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These are 30 personalities who defined the 2010s

16 min read


This story is part of The 2010s: A Decade in Review, a series on the memes, people, products, movies and so much more that have influenced the 2010s.

The first decade of the 21st century introduced us to sweeping mobile and social revolutions largely driven by names like Jobs, Zuckerberg and Bezos. In the second decade that’s now closing, things got a little more… complicated. During those years, a new collection of faces have joined the earlier tech titans to continue moving us into the future. Here’s CNET’s list of the top technology innovators and all-around unavoidable personalities of the 2010s.

A person wears a Guy Fawkes mask which today is a trademark and symbol for the online hacktivist group Anonymous. 2012.

A person wears a Guy Fawkes mask, which today is a trademark and symbol for the online hacktivist group Anonymous. From 2012.


PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images

Anonymous

More a decentralized collective than a personality, Anonymous was the name claimed by the loose affiliation of hackers who brought “hacktivism” into the mainstream. During the first half of the decade, Anonymous launched attacks against targets like ISIS, the governments of the US and Tunisia, and and corporations such as Sony and PayPal. The group’s tactics included distributed denial-of-service attacks that overwhelm a target’s website and knock it offline and compromising private databases to access and later leak confidential information, such as the personal details of members of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2019, the group’s prominence has faded somewhat — last year it said it would debunk the QAnon conspiracy theory — but concerns about hacking remain in the forefront, in part because one large collective of unknown activists put it there. 

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks during a livestreamed press conference on Thursday. CIA hacking tools described in documents released by WikiLeaks are actually a good sign, privacy experts say.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks during a livestreamed press conference in 2017. 


Screenshot by CNET

Julian Assange

The founder of online portal WikiLeaks, Assange had a mission to reveal the secrets of the powerful. It made him an instant hero to many and a wanted man to others (in May the US government charged him with violating the Espionage Act). WikiLeaks started the decade by publishing documents obtained by whistleblower Chelsea Manning between 2010 and 2011, and it supported NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden after he sought refuge in Russia in 2013. To avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape — the charges were dropped in 2017, but the case has since been reopened — Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remained for seven years. Despite its founder being stuck in the same building for much of the decade, WikiLeaks still managed to play a role in the 2016 US presidential election by publishing leaked emails that were detrimental to Hillary Clinton and the next year releasing thousands of documents showing how the CIA can hack into phones. The Assange saga is far from over, though. In 2019 he was booted from the embassy by the Ecuadorian government and arrested by London police. He remains in British custody and could be extradited to the US.

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GM CEO Mary Barra says the self-driving technology can help relieve driver stress.


GM

Mary Barra

The General Motors CEO became the first woman to lead a major carmaker when she took over in 2014 and has been consistently ranked among the world’s most powerful women over the past decade by Forbes and Fortune. Her tenure has been marked by GM’s push to keep up and even eclipse Tesla’s efforts to bring electric and driverless cars into the mainstream. The Chevy Volt EV actually brought a sub-$40,000 EV to market ahead of Tesla’s Model 3, and GM has also invested in ride-sharing technology to help ensure it stays relevant in the future. Under Barra, GM is also one of just two global businesses to completely do away with its gender pay gap, according to a study by Equileap.

Jeff Bezos on stage in 2018

Bezos speaking at an Amazon press event in 2018.


James Martin/CNET

Jeff Bezos

Even after losing a quarter of his Amazon shares in his divorce settlement in April, Bezos remains the world’s richest person, worth more than $107 billion as of this month, according to Forbes. Throughout the decade, he spread his money around, buying the Washington Post in 2013 and growing his company phenomenally. Amazon is now a vast empire that’s not only become the world’s warehouse, but that also encompasses the Amazon Web Services cloud computing platform, game streaming platform Twitch, a fleet of freight aircraft, music streamingbranded convenience stores, the Kindle e-reader, the Whole Foods Market grocery chain and a space startup meant to give Elon Musk and SpaceX some competition. Its Prime subscription service delivers goods in hours, and serves up a huge gallery of movies, TV programs and audiobooks. Amazon also makes plenty of products of its own, including its Alexa-powered home assistants and Ring security system, both of which have forced the company to respond to privacy concerns over its increasing expansion into homes. And the company continues to face criticism over working conditions and pay for its employees.

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danah boyd

danah boyd


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danah boyd

She may not be a household name, but danah boyd (who prefers to spell her name with lowercase) has become a leading thinker and researcher on the effects of technology on society and our children. In her 2014 book It’s Complicated, she argued that social media provides an important space for youth to express themselves and to engage with each other and with society. She’s also a principal researcher for Microsoft and has broadened her research to focus on the relationship between social inequality and technology through her research institute Data and Society. In awarding her its 2019 Pioneer award, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called boyd a “trailblazing technology scholar.”

