We don’t make a lot of lists at The Verge. We don’t make a habit of handing out awards, accolades, or unwarranted high fives. And we certainly don’t do it lightly, if we do it at all. If we’re going to tell you that you should care about something or someone, we try and make it count. We try and make it real.
It’s hard to remember a year as tumultuous, as exciting, and as surprising as 2013. This has been a year of revelations, disclosures, heartbreaking losses, and thrilling wins. A year of changes. But most of all, it’s been a year of the people — a year when it was never more clear that just a single person could change the way we all feel and think.
That’s the spirit that inspired the Verge 50. A desire to call out — to showcase — the people who changed our lives this year. Whether they made us laugh, think, act, or pause, these are the people in our world right now who are the prime movers. The leaders both in thought and deeds. These are the people who matter now.
So without further ado, meet the dreamers, the informers, the noisemakers, the entertainers, the world changers, the old guard, and (yes) the next wave that make up the Verge 50.
— Joshua Topolsky
“I’ve said I want to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
If anyone on earth said that you’d smirk, write it off, and move on. Anyone except perhaps Elon Musk, the South African-born billionaire who has made no small plans since earning a fortune selling PayPal to eBay in 2002. In the years since, Musk has spent most of his time floating preposterous ideas and making good on them one by one.
First came SpaceX, the commercial space venture that has landed government contracts, hovered a reusable launch vehicle over the Texas skies, and successfully docked a spacecraft with the International Space Station, all with the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. Space travel, historically the exclusive domain of massive government budgets, is suddenly a viable private venture thanks in part to SpaceX.
Speaking of expensive, entrenched industries with enormously high barriers to entry, there’s Tesla, the electric automaker founded in 2003. Tesla turned its first profit this year, beating giants to the market in the process with a mass-produced, all-electric family sedan.
But Tesla might be the tamest, least surprising thing Musk ends up doing in his career as a billionaire with big ideas: he recently proposed and laid out plans for the Hyperloop, an ultra-high-speed mass transit system.
Rockets, cars of the future, and a gesture-controlled laboratory all underwritten by a seemingly limitless supply of money? It’s no wonder Musk is frequently called a real-life Tony Stark.
“Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood,” Jeff Bezos has said, and in the course of his two-decade career he’s been plenty willing. Bezos’ company, Amazon.com, has since its founding as an online bookstore in 1994 completely revolutionized the way millions of people shop. The Kindle, which debuted in 2007, became the first explosively popular e-reader.
This year, while many of his colleagues took the death of print media as a given, Bezos spent money from his own pocket to buy the Washington Post. And in the face of unprecedented concerns about data access he launched Mayday, a next-level customer service feature that lets Amazon reps literally hijack your tablet.
Now Bezos is squeezing every last drop of delay out of Amazon’s supply chain, paying the Postal Service for Sunday parcel runs and promising an army of delivery drones in 2015. None of these ideas — e-commerce, e-readers, or faster package delivery — were wholly new when Bezos picked them up. But his singular vision, enthusiasm, and seemingly ruthless business acumen have simultaneously crushed competitors and created new avenues for huge businesses in the process.
Marissa Mayer shocked the world when she left Google in 2012 to take the reins at fading internet giant Yahoo. At Google, where she’d been for more than a decade, Mayer held many positions: engineer, product manager, designer, and ultimately member of the executive team.
In the year since she became CEO of Yahoo she’s jump-started the company’s product lineup, modernizing nearly every app and service that Yahoo offers while bringing on hundreds of talented engineers and designers through strategic acquisitions, including the $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr. Today more than 400 million people use Yahoo’s mobile products every month, and its stock price is up more than 90 percent year over year.
These successes are due in large part to Mayer, whose focus on building great mobile apps has helped to revive one of the internet’s oldest brands. And her work extends beyond Yahoo — she sits on the boards of directors for Walmart and Jawbone as well as Yahoo, and works with nonprofit institutions including the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is also the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to be featured in a photo spread in the September issue of Vogue.
Depending on whom you ask, Daniel Ek, the founder and CEO of streaming music service Spotify, is either saving the music industry or destroying it.
A Swedish entrepreneur who founded his first company at age 14, Ek was formerly the CEO of uTorrent, the world’s largest BitTorrent client. By founding Spotify in 2006 Ek says he was simply trying to solve an “annoying” problem, not become the head of one of the world’s leading music services. In the process Ek has found himself working with major labels to provide an affordable, reliable streaming music service on a truly massive scale.
Spotify, now valued above $4 billion, flourishes while its struggling rivals like Rdio and Rhapsody appear poised for extinction. Spotify’s services, beloved by its 6 million paying customers, are unsurprisingly controversial with music-makers. Ek’s next goal is to gain a dominant position within the market so he can negotiate better royalty payments for artists. Because while artists accuse the company of paying them a pittance for the right to stream their tracks, Spotify, even with all those subscribers, has yet to turn a profit.
