but have you seen this one?”), choice for high-quality drama and comedy has never been wider, but audiences are more atomised than ever, with each of us living in our own bespoke islands of content. Regardless, producers are doubling down. Netflix is set to spend $15 billion on new content in 2020, while Amazon has freed up $1 billion for its Lord of the Rings adaptation alone.

Cinema, meanwhile, has increasingly become the home for blockbuster mega hits at the exclusion of all else, and Disney’s cannibalisation of Marvel, Lucasfilm and Fox means that seven of this year’s highest-grossing films came from the House of Mouse, not counting the giant takings expected for their Star Wars sequel The Rise of Skywalker later this month. In music, the effective monopoly of streaming platforms such as Spotify has seen listeners increasingly find their mega-hits in narrower circumstances, and truly mind-boggling numbers.

The inclusion of these figures in traditional charts has resulted in some eye-popping results, such as when ubiquitous guitar-pop gnome Ed Sheeran spent several weeks of 2017 with 14 songs in the UK’s Top 15. With blockbuster artists and studios making bigger impacts than ever before, and the rest scratching for relative crumbs, it’s hard to predict how the industry will keep any but the largest boats afloat in the decade to come.

Privacy has become a thing people care about . . .

As anyone who received an email in 2018 can attest, privacy became “a thing” this decade, as GDPR rules came into effect to stop people’s data being held indefinitely online. A storm of scandals – from Google and Apple’s maps technology tracking your every move without consent, to Samsung having to admit that yes, their smart TVs were listening to your conversations and, maybe, tailoring ads to your needs in response – brought privacy issues to the forefront.

While the idea of your TV trying to sell you lawnmowers and sanitary products is not exactly optimal, privacy issues really reached their dystopian zenith in the wake of the numerous scandals which rocked Facebook, and the near-endless vault of data they hold on the Earth’s population. In 2016, the data of 87 million people were harvested by strategic communications firm Cambridge Analytica; information which was then weaponised to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum – interventions which several sources claim were decisive in both cases.

The sheer range of information from our private lives now contained within the servers of Big Data, and the sophistication with which it can be wielded, should have made online privacy the issue of the decade.

. . . and also something they don’t

But, for all the news and opprobrium generated by privacy issues, more disturbing still is the fact that they don’t seem to have a lasting effect on people’s attitudes to their data or, more accurately, whether they should share it regardless. A Pew study from 2019 reports that most Americans are alarmed by data collection, with 72 per cent of respondents saying they believe that most or all of their movements online are being tracked, and 70 per cent saying they feel their data is less secure than it was five years ago. Despite this, less than a fifth report that they always or even often read the privacy policies they agree to.

A Viber study from 2018 reported that only 55 per cent of those asked would object to that data being shared without their consent, but, given the fact that said consent is usually waived away with the tick of a box at the point of use, it’s hard to see this as a particularly strong objection. All of which makes sense given the sheer amount of data people are submitting to their technological overlords, despite all of the concern so often invoked. Loss of privacy is, it seems, not just something we’re concerned about, but entirely resigned to.

 While the current generation of always-online consumers think they ought to be concerned about their privacy, we don’t always seem to remember this when it comes to using all of the services we like to use, and are seemingly unwilling to sacrifice the ease of the modern world to negate that risk entirely. For all our protestations to the contrary, like 1984’s Winston Smith, the twenty-teens have seen us win the victory over ourselves.

As much as we deny it, we do love Big Brother, after all.