Richard Branson at a Virgin Mobile event

Richard Branson at a Virgin Mobile event.


Josh Miller/CNET

Richard Branson

The billionaire magnate is willing to try just about anything, it seems. Branson’s Virgin brand has dabbled in everything from media to hotels to health care, and in the last decade it has also made some far-out bets. In recent years, Branson has invested in Elon Musk’s futuristic hyperloop transport technology and is working on Virgin Orbit, which could launch satellites using a combination of rockets and a high-altitude launcher plane. In the coming months, Virgin Galactic may finally begin launching tourists (including Branson himself) into orbit using a similar approach from the New Mexico desert. 

Kimberly Bryant

By 2040, there will be 1 million more young women of color with coding skills if Kimberly Bryant meets her ambitious goal. The electrical engineer and Vanderbilt grad founded Black Girls Code in 2011 with the goal of reaching 1 million girls by midcentury. That could transform places like Silicon Valley, where only 2% of women working in tech are people of color, according to a 2018 report from the Kapor Center. Bryant’s work has been widely recognized — by the White House, the Smithsonian and others — helping to bring in funding for the mission and increasing the chances that the next Steve Jobs is a woman of color. 

Mark Cuban at CNET's Next Big Thing panel at CES 2013

Mark Cuban at CNET’s Next Big Thing panel at CES 2013


Josh Miller/CNET

Mark Cuban

During the 2010s, Cuban became much more than just one of the billionaires from the original dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He completed his crossover to become a major figure in the worlds of sports, entertainment and even politics. Cuban’s riches can be traced to successful exits from old, old-school internet properties like Broadcast.com, but he’s since leveraged those early moves into a career as an NBA franchise owner, a TV personality (most notably on Shark Tank) and an investor in dozens of companies including Dropbox, Magnolia Pictures and Alyssa’s Cookies. He was even floated as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, but says he won’t run without his family’s permission

Tim Cook on stage at WWDC 2019

Tim Cook at WWDC 2019.


James Martin/CNET

Tim Cook

It was a difficult job to take the mantle after Steve Jobs died in 2011, but Cook has maintained Apple’s dominance over the past several years. Cook may not be the showman of his predecessor, but the brand is as far-reaching as ever. The iPhone still rules the mobile roost alongside Android, and under his guidance the company has launched forays into areas like the Apple Watch, content production, Apple Arcade and even finance with the Apple Card. While it might be a stretch to call Cook a gay icon (he came out in a 2014 essay), he’s certainly one of the most powerful LGBTQ people in the world, and his worldview has informed his drive to make Apple more ethical, diverse and values-driven, according to author Leander Kahney.

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A pre-beard Dorsey.


James Martin/CNET

Jack Dorsey

Assuming the role of Twitter’s CEO in 2015, Dorsey’s been the face of one of the most highly trafficked and often toxic online platforms. Over the past decade, Twitter helped give rise to revolution in the Middle East, including the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and also gave us the platform that @RealDonaldTrump has used more effectively than any other American politician to rally support and spin news events. Twitter has also enabled floods of hate speech, fake news and misinformation. Though the company has tried to combat them with new rules and technology, it’s only subject to more criticism when the regulations are unevenly enforced.  As he tries to guide Twitter’s central role in reshaping global media, Dorsey’s also CEO of payments company Square, giving him an outsized influence in how information and money move around the world now and in the coming years. 

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Jennifer Doudna


UC-Berkeley

Jennifer Doudna

One of the key innovations of the 2010s goes by the unwieldy name CRISPR/Cas9, and Doudna is a pioneer in its use to edit DNA. This new ability holds the potential to revolutionize biology, medicine, agriculture and other fields. Doudna’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley has also spun off a for-profit venture to commercialize CRISPR applications, and Doudna has also become a leader in the ongoing ethical discussions around the future of genetic engineering.

Susan Fowler at the Women Transforming Technology conference

Susan Fowler at the Women Transforming Technology conference


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Susan Fowler

The #MeToo movement swept through the tech world and other industries beginning in 2017, thanks in large part to Fowler’s personal blog chronicling sexual harassment and abuse within Uber, where she worked as a software engineer. The fallout resulted in a shakeup of Uber’s power structure and the demotion of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. Fowler’s memoir, Whisteblower, is due out in 2020, and she has a new role writing for the New York Times opinion section. 

Bill and Melinda Gates

This power couple has taken the money that Bill made producing the software suites we all love to complain about and turned it into a philanthropic empire. The $50 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured millions into global health and development efforts, as well as education in the US. Bill says the foundation played a major role in a drastic reduction of the child mortality rate, saving over 100 million lives. Bill has also stayed relevant through the reading lists he releases regularly, and Melinda debuted as an author herself with a book about empowering women around the world. 

