It isn't overstating things to say that social media, smartphones, and streaming video have broadly changed American culture and the American psyche. Companies based in the Bay Area are largely to thank — and blame — for that. And as we close out this tumultuous decade, we are taking account of the impacts the local tech industry has had on the world in a short span of time.
Social media was one of the most impactful developments of the last decade, but it wasn't until the 2010s that we began understanding how it had the power to alter elections, relationships, and our mental health. Thanks to Facebook, we are now passively in touch with dozens if not hundreds of people from our pasts — or in some cases, everyone you've ever met and talked to in a bar — commenting on and "liking" each others' photos and life milestones, and never missing a birthday. Thanks to Twitter, those with a gift for memes and quippy patter can participate in a national or global conversation on nearly any topic — though mostly it's The Bachelor, Big Brother and sports.
In 2011, Instagram came along to bring us a new way of sharing photos — and a new way of being passively in touch with hundreds of people, including celebrities, with far fewer words. Then Instagram became a division of Facebook, and last year, the co-founders of Instagram took their leave — probably because they couldn't stand seeing their app becoming more just a division of Facebook with every passing year.
Also in 2011, Twitter was credited with helping usher in the Arab Spring — something that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems on edge about to this day.
In 2016 and 2017, we saw how social media could be harnessed for evil — by Russians, by neo-Nazis, by our President. And by 2018 with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the country was getting a more complete picture of how broadly and deeply Facebook had reached into our lives, turning us into strategic data points and micro-demographics. The 2020 election will surely be another proving ground for Facebook and Twitter — with the latter already having thrown down the gauntlet when it comes to political ads, for better or worse.
What is clear is that a huge number of people across the globe can no longer imagine a life without the apps, and without the ability to be passively or actively in touch with hundreds or thousands or millions of people all at once. Some of us waste hours out of our weeks scrolling through Insta feeds, fawning over strangers, fomenting envy for friends and loved ones. In the 2020s, maybe we'll get tired of this. Maybe social media will prove to be a fad with a shelf life. Or maybe it will just take new and unexpected and more addictive forms.
Like Facebook, the first modern smartphones arrived in the latter half of the last decade, with Apple ushering in the age of pocket computers that rule our lives. Life was surely far more boring when we didn't have a dozen games, a hundred apps, and countless news sources at the tip of our swiping fingers. But it was also calmer and simpler — and less incessantly connected.
If it weren't for Apple, another company likely would have led the way. Computers were already on the road to getting more mobile, and fancy cellphones and data networks also feel like inevitabilities of tech advancement that no single company can be credited with. But Apple's tech used to be so cute and quaint — remember the first iPod? the first iMac? Now it feels like our phones are vital extensions of ourselves, things to be stressed over if they're lost, or running out of juice. Apple wouldn't be the company it is — or the first to cross the $1 trillion valuation mark — if it weren't for the iPhone. But would we better humans — and ones who paid better attention to our kids, spouses, and pets — if our phones and our text threads weren't constantly calling out to be picked up?
In the next decade, maybe we'll all just be babbling at each other through Memoji and Bitmoji hologram avatars, and phones won't be necessary anymore. For now, you probably have a few texts to answer, and photos to comment on, so get to it.
YouTube and Netflix were different — and smaller — platforms before 2010. YouTube became the world's go-to source for Saturday Night Live clips and how-to videos after it was acquired by Google back in 2006. And Netflix started offering streaming video in addition to its DVD-by-mail business in 2007.
But both companies would be pivotal in driving a new era of content creation, with Netflix taking part — beginning in 2013 with its first original series House of Cards — in what way too many critics have referred to as a new Golden Age of Television in the last decade. Teenagers now, by some accounts, consume far more media from YouTube creators and their friends on Snapchat and Instagram than they do from traditional television sources — and it makes sense that our age of shortened attention spans have spawned new celebrities who cater to them.
We now take binge-watching — something that was formerly only possible with a stack of VHS tapes or DVDs from a long-since out-of-production TV show — as an everyday possibility. We expect to be handed TV series as complete entities to be devoured like novels, and the format has given writers new avenues for telling larger, more complex stories over years. Who needs books when you can watch weeks worth of a fantasy or drama franchise and get a similar degree of stimulation and satisfaction from it as you would from a Russian novel?
Rideshare and Delivery Apps
Bay Area companies like Uber, DoorDash, Lyft, and Postmates helped create the so-called "gig economy" in the last decade, and in the process upended the taxi and food-service industries for better and worse.
All the safety fears that everyone had when strangers started picking up strangers in their cars eight years ago have proven to be well founded. Though given the sheer number of Ubers and Lyfts out there, it may turn out to be that they're no more dangerous than traditional taxis were, in the final accounting — we just now have a single corporate entity to point to whenever something, anywhere, goes wrong.
And along with Netflix/Hulu/Amazon and DVRs, the food and grocery delivery app industry has given Americans more reason never to leave the house on nights or weekends. And provided a whole new realm of under-paying jobs for people who can't afford to sit home and have all their food delivered.
"Venmo" is now a verb, and Square has become a powerful force in the post-cash-register age, when anyone with an iPad can basically set up shop and start accepting debit and credit payments.
They may not be the sexiest entries into the world of contemporary tech, but fintech companies — with PayPal being the grandaddy at just 21 years old — have changed the way we pass money back and forth. And the coming decade is likely to see only more developments in this area via cryptocurrencies and projects like Facebook's Libra, even if Libra itself may never get off the ground.