The 2000s: A Decade of Doom or Diversions?

Decade had 9/11, Katrina, iPods, Facebook and "celebreality." What defined it?

November 25, 2009, 11:42 AM

Dec. 4, 2009 — -- What defines a decade? Is it a moment? A story? A trend? Perhaps the method of defining is the most telling.

Regardless, it helps to first acknowledge that a decade is coming to a close, a fact that, for various reasons -- perhaps most notably the lack of an easily verbalized name -- may not be foremost in people's minds.

But a new decade dawns in less than a month.

With that in mind, Matt Sigl, a 27-year-old New York theater and restaurant worker, dreams of capturing the zeitgeist, "going viral" and becoming his path to blogging fame.

For more, check out's complete End of Decade section.

On his blog, "You AUGHT to Remember," Sigl details 100 of the decade's trends -- one a day until the new year, on subjects that include "the death of newspapers," "fauxhawks" and "reefer madness" -- the confluence of the legal marijuana debate and "Waiting for Godot"-esque stoner flicks.

"Someone who just has the idea nowadays basically has the ability with no bounds of entry to just start doing it at little or no cost," Sigl says. "I think that that is one of the main stories of the decade, the democratization of media for anybody who wants to participate in it."

Maybe that's THE story of the decade. Or maybe that's just looking on the bright side.

The '00s have brought us blogs on every subject, random thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, 10,000 songs in our pockets and piano-playing cats on YouTube.

But we also saw the Twin Towers fall, terror alerts, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the disputed 2000 presidential election and Hurricane Katrina.

We gaped at reality TV, Paris Hilton, celebrity meltdowns, sex tapes and balloon boy -- but also endured bursting economic bubbles at the start and end of the decade, and millions of Americans out of work.

The grim list goes on: the D.C. snipers, the anthrax letters, the Northeast blackout ...

Was it the digital decade? The disaster decade? The look-at-me generation?

Complicating matters is that history doesn't always correspond to decades on a calendar -- illustrated by the idea that, to some people, the "sixties" may conjure up 1969 more than 1961, and maybe even a few events of the early '70s.

Some argue it takes time and distance to understand what mattered most.

"A lot of these decades … have been named well after the fact," says Bob Batchelor, an editor of the "American Popular Culture Through History" series of books. "It seems to me it's going to take some time to decipher what the decade actually meant before we are able to put the name on it."

But waiting seems so 20th century, like when newspapers waited all the way to 1901 to celebrate the century's arrival.

Nowadays, we can't wait. VH1 launched "I Love the New Millennium," its year-by-year romp through the decade, in 2008, quipping on its Web site, "We love the 2000s so much we couldn't even wait for them to end." Batchelor's book, "The 2000s," came out late that same year.

"The time that was given to allowing things to breathe ... is gone," Sigl says. "There's no patience. Literally, if there's any market or interest in something, media will put it out as quickly as it can be consumed."

Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, agrees that "We behave in very different ways each hour of the day in 2009 than in 1999."

He and others believe the past decade may be remembered as the time when major technological and social changes went mainstream and changed the way we live.

"I think we're going to be referring to this as the digital age," he says. "When you think of it, YouTube falls right in the middle of this decade. ... The whole notion of texting and Twitter and Facebook has all been in the confines of this decade. And already, as we get to the end of this decade, we're starting to see that settling down."

As the new decade starts, "the actual opera is about to begin," he adds. "I think the actual preparatory stage has reached a sort of, maybe not closure, but ... we have a sense of what the landscape looks like. And most people have come to grips with what this future looks like. There are very few people who still say, 'Send me a letter, I don't understand e-mail.'"

Doubling Down After Y2K

Thompson argues that other decade threads remain open. For instance, the consequences the 2000 election and 9/11 -- such as the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan and on terror -- may continue for years or decades to come. And the recession blues continue through high unemployment.

He sees tighter focus around the technology story in a decade that began with the Y2K scare.

"This decade started in its very first second with the fear that planes were going to fall from the skies ... our ATMs wouldn't work, the whole grid would go down," Thompson says. "The first decade of this century ends with us having made a thousand more contracts with that devil."

"So much of my life, professionally and personally, goes through that Internet connection, and when it goes away it's very traumatizing," Thompson says. "That doesn't mean I think we should go back to the days of blacksmithing. But it's true: You lose that one connection, and its curtains."

Now, Thompson says, Internet personalities not only have an online platform, but a small percentage routinely pepper the traditional-media ranks of TV's morning show talking heads.

Sigl admits he and other bloggers wouldn't have been heard a decade ago.

"I think this past 10 years was the most significant decade in terms of social change ... since the 1960s," Sigl says.

Sigl also would have more trouble assembling his project years ago. But the same access to information that can settle any bar argument instantly with an iPhone connection allows Sigl to do most of his blog research "from my living room."

Add in phenomena like Britney Spears, the octomom, the celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and reality TV, and Sigl sees a second running theme perhaps bigger than technology.