In early 2013, Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer who’d turned to blogging during several Bush-era scandals, was a columnist for The Guardian. He’d written four books; much of his work focused on constitutional law and civil liberties in post-9/11 America. His work brought him to the attention of Edward Snowden, an unknown former NSA contractor who had secretly copied a trove of classified documents. Snowden’s next move — giving them to Greenwald, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman — changed both Snowden’s life and Greenwald’s career trajectory. In June The Guardian began publishing revelatory details of the NSA’s mass-surveillance programs — a story that continues to dominate headlines worldwide. Greenwald, a respected reporter but by no means a household name, was suddenly a very outspoken star.
Greenwald has used the spotlight to take American journalism to task — it’s failed, he says, in its duty to provide “an adversarial check on the most powerful political and economic factions,” and grown too close to the political and economic powers it’s supposed to monitor.
Next, with the financial backing of billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, he and other high-profile journalists will set out to restore passion and vitality to their craft with a new news venture expected to launch in 2014. With Greenwald at the helm, it’s unlikely to be a quiet affair.
Zaha Hadid is one of today’s most celebrated and influential architects — a bold and barrier-breaking designer who has earned a reputation for pushing her field toward more imaginative frontiers.
Hadid was born and raised in Iraq and has spent the last 40 years in London, where her firm is headquartered. She hasn’t been back to Iraq in decades, but she says it was the rolling dunes and Sumerian ruins of her childhood that sparked her love for architecture at an early age. Her career took off in 1982, when she won a contract to design the never-realized Peak leisure complex in Hong Kong. She soon became known for her curvaceous, sometimes logic-defying aesthetic. Her propensity for futuristic, spectacular designs proved difficult to realize at first, though the past decade has seen an outpouring of Hadid buildings across the globe, raising her to celebrity status in a field traditionally dominated by men.
In 2004, she became the first woman — and the first Muslim — to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and she won the Stirling Prize in both 2010 and 2011. Today, her firm has more than 950 current projects in 44 countries, including the breathtaking Heydar Aliyev center in Azerbaijan, Rome’s MAXXI museum, and most recently the upcoming World Cup stadium in Qatar.
As an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson has plenty of accomplishments to his name: he’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, an advisor on the US government’s space exploration program, and the recipient of 18 honorary degrees.
But it’s his role as the internet’s favorite scientist that has turned deGrasse Tyson into a bona fide astrophysics rockstar — one with upwards of 1.5 million Twitter followers, a radio show, and an upcoming role hosting the reboot of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. And while he may not relish the hyper-public profile, deGrasse Tyson tries to put it to good use. “It’s not my goal to do all that I’m doing,” he says. “But I feel a duty to perform this public service, and to help people realize that the fruits of science transform how we live.” With Cosmos now in post-production, deGrasse Tyson hopes to resume the academic research — primarily an analysis of data from the Hubble Space Telescope — that he’s recently been too busy to focus on.
Even if he steps away from the spotlight, there’s still one place fans will be sure to find him: on Twitter. “Nobody asks me to tweet, but I do it because it comes quite naturally,” he says. “At the rate I’m going, I could keep churning them out for decades to come.”
In the world of video games, Swedish programmer Markus Persson is a poster boy for the ultimate startup fantasy. In 2009 he left his employer, an established game developer, to focus on a side project. Today, that game — Minecraft — has sold more than 33 million copies as a franchise, spawned countless memes and merchandise, and even inspired a yearly conference called Minecon.
One of the most successful independent titles ever, Minecraft’s seemingly simple open world has had an unmistakable influence on the gaming industry at large. Persson — who goes by “Notch” — has risen to prominence in the independent games scene and beyond, commanding respect and reverence at major events like the Game Developers Conference.
These days, Persson no longer develops for or plays Minecraft, but he’s still working on experimental designs. “We try to make games we want to make for the sake of making fun games and not necessarily to make a profit,” Persson tells The Verge. “Just make games for yourself and try to have a critical eye to what you do.”
Anne Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe in 2006 with Linda Avey and Paul Cusenza. With a background in both biology and health care, Wojcicki was uniquely positioned to launch one of the first — and now the most successful — personal DNA-testing services in the world. At the time of the company’s launch, personal DNA testing was prohibitively expensive; one of 23andMe’s goals was to make it affordable. By 2013 the test’s price was $99 with the goal of getting 1 million tests into 23andMe’s database, and nearly half that many completed.
The data, which 23andMe also uses for large-scale genetic research into diseases such as Parkinson’s, is its most valuable asset. But Wojcicki’s company is currently threatened following demands of a shutdown from the FDA, raising questions about the accuracy of its data and potential public health consequences. 23andMe recently stopped selling its saliva test altogether, and has promised to cooperate with the government, but Wojcicki — named the “most daring CEO in America” by Fast Company in 2013 — has much to prove in 2014.
Illinois native Tavi Gevinson started her fashion blog Style Rookie at age 11 in 2008. Combining musings about fashion icons and runway models with pictures of Gevinson’s own eccentric outfits, Style Rookie almost immediately captured the attention of the high-fashion world. Within two years Gevinson had appeared in an ad campaign for Rodarte — one of her favorite labels — and been invited as a special guest to New York Fashion Week.
