2014: The year that shaped social media
Jun 20, 2024

2014: The year that shaped social media

Ten years ago, the contemporary concept of “being online” was born, explains internet culture writer Steffi Cao. The flood of economic opportunities and online harassment that followed took people by surprise.

Picture this: The year is 2014. The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams is playing on every top 100 station. The Ellen DeGeneres star-studded Oscars selfie has just “broken Twitter.” The short-form video-sharing app Vine is still going strong, and millions of people are posting videos of themselves being showered with freezing water as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

As all of this is happening, a bunch of content creators in certain corners of social media are about to start making a whole lot of money.

Tech culture reporter Steffi Cao recently wrote in The Ringer that 2014 was the year that shaped the internet we know today. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Cao about what happened online 10 years ago.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Steffi Cao: Since social media’s first beginnings in the early aughts, it was really just a way for you to connect interpersonally with people within your network, right? If you think about the early days of Myspace, they were very much about your personal friends. And as things began to go viral, and you know, views began to surpass into the millions, multimillions, the billions, social media became a place for everyone to reach out to, not just their friends, but anyone in the world. The beginning of that you really see in the 2010s as more young people are hopping onto YouTube and Tumblr to create a brand for themselves, whether, you know, they recognized it or not.

Lily Jamali: Tumblr, there’s a blast from the past. Well, you spoke to several content creators for this piece. What did they tell you about the transition that they went through in 2014, from creating content for fun to really turning it into a career?

Cao: Yeah. it was really fascinating to speak with these people who really had no idea at all that this could amount to a career. So, I spoke to Tyler Oakley, who, of course, was such a huge part of the first era of vloggers on YouTube. And the way he put it was that he genuinely had zero idea this was a job at all because it really wasn’t before this. And so, as things began to get bigger and bigger, it became a game of trying to keep up with the ways that social media was shifting and moving. And it’s so funny to talk to people like Tyler and also Cassey Ho, who made a name for herself online as Blogilates and was one of the first fitness influencers online, because the way she spoke about it was that she still has no idea what’s going on with the algorithm. They still have zero clue how to harness the power of social media. But, you know, it’s always a game of trying to just keep up and put out content and see what happens. But for a lot of them, they all mentioned that the beginnings of them receiving money and realizing they could continue receiving money for posting on social media was in the early 2010s, specifically 2014.

Jamali: What was it about these influencers that prompted brands to want to connect with them, to work with them?

Cao: Absolutely. I think beyond just these single YouTube stars going viral, like Ryan Higa with his “How To Be Ninja” video being a one-off thing, you start to see creators really begin to build big followings that could rival top-end magazines that at that point might have been the biggest marketing tool for a brand. These influencers were tracking not just millions of views, but thousands upon thousands of people who were very invested in their posts. And so, I think in that era, you began to see more brands beginning to realize the power these people held onto. I remember watching old vlogs with Bethany Mota, and she would show us the toothpaste she was using or the body wash she was using. It was totally unsponsored, but just because she was showing us what she was using, people would go out and buy whatever it was she was using, even if it was, like, the cheapest drugstore mascara.

Jamali: We have to talk about the dark side of all of this too. Yes, people are making money, and the internet is more fun. But there’s also a lot of bad stuff going on with all this other good stuff. I’m thinking of hate-fueled harassment and Gamergate.

Cao: Yeah, Gamergate did happen in August of 2014, and I think this is also such a huge moment in internet history because this is the first time we’re seeing specific, targeted, widespread harassment movements online. Of course, everyone talks about hate comments and things like that. Doxxing is now a part of our vernacular when it comes to being online. And when I spoke to specifically Cassey Ho about all of this, she said that it was beginning in this time when she started to realize that these hate comments were orchestrated towards her. And it really got out of control because at this point it became less and less of an option of whether you were online or not, and the internet became more of an accepted reality.

Jamali: As in, you have to be on the internet? It’s not a choice anymore.

Cao: Yeah, it became more normalized. There were options to get your news online. There were ways to order food and to find jobs and connect with people, not just in an optional way, but in a very real way. A lot of work began to move online. So, I think at this period, you also began to see the hate that has always existed in our society formalized online. I think Gamergate was a point when I think many began to realize the power that the internet really held.

Jamali: So, as you were reporting this piece and reflecting on 2014, what were your takeaways? How do you look back on that year and where the internet was? Was it a better place? Was it a safer place? Was it a time when a lot of things were happening and maybe we didn’t understand the consequences that we’d be living with years later?

Cao: Yeah, I find this so fascinating because having reported a lot on the internet, people always want to ask me if I think the internet is good or bad. And I think it’s always so hard to give an answer to that because I just think that it’s a tool and it becomes good or bad depending on how much you believe in humanity. But I do think it was very illuminating to look back on the tools that were developing then, and we really had no idea what was going to come next for the digital world. And it was very illuminating to see all the things that happened during this particular year and in this era, that period. It does feel more quaint. Honestly, the internet is probably safer now than it ever has been. I remember when I was growing up, you could do whatever you wanted on the internet. There were no parental controls. You could just get on there and talk to any weirdo on any chatroom. Now kids know how to hide their identities. And I always tell parents that yeah, of course the internet is dangerous because the world is full of weirdos and really dangerous people, but the internet is objectively much safer now than it ever has been before.

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