Elizabeth Holmes in a still from the movie The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Elizabeth Holmes in a still from The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.


HBO

Elizabeth Holmes

Like Pixelon’s Michael Fenne (real name: David Kim Stanley) almost two decades earlier, Holmes serves as a cautionary tale for what can go wrong when the hype becomes unmoored from reality in tech. In the span of a few years, Holmes took Theranos and a never-quite-ready-for-primetime blood-testing technology from a subject of interest to one of investment, investigation and now, potentially Holmes’ own incarceration as she faces charges of criminal fraud

Steve Jobs

The decade began with Jobs’ introduction of the iPad in January 2010, nearly two years before he died in October 2011. Apple, whose iPhone helped change the way we live, has continued to be one of the most iconic and valuable brands in the history of capitalism. His legacy has been a topic of near constant discussion since his passing, including treatments in multiple Hollywood movies and major books from the likes of Walter Isaacson and Jobs’ daughter Lisa Nicole Brennan-Jobs.

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John Legere


CNET

John Legere

T-Mobile’s CEO could be the most interesting person in the wireless industry. Over the past decade, he’s masterfully played the role of underdog fighting against telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon. Nearly everything the exec does seems calculated to turn heads, whether it’s lacing a press conference with profanity, launching barbs at the competition on social media or dressing in the company’s trademark magenta. But Legere also produced results, greatly increasing T-Mobile’s customer base over the years, revamping the carrier’s customer service and bucking industry trends by keeping unlimited data plans. Despite it all, Legere’s future going into 2020 is uncertain, with talk he might be replaced should a pending merger with rival Sprint finally go through. 

Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick exits federal court after taking the stand during the Waymo v. Uber trial over allegedly stolen driverless car trade secrets.


James Martin/CNET

Travis Kalanick

The Uber founder embodies the success-at-all-costs mentality that has driven many other Silicon Valley success stories. He led a ride-sharing revolution that quickly spread around the world and made Uber the prototypical startup “unicorn.” But allegations of sexual harassment (brought by whistleblower and engineer Susan Fowler) and Kalanick’s own abrasive leadership style would soon see him pushed out as the company’s leader in June 2017, although he still retains a seat on the board. 

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk


James Martin/CNET

Elon Musk

Musk wants to save the planet with electric cars and solar panels, take us to Mars, connect our brains to computers and shoot us around the world in pressurized tubes at near the speed of sound with his hyperloop-creating Boring Company. Most of this visionary’s big visions are still in progress, but his credibility comes from simultaneously disrupting both the automotive and commercial space industries over the past decade with the success of Tesla and SpaceX. The world tends to watch his every move, which he often gleefully shares on social media. Musk’s tweets have brought him trouble, especially when they move Tesla’s stock price and invite lawsuits and the ire of the SEC or appear to smear a diver trying to rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave.  

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at the company’s education-focused event.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Satya Nadella

This Indian immigrant with a degree in electrical engineering turned out to be the right man for the job of making Microsoft cool again. Or at least making it cooler. Since becoming CEO in 2014, Nadella has helped increase Microsoft’s bottom line and make it a trillion dollar company. He’s overseen a transformation that has done away with the company’s cutthroat reputation, both toward competitors and internally, though in 2014 he apologized after making controversial comments about women’s pay in an interview. Nadella has also advanced forward-looking acquisitions in artificial intelligence, gaming and brand names like Github, LinkedIn and Mojang, creator of Minecraft. 

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Satoshi Nakamoto

Very few people seem to know who Nakamoto really is. The presumed pseudonym is attached to the person or persons responsible for the development of Bitcoin, which launched a cryptocurrency revolution that started slowly in 2009 but has continued to pick up steam over the past decade. A once worthless digital currency, Bitcoin has been valued at up to $20,000 per coin. It inspired the development of countless other cryptos and an entirely new industry around its underlying technology, blockchain. Although some have claimed to be the real Nakamoto and others have been falsely outed as the actual Satoshi, his true identity remains unclear.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sundar Pichai

Google has gone from “Don’t be evil” to increasingly having to convince consumers and regulators that it isn’t. When Google became Alphabet in 2015 and Google became its internet-focused subsidiary (including Android, YouTube and search), Pichai became the new face of Google as CEO. During his first four years, the Googleplex has continued to dominate everything from search to mobile operating systems to online cat videos, while making big moves with new hardware like Google Home and a fleet of Pixel devices. It hasn’t been all sunshine, though. Pichai has also had to navigate the proliferation of hate speech and disinformation on YouTube, deal with walkouts over sexual harassment allegations directed at Google executives and a criticism over a possible censored search service in China. That’s to say nothing of the James Damore saga over the company’s diversity policies. Still, Pichai and Google remain on top for the foreseeable future. 