In 2011, at age 15, she used her blogging experience to launch Rookie, a website aimed at teen girls and conceived as a successor to the smart, iconic ‘90s magazine Sassy. Today, Rookie has over 450,000 unique visitors and 1.2 million visits a month, and Gevinson has published two volumes of a printed Rookie Yearbook which collects illustrations, essays, and interviews with subjects like Morrissey, Emma Watson, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Gevinson and friends are forces of nature, a counterbalance to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and a great and good face for a new, vigorous, unapologetic feminism,” writes Cory Doctorow in a review of the second volume.
As she branches out from fashion and publishing, Gevinson is making forays into acting, appearing in 2013 comedy Enough Said alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. She is currently applying to college and will graduate from high school in 2014.
When the Twitter movie comes, and it’s only a matter of time, Jack Dorsey will be front and center. He’s a rare breed that’s struck billion-dollar startup gold twice as the co-founder of Twitter and CEO and founder of Square, the innovative digital-payments company rumored to be going public in 2014.
Since Dorsey and co-founder Biz Stone built a twttr prototype in two short weeks in 2006, Twitter’s 140 characters have upended how we think about serious breaking news and live events, all of which are mixed in with the weird, funny, roiling mass of humanity riffing, joking, and complaining every moment of the day.
Aaron Sorkin would be thrilled with the raw material: Dorsey’s the handsome public face and roguish intellect of Twitter. He’s got a penchant for yoga and fashion, constantly spouts off koan-like Tweets, and the brief zen moments of Dorsey’s trademark Vine selfies would be the perfect on-screen foil to the company’s juicy history of power struggles and boardroom battles. Dorsey might not be the flashy Richard Branson-spaceport-tycoon brand of rich and famous, but America’s sixth-youngest billionaire is just as interesting.
Jony Ive’s resume is short — he’s worked at Apple since 1992, with only a brief, failed toilet-designing stint beforehand — but his legacy is long. From the colorful iMac G3 that stood out in a sea of boxy black PCs to the sleek, machined iPod that was at once beautiful and intuitive, Ive’s made a career of designing products that are often imitated and rarely equaled — from Apple’s iconic white headphones to the iPad, Apple’s products are among the industry’s most distinctive. Steve Jobs called the native Londoner “a spiritual partner,” and after Jobs’ passing Ive’s influence has only grown: new CEO Tim Cook named him senior vice president of design in charge of both hardware and software. Ive wasted no time in remaking iOS in his own image — simple, beautiful, accessible — and if history is any indication, the copycats will be countless. But by then Ive will probably be working on something new anyway.
Bitcoin, the semi-anonymous digital currency that approximates cash on the internet, was introduced to the world in January, 2009 on a cryptography mailing list by someone who went by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto hung around for a while, working with other programmers on the Bitcoin protocol, but no one ever met him or her… or they. Nothing beyond the name, which may or may not be real, is known of Bitcoin’s creator.
In April of 2011, Nakamoto announced he’d “moved on to other things” and promptly dropped off the face of the earth. After evaluating Bitcoin’s design, renowned security expert Dan Kaminsky pronounced Nakamoto a world-class programmer. The New Yorker, Fast Company, and countless amateur sleuths have tried and failed to identify Bitcoin’s creator.
Nakamoto has disappeared, but Bitcoin lives on — enabling citizens in strictly regulated Argentina, inspiring Chinese investors, capturing Silicon Valley’s fancy, and shooting up to a market price of more than $1,000 apiece in November. While it’s unclear whether Bitcoin will become the utopian universal currency Nakamoto imagined, it has proved an incredibly successful economic experiment that will have a place in history.
While the world considers whether he’s a whistleblower, a hero, or a traitor, one thing is undeniable: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has ignited an unprecedented worldwide debate on the role of government surveillance in our lives. Since he leaked over 50,000 classified documents to journalists at The Guardian and the Washington Post, we now know that the NSA collects information about every phone call placed in the United States, sucks up massive amounts of internet data through programs like PRISM, taps the communications cables that make up the internet, and spies on foreign leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The world may have been shocked to learn the then 29-year-old’s age, but Snowden’s familiarity with the ebb and flow of the 24-hour news cycle served him well when he stepped forward and told his story, AMA-style, on The Guardian’s website.
Now considered a fugitive in his home country, Snowden fled the US to Hong Kong and eventually traveled to Russia, where he’s currently living under asylum. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things,” Snowden said in June. “I do not expect to see home again.”
Entrepreneur. Fashionista. Producer. Philanthropist. Existential threat to Taylor Swift’s well-being.
Kanye West is the kind of man who follows up years of being blasted for his superstar-sized ego with a track called “I Am A God.” He’s also the kind of man who scores his first hit on a track he recorded with his mouth wired shut. West’s public image is vexing: at times melancholy and at other times infuriating, it’s unlikely that anyone would give him the time of day if everything he touched didn’t seem so effortless — and at times brilliant, in that narrow context in which pop culture can strive for brilliance.
