By Jack Bratich
The 2010s was a decade of clashing tempos, where images of pasts and futures flashed before our eyes. It was a decade when naming the geological era was itself up for grabs (Anthropocene? or Capitalocene? Or Chthulucene?), though not everyone inhabited it equally.
Our vocabulary gained new (or newly dictionary-sanctioned) terms like post-truth, male tears, covfefe, alt-right, athleisure, misogynoir, alternative facts, manosphere, fashwave, genderfluid, deepfake, emoji. We did new things: microtargeting, photobombing, twerking, sh-ttposting, adulting, clapping back, hate-watching, sharenting, upcycling, ghosting, glamping, dabbing, manspreading and doxxing, while clocking new figures like the lumbersexual, incel, VSCO girl, cuckservative, anti-vaxxer and Stan. This entire essay could be a listicle of these words, but that would need a TL;DR.
Other words gained new meanings: snowflake became an insult. ICE split up families and put kids in camps. They now referred to nonbinary individuals. A stream was more than a waterway, though you could catch Catfish in it. We binged media, not just food (we’re still learning to purge media, though we did envision The Purge).
The decade started with signs of economic growth after a dramatic downturn. Not all were content with “green shoots” (or astroturf?). Some fed-up folks occupied Wall Street with an urgent sense that another world was emerging. The subsequent police crackdown had no such future in mind. Black Lives Matter reminded us that any future requires survival. These eruptions marked moments in a cycle that preceded (the Arab Spring) and post-dates them (see the news from India, Chile, France, Lebanon, Hong Kong and Iran).
Feminism became popular but so did misogyny’s backlash. #Metoo collectivized past and present traumas to prevent a future that would repeat them. Now that ancient torch is taken up by an international protest wave against femicide.
A planetary movement rebelled against extinction, while “natural” disasters piled up so quickly we scrambled to figure out the best ways to represent climate catastrophe.
The 2010s’ second half felt accelerated — a rapid-fire barrage of breaking news, outrageous tweets and outraged posts. Remember all the events Billy Joel listed in his apocalyptic song? They became bullet points in your “News you might have missed” Weekend Digest (that you also missed).
Social media refined its core operations: simultaneously connecting and dividing, always putting the social in quotation marks. The vestigial tic-tac-toe phone button became the symbol for all things shareable. Our memes became dank. Corporate platforms treated users as guinea pigs. Alexa and Siri trained us to think our watchers were our servants.
Time is now measured in TikTok, where cringey gestures and goofball mimicry provide an antidote to a harsh world. Data got big, huuuge even. So did the bank accounts of the tech companies that could gather, scrape and algorithmically process the info. Steve Jobs died but sh– jobs blossomed, thanks to, let’s call it, Tech Exploited Mobile Piecemeal (TEMP) work.
Where would this decade be without the frenzy over all things fake? “Faking It” was an object of grave concern (unless it was an MTV show or career mantra). Our fakes got deep. Even Fakebook, err Facebook, warned us that fake accounts weren’t our friends (after encouraging us to filter our faces). Now there’s Facebook Dating, which we know is how real people present their real selves. A U.S. president entered office waging war on fake news while building a career on entertainment wrestling, reality TV and fraud.
Social media took Americans’ penchant for persuasion and created its avatar: the influencer. These micro-celebrities fed their passion, lived their best lives, and disseminated inspo messages to do what you love, yet the influenced (and most of their inspirers) had to hustle just to make a living and feed themselves. Burnout became ordinary, no longer reserved for rock legends, care workers, and air traffic controllers. Marketers were ready for the crash (anyone still need tix to Fyre Festival?), now promoting flaws and “relatability” as the new authenticity.
The decade saw new kinds of wars, accompanied by long-standing ones: cyberwar, hybrid war, The Great Meme War, War on Women, War on Truth, LikeWar, @War, InfoWars, Infinity War, even a late stage war on democracy.
Familiar wars returned as ghosts and vaporwaved myths. The Cold War revived, replacing the Soviet Fifth Column with Russian bots and meme farms. The U.S. Civil War resurrected via inconsolable protectors of the Confederacy’s phantoms-cum-statues. Tiki torch mobs revived Crusader-era fears, like cosplay conventions for ruined empires, and even a late stage open war on democracy.
A Decade of the Dead. Mass shootings increased and expanded to new staging grounds: an elementary school, a cinema, a church, a mosque, military installations, a concert venue, a synagogue, a Walmart, a nightclub. Suicide rates for young people skyrocketed along with “deaths of despair,” especially the gut-wrenching rise of opioid-induced deaths. Too many young people left instead of seeing and creating a future.
Being filled with uncertain, anxiety-instilling futures resulted in a desperate need to chill. Endless streaming music playlists appeared to satisfy such cravings; it even became a sexual metaphor (prefaced by a streaming service).
Millennials apparently killed everything while GenZ became teenagers. Both promptly gave Boomers a sardonic O.K. (not to be confused with the white supremacist OK).
Boomers and others hardened their identity through online fortresses. Meanwhile, youngsters gravitated toward the ephemeral, drifting through memes, Snaps, Vines, and TikToks. Once-solid possessions like cars, homes, clothes and furniture melted into the air of the micro-rental (misnamed the “sharing economy”).
Is this non-possessiveness only poverty-driven? Why not glimpse in this will-to-transience a collective wish to feel this world leaving? Many saw their millennial siblings fall apart while chasing self-branded perfection and nonexistent quality jobs. So maybe they don’t want that future, preferring to dismiss its promises with “thank u, next.”
On Dec. 12, 2019, two starkly contrasting futures presented themselves. Greta Thunberg was named Time’s Person of the Year while Brexiteering Boris Johnson and the Tories won a landslide victory. Both want to survive. One seeks to prevent extinction by expanding connections across nations, cultures, and peoples — a declaration of interdependence. The other sees the Great Replacement and fixates on national borders in a frantic, self-sabotaging fantasy of independence.
Global protests currently ignite and spread the fires that forge the future. Those fires can fight other fires, like the flames fanned by fascism. A fire can be a welcome abolition of old growth, clearing the way for new generation. An end of the world as we know it, not the only one that has been or could be. At the end, as bells chime, a future flashes before our eyes. It’s another world and the past flashes before its eyes — it sees the 2010s as the decade when the future was starkly, finally, irrevocably, at stake. Do you feel fine yet?
Jack Bratich is an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s School of Communication and Information.
The Star-Ledger/NJ.com encourages submissions of opinion. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at NJ.com Opinion. Get the latest news updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.