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Zoe Quinn.


Zoe Quinn

Zoë Quinn

Years before #MeToo, Gamergate gave us all a preview of the widespread bad behavior and abuse by people in positions of power that would soon be exposed across a number of industries. Quinn, along with fellow game developer Brianna Wu and culture critic Anita Sarkeesian were among the first to be harassed and threatened by mobs of online trolls that would eventually coalesce around the #gamergate hashtag. It was an early warning sign of how bad things have become online. Quinn, who uses they/them pronouns, turned their experience and insights into the 2017 book Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate. They have continued to be vocal about instances of abuse within the gaming industry while also churning out new comics (for both Marvel and DC) and collaborating on indie games. 

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IBM CEO Gini Rometty


IBM

Ginni Rometty

CEO of IBM is another job title that doesn’t seem as cool as it was fifty years ago. But since taking over in 2012, Rometty has moved the company from dinosaur status to focusing on the future. IBM today is invested deep in nascent technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum computing. 

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Sheryl Sandberg in 2015.


Claudia Cruz/CNET

Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg has been the fresh face Facebook often needs when Mark Zuckerberg spends too much time in the spotlight. While she deserves some credit for building Facebook up to the global force it is today, her 2013 business and leadership memoir “Lean In” made her a household name. Facebook and Sandberg have since received a healthy dose of criticism for the platform’s myriad scandals ranging from privacy concerns to spreading misinformation, but they continue to stand their ground.

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Former Instagram executive Adam Mosseri, flanked by Mike Krieger on the left and Kevin Systrom on the right.


Instagram

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger

As social media scandals increasingly give platforms like Facebook and Twitter a bad rep, Instagram seems to remain the almost-pristine place for all our best moments, no matter if they’re earnest or fake AF, a la Fyre Festival. The disastrous music festival was promoted using Instagram and harnessed the power of its many “influencers” and the FOMO that it engenders perhaps better than any other platform. Systrom and Krieger co-founded the photo-sharing site in 2010 and the service was quickly snapped up by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion. Systrom stayed on as CEO through 2018, growing the service to almost a billion registered users over that time. While the platform has faced criticism over censorship in several countries and other practices like “shadowbanning” (in which posts are hidden from the view of others without it being apparent to the user) Instagram has remained relatively scandal-free compared to its parent company in recent years.

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Peter Thiel in 2014.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Peter Thiel

Like Musk, Thiel made his first big pile of money from the sale of PayPal, which he co-founded, to eBay in 2002. The hits continued when he became Facebook’s first outside investor in 2004 and went on to make early investments in Airbnb, LinkedIn, Yelp, Spotify and SpaceX, just to name a few. Over the past decade, though, he’s become better known for his political and social stances, particularly his growing disdain for Silicon Valley and his fervent support of President Trump. He also backed a lawsuit filed in 2012 over wrestler Hulk Hogan’s sex tape that ultimately bankruted gossip site Gawker, allegedly over a grudge he held against the site for a 2007 article outing him as gay. Thiel’s Libertarian views have also inspired projects like the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create a society at sea, beyond the reach of any government. 

Desktops are still alive and kicking, according to HP CEO Meg Whitman.

Desktops are still alive and kicking, according to HP CEO Meg Whitman.


HP

Meg Whitman

The former CEO behind the early growth of eBay is always doing something interesting. After losing a bid for governor of California in 2010, Whitman spent the first half of the decade leading and splitting up Hewlett-Packard into two businesses. After leaving HP in 2017, she turned her energies to new efforts focused on younger consumers than the typical HP customer. She’s now CEO of upcoming short-form video service Quibi and an investor and board member for Los Angeles e-sports startup Immortals.

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Zuckerberg discusses Oculus at an event last month.


Angela Lang/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg

The decade opened with Jesse Eisenberg playing Zuck in the 2010 film The Social Network, and in recent years the Facebook founder probably would have been happy to have an actor continue to play him as CEO. As we’ve debated the power of Facebook and how much it knows about us, Zuckerberg has confronted multiple scandals and sat for hours of grilling by Congress over the proliferation of fake news on his platform. Through it all Facebook has arguably been at the center of everything during the past 10 years, whether it’s role in influencing Brexit and the 2016 presidential election or the revelations that data research firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. Now presidential candidates talk of breaking up the social networking behemoth even as Zuckerberg hopes to move forward into the brave new world of VR with the help of companies like Oculus that it has swallowed over the past decade.

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