If you’re not familiar with his work, you’re most certainly familiar with the effluvia of his media presence: in the six months since his latest album leaked ahead of its official release, West has collaborated with legendary British graphic designer Peter Saville, had a top 20 hit on the back of a DIY viral video, and sued YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley for posting the video of his proposal to Kim Kardashian on MixBit.
Sheryl Sandberg was already one of her generation’s most important business leaders, and that was before she kickstarted a global dialogue on women in the workplace.
As chief operating officer of Facebook, the former Google executive was handpicked by CEO Mark Zuckerberg to turn the world’s largest social network into a profitable business. After a rocky IPO last year Sandberg helped to steady the ship, aggressively pushing new advertising products that resulted in record profits in the last quarter.
Outside of Facebook Sandberg’s Lean In was a sensation, selling more than 1 million copies in its first four months. In the book Sandberg explores the question of why talented women leave their careers after giving birth and encourages them to consider staying in the workforce. Fueled by the book’s success, Sandberg is widely expected to leave Facebook in the next year. Nobody would be surprised if her next move was into politics.
Netflix was co-founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings as a mail-order movie-rental competitor to chain brick-and-mortars like Blockbuster. It started offering digital subscriptions in 1999, and as of this year has nearly 40 million subscribers.
In that time, the way we watch movies and television at home has undergone massive upheaval: Blockbuster is bankrupt, streaming is mainstream, and on-demand “binge watching” is an acceptable pastime.
But Hastings went further, deciding to invest heavily in original shows available only on Netflix — an incredibly risky and unprecedented move. The strategy has proven to be a winner — House of Cards earned nine Emmy nominations, and Orange is the New Black earned the company its best reviews to date.
This fall Netflix surpassed HBO in monthly subscribers. That squares with Hastings’ prediction that in the future, channels will be replaced by apps. Major broadcast companies have all followed Netflix’s lead in building software — but Hastings’ long experience in software development may prove a decisive advantage.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes a Joss Whedon project so unmistakably his. Is it his flawless ability to simultaneously parody and perfect genres from action to horror to fantasy? Is it his use of strong, funny female heroines? Maybe it’s the fact that virtually everything he touches instantly attains a cult following — and, increasingly, huge commercial success.
Geek culture is now firmly mainstream, and Joss Whedon is steering its ship. The New York City native has proven equally adept at writing campy horror movies like The Cabin in the Woods, directing record-breaking blockbusters like The Avengers, and dreaming up action-shows-cum-industry-commentaries like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he co-wrote Toy Story and a song from The Lion King II. As prolific as he is varied, Whedon’s become a bellwether: if he’s involved with a project, people pay attention. He’s made comics and Shakespeare cool again — and if that’s possible, there’s no limit to what Whedon can do.
Empires have been built, wars have been waged, and great houses have crumbled on the permanence of content, and we’ve come to expect everything to be accessible, indexed, and searchable from anywhere we are. Snapchat, an app that makes photo and video messages disappear after a set time, was easy to write off when it launched in late 2011. Based in Los Angeles, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were inspired in part by Anthony Weiner’s dick-pic scandal — not exactly a founding story to get Silicon Valley VCs or new users fired up.
But the pair was on to something: unburdened by poorly framed, blurry photos living on into eternity and the risk of failure or permanence, users started experimenting. And that appeal went far beyond sexts: the founders turned down a gargantuan $3 billion acquisition offer from Mark Zuckerberg (three times what Facebook paid for Instagram) and Google’s $4 billion followup bid.
Snapchat doesn’t quite make sense until you start using it with friends, but Spiegel and Murphy created one of the most delightfully intimate and personal apps in years.
The Rhode Island-born songwriter and producer known as Dr. Luke spent 10 seasons as the lead guitarist of the Saturday Night Live house band while building a name for himself producing and remixing for artists including KRS-One and Mos Def.
He left the show at the end of the 2006–2007 season, and within a couple of years it was clear that he was a force to be reckoned with: his publishing company, Prescription Songs, is the millennial equivalent of Tin Pan Alley. The 40-person team’s goal is to manufacture great pop music, and so far it seems to be working.
If you’ve had a tune by Ke$ha, Katy Perry, One Direction, Miley Cyrus, or Robin Thicke stuck in your head at some point over the last few years, it’s highly likely that this doctor is somehow to blame. Dr. Luke’s got hit-making down to a science, and it’s changing the sound of music.
Astro Teller is serious about changing the world, even though he’s got a quirky title — “Captain of Moonshots” — at Google X, the company’s secretive home for big, ambitious projects that aim to “do something radically hard.”
Google X has created products like Google Glass, self-driving cars, and Project Loon. British-born Teller (his real first name is Eric) also hosts Solve for X, a TED-like conference that encourages… you guessed it, more big ideas.
Before coming to Google in 2010, Teller was a successful scientist and entrepreneur. He founded BodyMedia (which sold to Jawbone), which created some of the advanced personal biometric tracking devices on the market. At Google X, Teller chooses goals that are “uncomfortably ambitious, things that defy logic or credibility.” Common wisdom says that the only people who can change the world are the ones who try, and Teller is certainly trying.