"Everyone's a celebrity," he says. "I think the appeal of social networking is not just reaching out and connecting with your friends. ... You can read about these things as if you're in a magazine or something. ... It's narcissism of a kind that really has exploded this decade."

It's the "all-about-me decade," he says.

Others aren't so sure.

"I would say the all-about-me decade has been happening for a whole lot of decades," Thompson says, citing "Oprah," the 1970s "me generation" and even Sigmund Freud's "talking cure."

"I would say human beings are the all-about-me species. I'd say the technology has indulged that a bit more," he says.

Sociologist Lee Clarke: The [Fill-in-the-Blank] Decade

Though technology is a popular choice for defining the decade now, not everyone seems certain it will stay that way.

Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of "Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination," predicted in 2002 that the aftermath of 9/11 would define the decade.

But from today's perspective, with the post-attack mind-set fading and no subsequent large-scale attacks on the U.S. mainland, he doesn't think it did, in the end.

"You develop some emotional distance, some emotional calluses," he says. "I'm now teaching students who were 11 years old, 10 years old, and pretty soon I'll be teaching students who were 5 years old, and eventually 9/11 will be out of the memory of anybody I'll teach."

To future generations, he believes, the decade's definition may "depend upon what has happened recently. If we have another big disaster event, we'll go back and highlight the importance of Katrina and 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami. ... But if there's been a lull in events for awhile, maybe we'll say, 'Look at those investment bankers, they really brought us to our knees.'"

When revisionist historians look back, what will they call the decade when those terrorists, disasters and investment bankers struck?

When the decade began, we debated whether we were entering the 2000s, the ohs, the aughts, the naughts or the milleni-os -- and maybe we still don't know.

As the decade dawned, Alan Shusterman tried to provide the answer, co-founding a Web site,, that got more than 100,000 hits and produced a winning term -- "the naughties." But as Shusterman acknowledges now, the '90s called, and they want their name back.

"The sense that comes out of that was more of a '90s feel," he says. "The '90s were a sort of fun, light decade ... and I feel the last decade was a kind of somber, serious time. I think that name was a bit looking backward rather than looking forward."

Shusterman, who currently works as co-founder of the Web site, referred to "the decade" as well as "the 2000s" and "the zeros" during a recent interview. He still had hope in a 2002 interview that the first decade of the 21st century would get a definitive name by the time it ended, but now admits he still sees no consensus.

Some linguists, such as Allan Metcalf, a professor of English at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and author of "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success," don't believe a consensus name would emerge, arguing that some things just defy being named.

"I was right," Metcalf notes in an e-mail. "There still is no widely accepted way of referring to the current decade. That's because it doesn't fit the pattern of twenties through nineties. So there won't be a numerical name for the next decade either. It will be such a relief to get to the twenties!

"A generation name would be helpful," he adds. "But those are subjective and arguable. ... We'll just have to continue living under the burden of paraphrase. Somehow we'll survive!

We'll survive biologically, that is. Maybe not historically.

The Lost Decade

Batchelor, the author of "The 2000s," who will soon be teaching at Kent State University in Ohio, worries the lack of a common way to refer to the decade has significance -- and might even doom it to oblivion.

"People are eager enough to have something that we'll start talking about the teens when we get to 2013," he says.

Initially, he believes, the decade "is going to be defined by 9/11, the wars and then the recession," events that began during the Bush administration. But he doesn't think it was "the Bush decade," because he believes history will judge Bush as a "a losing president," and "I don't think people want to put a loser label on it."

Though he believes individual events will be remembered, our nameless decade may fall through the cracks.

"I think there's a way people deal with historical information," he says, adding that a shorthand name -- like the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s -- crystallizes a historical period in people's minds and "elevates its importance."

"When Michael Jordan became Jordan and then Michael, it elevated the way he was perceived as an icon," he says, explaining the power of an iconic term.

"I just sort of see this decade going the way the 1900s did," says Batchelor, also author of the book "The 1900s," about the first decade of the last century.

"We remember individuals from the 1900s," he notes. "You can't look at the American century without looking at Teddy Roosevelt, but you don't talk about the 1900s. You have the assembly line -- jeez, the things that happened."

But ask people to define the 1900s period before World War I, and most draw a blank, he says.

"It's the foundation," he says of the opening decade 1900s -- and perhaps this century's, too. "It's the bricks holding up the rest of the century. But for a time, they're overlooked."

Add to that the here-today-gone-tomorrow aspect of the modern news cycle, and Batchelor is more skeptical that people of tomorrow will think about today.

"How do you give a name to a cycle when tomorrow's thing is going to be the new black, so to speak?" he asks.

Even so, there may be some hope for our decade as history takes further twists and turns.

"Perhaps in retrospect," Batchelor says, "if the millennial generation becomes the next great generation, then in retrospect, when they look back on their teens and 20s, which is now, perhaps that's how the decade ends up becoming named."

Sigl seems to see the possibilities.

"This is my decade, my generation," he says. "I think so much of what happened this decade and so much of what we'll remember is stuff created by my generation.

"I think this was our decade."

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