A few years ago, Benedict Cumberbatch was a respected but not widely known British actor. But then, seemingly overnight, he began claiming the identities of some of our most famous characters, real and imagined.
In 2010 he resurrected Sherlock Holmes in the epic BBC series Sherlock, and in 2013, Cumberbatch has had what is probably the best year an actor can ask for, playing a famed villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness; Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; and mathematician Alan Turing in the upcoming Imitation Game.
While he’s still working his way into Hollywood, he’s already a force of nature on the web. The combination of Shakespearean bearing and bookish sex appeal have made him a perfect heartthrob for the slashfic era. All year, giddy Tumblrs churned out torrid inter-fandom trysts between Smaug and Watson, Sherlock and Loki, even Khan and Kirk. Tiger Beat would blush for shame.
Formed in 2011, the loosely organized feminist punk band Pussy Riot has pushed the limits of political freedom in Russia with tragic consequences. Dressed in brightly colored tights, dresses, and balaclavas, the group’s members hold anonymous impromptu events that are as much political protests as concerts.
In February of 2012, five members staged an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and three — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — were arrested and tried for hooliganism and religious hatred. Despite international condemnation, a court sentenced all three to two years in prison, though Samutsevich was later released on probation.
In September of 2013, Tolokonnikova began a hunger strike from prison, describing horrific conditions and slave labor; after an abrupt disappearance, she later emerged in another prison’s hospital wing. Russia has continued its crackdown on the group’s work, ordering the shutdown of a news agency that posted a Pussy Riot video in late October.
When Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning went to trial for allegedly providing hundreds of thousands of US government documents to WikiLeaks in 2013, restricted access made the proceedings very difficult for media to cover. Court decisions remained unavailable to the public, often quickly read into the record by the presiding judge; no official transcript of the trial was ever provided.
Alexa O’Brien was one of a few journalists to attend every single day, typing up daily transcripts and posting them on her website. As lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and others fought the Army’s secrecy rulings, O’Brien, along with independent journalists Kevin Gosztola and Adam Klasfeld, provided a much-needed window into the courtroom. (Often the only one, as major news organizations such as The New York Times only sporadically covered the case.)
O’Brien not only helped inform the public herself, but provided other journalists with a foundation from which to work; her website still ranks among the most complete archives of this historic case.
Virtual reality has been a dream for a long time, but for years the technology was too expensive, cumbersome, and underdeveloped.
But Palmer Luckey and his team at Oculus VR could finally make it happen, with their head-mounted display debuting in 2012. While a commercial version of the Rift isn’t available just yet, even the developer version is affordable and accurate enough to showcase the true potential of the technology.
A home-schooled former journalism student, Luckey founded the company after working as a researcher at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. The crazy part? The person who could finally bring virtual reality to the mainstream is only 21 years old. And he’s already turned many on to the idea of a VR future — the company raised close to $2.5 million in funding through Kickstarter. Now comes the hard part: getting the headset into people’s homes.
Since 1996, Brian K. Vaughan has written many classic superheroes: the X-Men, Batman, Superman, and Captain America. But he’s probably best known for Y: The Last Man, which ran from 2002 to 2008, was monumentally popular, and won five Eisner Awards. Chronicling the adventures of the only man to survive a gender-specific plague, Y: The Last Man was part of a comics renaissance that married pulpy action to philosophical questions and complex interpersonal drama.
During its run, Vaughan also co-created Eisner Award-winning superhero series Runaways and Ex Machina; he’s currently writing online-only comic The Private Eye, which he has used to explore his own fears about privacy in a modern world.
Vaughan has recently forayed into television, writing and producing several episodes of seminal series Lost and he now acts as executive producer and showrunner for the CBS adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome.
David Karp had barely entered his 20s when he became obsessed with microblogging, the short-form, mixed-media blogging format. In 2007 he launched a microblogging platform of his own, and within a week the company he now calls Tumblr had attracted 75,000 users.
With its focus on images, Tumblr quickly became popular with young people, and its rapid growth made it a darling of the New York City tech scene. This year Karp came to a crossroads: either raise more money or sell the company. He opted for the latter. Billed as the first acquisition to be announced via animated GIF, Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for $1.1 billion this past May.
In the months since, Yahoo has so far made good on its promise “not to screw it up,” although there have been some signs that growth is stalling. Karp, with a now-estimated net worth of more than $200 million, has stayed on as CEO thus far, and Tumblr now has over 154 million blogs.
If you use any Google product beyond search, chances are very good that the company’s senior vice president Sundar Pichai is the man behind it. Pichai came to Google in 2004 and worked on the original Google Toolbar, one of the company’s first forays into creating software that didn’t just live on the web.
That experience helped him rise quickly through the ranks; he began managing everything from Gmail to the Chrome web browser. Eventually, Pichai released Chrome OS, an operating system that’s little more than a browser but has the potential to be much more, should Google choose to take Windows on directly. This past March, Pichai also took over Android from Andy Rubin — meaning that he’s responsible for the world’s most-used web browser, email, and smartphone operating system — to say nothing of Google Drive and other apps.
When Paul Rieckhoff came home in 2004 after serving 10 months in Baghdad, he set himself to advocating for returning veterans, establishing Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
Today the group claims 300,000 members and supporters out of the 2.5 million soldiers deployed since 2001. Over a decade of war, marked by repeated deployments and uncertain goals, took its toll on the population. And while in some respects today’s veterans have better tools for transitioning into civilian life, Rieckhoff believes more can be done.
He’s appeared almost ceaselessly on television and in print, advocating for improvements to the GI Bill, encouraging employers to hire veterans, and demanding better post-combat medical treatment. Despite its small budget — just about $6 million a year, provided by donations — with Rieckhoff at the helm IAVA has helped draw attention to the many challenges facing today’s veterans.
When David Chang opened the Momofuku Noodle Bar in a cramped, humble space in New York’s East Village nearly a decade ago, few imagined a simple menu of ramen and pork buns would point to a new wave of American cuisine.
By preparing and sourcing these staple foods with the same passion and professionalism you find in the world’s greatest restaurants, Chang kicked off a career marked by an inexhaustible energy for mixing cuisines and traditions.
Though Chang insists he’s just a chef, he’s stepped out of the kitchen to publish innovative food magazine Lucky Peach, work with Anthony Bourdain on the Mind of a Chef TV series, and found the Momofuku Culinary Lab, a top-secret enterprise that functions like a Bell Labs for the study of food science.
Comedian Jimmy Fallon left a successful, six-year stint at Saturday Night Live in 2004. For the last four of those years, he’d co-anchored Weekend Update with Tina Fey, often viewed as the most important marquee spot on the show.
The affable, inoffensive guy who seemed to enjoy his own jokes just as much as the audience made what seemed like an unexpected career move in 2009, when it was announced that he would take over Conan O’Brien’s chair as host of Late Night on NBC, a job that maybe only Lorne Michaels foresaw would be the perfect venue for Fallon.
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has been consistently popular and also successful in other venues: video segments of the previous night’s episodes — such as the “History of Rap” series with Justin Timberlake — often go viral, and his website won Emmys in 2009 and 2010.
Oh, and in 2014, he’ll take over The Tonight Show.
Emily Nussbaum has been a singular voice in pop-culture criticism for what seems like a lifetime (in internet years, which just puts us in the double digits). Past gigs include Nerve and New York, where she analyzed and criticized not only what we read and watch, but the way we live in the age of all-pervasive, always-on internet connectivity.
Nussbaum currently serves as the TV critic for The New Yorker, and her tenure couldn’t be better timed. DVD box sets and DVRs, she maintains, have opened episodic television “to deeper analysis,” while “a show like Lost, with its recursive symbol-games, couldn’t exist without the internet’s mob-think.” Her take-downs are a delight to fans of snark, and it’s not every day someone threatens to “kill this dog” if It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is canceled.
If you managed to transform that closet-sized kitchen into a culinary Shangri-La, you’ve probably got Mia Lundström to thank. As creative director of home furnishings at IKEA, Lundström is tasked with figuring out what people need from their living spaces — and how elements like tables, shelves, and cabinets can be as functional as possible without losing aesthetic appeal.
That’s no easy task. The company, based in Sweden, is now the largest furniture maker in the world — and with only one universal catalog, that means Lundström’s designs need to be as appealing to customers in China as they are to those in the United States. But by all appearances, Lundström and her small team aren’t exactly short on ideas: the company introduced nearly 2,000 products in 2012 alone.
For years Bryan Cranston was that character actor whose face you kinda-sorta-maybe remembered, but could never actually place. He’d pop up in Murder, She Wrote, The X-Files, or a few episodes of Seinfeld, but that changed when he embraced his comedic skills in Malcolm in the Middle. Over seven seasons he earned three Emmy nominations, but as the befuddled father Hal he was a very particular kind of character.
Vince Gilligan must have seen something darker in Cranston when he chose him for Breaking Bad, a show that would follow a suburban man as he transformed “from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Three consecutive Emmy wins later, Cranston has crafted one of the most compelling and memorable characters in television history — and when he says “Say my name,” we know exactly who he is.
Chet Kanojia is the founder of Aereo, the innovative system that uses an array of tiny antennas to deliver traditional broadcast TV over the internet. It’s a potentially disruptive service — or would be, if it were as widely available as Kanojia envisions.
But the company has been mired in a series of lawsuits as cable companies and broadcasters have challenged the legality of Aereo’s model. Kanojia seems undaunted, however, and with backing from Barry Diller he has a shot to get past the legalities and focus on the business.
He has plenty of experience to work with when he does. Kanojia’s last venture — Navic Networks — reportedly sold to Microsoft for more than $200 million. Kanojia sees TV as a “fortress,” but one that isn’t closed off to innovation. “I’m going to do something that moves the center of gravity to a different medium,” he told The Verge last June, “that allows me to get in.”
Charged with steering NASA into the 21st century and reinvigorating the lagging American space program, Charles Bolden has so far navigated that challenging course with aplomb. He did, after all, come prepared: Bolden spent more than 30 years in the US Marine Corps before retiring as a major general and logged nearly 700 hours in space during his own stint as a NASA astronaut. Bolden was in 2009 appointed to head up NASA by President Obama, making him the first African-American to oversee the agency, and he’s vowed to “turn science fiction into science fact.” He made headlines for spurning congressional pressure and orienting the agency’s priorities firmly away from a return visit to the moon. Bolden’s sights are set on some further-reaching targets: he’s cited a manned mission to Mars as NASA’s preeminent goal.
Steven Moffat has risen rather quickly to mainstream fame in America for his role in the creation of the BBC’s rebooted Sherlock series, a show which is also responsible for introducing the masses to Benedict Cumberbatch. But seasoned BBC veterans have long known Moffat’s name, and his list of accomplishments there is beyond impressive: he’s been the head writer and producer on the long-running Doctor Who series since succeeding Russell T Davies in 2008, overseeing some of its most triumphant recent seasons as well as the entirety of Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor. He was also the creator of the highly acclaimed series Coupling and co-wrote The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Nate Silver is never wrong. Or, at least, he’s wrong so infrequently that he’s turned predictive wizardry into a calling card — and managed to take terms like “big data” and “primary polls” mainstream. A longtime baseball aficionado, Silver started out crunching sports predictions. But in 2007 he turned his online attention to politics and made a series of freakishly accurate forecasts under the pseudonym “Poblano” at his FiveThirtyEight blog. He’s gone on to accurately predict two federal elections, moved his blog to The New York Times, and published a bestselling book — The Signal and The Noise. Silver will soon relaunch FiveThirtyEight under ESPN and has predicted the site will be one-third politics, one-third sports, and “one-third… everything else put together.” We’ll take him on his word at that.
As her opponents invoked several questionable points of order to silence her, a colleague of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ rose for a parliamentary inquiry. “At what point must a female senator raise her hand to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?” Senator Leticia Van De Putte asked. That was the moment during Wendy Davis’ 11-hour filibuster the agitated citizens packing the Texas legislature erupted in applause, drowning out the business of the floor in protest of a controversial law that would restrict abortions in the state. While TV broadcasts were focused on the caloric content of blueberry muffins, Davis’ historic stand captivated and dominated the internet. Now, she’s hoping to carry that momentum into something bigger: on November 9th, she officially put her hat in the ring to become the next governor of Texas.
Directors will often find one thing they do really well and stick with it. Maybe it’s a genre, maybe it’s a storytelling trick; in the long run, we find ourselves wondering when they’re going to give us just a little bit more. Rian Johnson has spent the past decade taking the opposite approach.
For his first feature outing we got the high school neo-noir Brick. That was followed up by the madcap adventure The Brothers Bloom, and last year he showed his sci-fi skills with the action-drama Looper. Along the way he’s shifted gears into television, delivering some of the most evocative and memorable episodes of Breaking Bad. (Remember “The Fly” bottle episode, and this past season’s emotional gut-kick “Ozymandias”? Those were Johnson’s.) While he’s still writing his next film, we imagine it will do the same thing each of his other projects has: share his unique take on the world through the lens of a camera.
Adrian Chen surprised some when he recently announced he would leave Gawker after a four-year tenure to enter the wild world of freelance journalism. Also an editor at the small New Inquiry Magazine, Chen made a name for himself pursuing the darker corners of internet culture.
A 2011 investigation of the underground online marketplace the Silk Road lead to widespread media coverage and mainstream interest in the currency Bitcoin, as did his doxing of Reddit “superuser” Michael Brutsch, aka violentacrez, in 2012.
In fact, Chen is notorious for his outspoken critiques of the nastier parts of Reddit, and the doxing of Brutsch led to a temporary network-wide ban of all Gawker sites by its powerful moderators.
Janelle Monáe’s stock-in-trade is musical science fiction. Lacking the hackneyed futurism of Sun Ra or the “bad acid trip” vibe of the P-Funk Mothership, Monáe’s rise began in 2003 with self-released album The Audition. Less than four years later she was BFFs with Prince, an artist on Bad Boy Records, and had her first commercially available release under her belt. Her latest, The Electric Lady, draws from influences as diverse as Debussy, Philip K. Dick, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — although in many ways that’s all just window dressing for a fresh mix of soul and R&B, funk and gospel, which fans would love even if she didn’t perform under the guise of a messianic “Archandroid” named Cindi or evade questions about her sexuality by saying that she only dates humanoid robots.
Teju Cole, the (ready for it?) art historian, professor, novelist, essayist, editor, photographer, expert mix-maker, and creator of sublime Twitter fictions counts both Himanshu Suri of Das Racist and James Wood as fans. The Nigerian–American’s most acclaimed of Twitter projects, “Small Fates,” restyled news reports in the style of French journalist Félix Fénéon; when he isn’t doing that, the author tweets about drones and writes timely pieces of Instagram criticism. Cole broke into the mainstream with 2011’s award-winning and intensely referential Open City, the first pages of which he’s annotated on Rapgenius.com. A deep thinker and a student as much of classic literature as pop culture, Cole is proof for the Jonathan Franzens of the world that engaging with the internet doesn’t shortchange literary culture — it deepens it.
She’s made a career out of looking to the future — so it’s no surprise that Regina Dugan became the first woman to head up DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue-sky research division. In her three-year tenure at the agency, which ended in 2012, Dugan championed ambitious, high-risk projects with an emphasis on cybersecurity, next-generation manufacturing, and crowdsourcing.
Now, Dugan is taking her eye for the avant-garde and applying it to the consumer realm. As senior vice president for advanced technology and projects at Motorola, she’s spearheaded the development of far-out products like electronic tattoos to replace passwords and pills powered by stomach acid. “If you want to ensure failure in your innovation, try removing the risks,” she said earlier this year. “Boredom is the enemy of innovation.”
When violence broke out in her native Kenya following the country’s 2007 elections, Juliana Rotich tried to help in the best way she knew how: the longtime IT specialist started a website. Called Ushahidi (Swahili for “Testimony”) the site was designed to offer up-to-date, easy-to-access information for Kenyans living through the turmoil. That site has morphed into a nonprofit company by the same name, dedicated to creating free, open-source tools that collect and disseminate information — via text, Twitter, email, and other channels — submitted by those on the ground. Those tools have been used to document violence, monitor elections, and assist in the aftermath of natural disasters, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In that instance, Ushahidi processed between 40,000 and 60,000 reports from those on the ground.
A weekly print business weekly is hardly the first spot anyone would look to for innovative design, but creative director Richard Turley’s bold work has helped turn BusinessWeek, an increasingly staid business magazine, into the eye-catching, provocative, and fantastically readable Bloomberg Businessweek it is today.
Brought over from the UK in 2010 after a stint as The Guardian’s art editor, Turley works with editor-in-chief Josh Tyrangiel to infuse the magazine, recently purchased by Bloomberg LP, with a new sense of energy and creativity, and it’s not just the daring covers. Turley blends together design and editorial to create delightful layouts, rich infographics, and expert typography, dabbling in the past while still feeling unabashedly modern. There’s no better weekly reading on power, money, and finance.
While actress / director Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture premiered at South by Southwest to acclaim and indie buzz in 2010, it was her HBO series Girls, produced by Judd Apatow, that brought her mainstream success two years later. It also brought controversy: while some saw her depiction of 20-somethings in New York City as a modern antidote to Sex and the City, others slighted it as out-of-touch and racially monochrome. But critics loved it: for its first season, Girls received two Golden Globes, four Emmy nominations, and Dunham was the first woman to win a Directors Guild award for best TV comedy.
Girls has not only proven its promise, but it has given Dunham a second career to fall back on in case the whole “TV thing” doesn’t work out. In addition to writing for The New Yorker, The Believer, and Rolling Stone, she recently signed a $3.5 million deal with Random House for a collection of essays tentatively titled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras has spent nearly a decade documenting the global effects of America’s wars. In 2005 she spent eight months in Iraq profiling Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, a Baghdad physician who’d run for political office. The resulting film, My Country, My Country, vividly captured Iraqi life under US occupation.
Her follow-up, The Oath, featured two Yemeni, Muslim men; one, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was the first defendant tried in the US military tribunals. (His conviction was later overturned.) The work resulted in harassment by American authorities, she said, including hours-long interrogations at border crossings and confiscation of her computer and reporter’s notes.
For the third movie in her trilogy, she turned to the topic of US surveillance after 9/11, particularly legal actions against whistleblowers; Bill Binney, who spoke out publicly about mismanagement at the NSA, became one of her subjects. Along with Glenn Greenwald, she helped publish the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.
“Thank you, thank you, I have cancer.” It’s a hell of a way to start off a comedy show, but at the Largo in August of 2012, after experiencing a shockingly random string of tragedies that included a snap cancer diagnosis and the sudden death of her mother, that’s what Tig Notaro did.
The now-legendary set is equal parts funny and brutal, the kind of thing that’s so bracing to experience that it moves far beyond the label of “entertainment.” People emerged changed. Louis CK called it one of the few “truly great, masterful stand-up sets” he’d ever seen. Notaro’s since sold more than 75,000 copies of the set and taken on a sketch-writing gig for Comedy Central — but after making it through that Largo set, everything else looks like a victory lap.
Pendleton Ward’s grand opus kicked around the internet for years as an animated short, earning a loyal following on YouTube but meeting with blank stares from TV execs. The Nintendo-on-shrooms world of Adventure Time was like Achewood or Weird Twitter — the kind of off-the-wall brilliance that defines web culture and usually dies outside of it. So what do you say now that it’s a real show? And not just a show, but an Emmy-winning hit, marching into its fifth season with as many as 3 million tuning in each week. Maybe childlike fantasy logic isn’t as inaccessible as we thought. Maybe shape-shifting dogs are just plain awesome, no matter who you are. Maybe that weirdo, fantasy web logic is actually on to something.