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12 Stories That Defined 2021

The events and storylines that shaped a remarkable year and the articles that Pocket users saved to understand them, from the Capitol insurrection and coronavirus vaccines to Britney’s liberation and, somehow, UFOs.

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It was an exhilarating, exhausting, scary, hopeful, strange kind of year, and, to help make sense of it all, Pocket users saved a lot of articles. We sifted through the year’s most-saved and -read stories in Pocket and uncovered 12 key storylines that readers gravitated to this year and identified one exemplary article for each. It’s the story of what it was like to live through 2021, told through what was in our Pockets.

Pandemic Life: “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain”

Ellen Cushing
The Atlantic

Amy Maoz, Recommendations Editor: “As we look back and remember 2021, one thing is crystal clear: this was the year we forgot so many things. Maybe you consulted a friend—or a doctor?—about your inability to recall names, places, or tip-of-your tongue pastimes. It wasn’t just you. Ellen Cushing drills into the science behind it in her Atlantic story that launched many an audible ‘Phew’. She kicks it off with the brilliant and relatable ‘What did I used to … do on weekends?’ before bringing in the neuroscientists to confirm that our flailing brains are all right on track, given the circumstances.”

Further Reading: I Do Not Trust People in the Same Way and I Don’t Think I Ever Will Again by Alison Green for Slate.

The Capitol Insurrection: “The American Abyss”

Timothy Snyder
The New York Times

Carolyn O’Hara, Head of Content Discovery: “The first week of 2021 was more jam-packed with news than some entire months or years—or at least it felt that way. This searing analysis of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Timothy Snyder, a historian of fascism, was the most-saved story on Pocket about that momentous day, and reads not only as a contemporaneous examination of what happens when political elites allow an ‘electoral fiction to flourish,’ as Synder writes, but also a glimpse of the challenges America faces if ‘the lie outlasts the liar.’”

Further Reading: The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election by Molly Ball for Time.

COVID Shots: ”The Tangled History of mRNA Vaccines”

Elie Dolgin

Alex Dalenberg, Recommendations Editor: “For all the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been bright spots, including the development of highly effective vaccines in record-breaking time—a development likely to go down as one of the great scientific achievements of our lifetimes. The backstory of the creation of mRNA vaccines is awe-inspiring, involving hundreds of researchers over more than 30 years, writes Elie Dogin in this Nature article, which was one of the most-saved articles about vaccines this year. It ‘illuminates the way that many scientific discoveries become life-changing innovations: with decades of dead ends, rejections and battles over potential profits, but also generosity, curiosity and dogged persistence against skepticism and doubt.’”

Further Reading: How to Debunk Misinformation about COVID, Vaccines and Masks by Kathleen Hall Jamieson for Scientific American.

Endgame in Afghanistan: ”The Other Afghan Women”

Anand Gopal
The New Yorker

CO: “The abrupt and ignoble end of America’s longest war came with a wave of commentary from predictable corners about who was to blame and the horrors of what might come next. Anand Gopal’s stunning, gut-wrenching, and infuriating feature complicates the standard narrative—and gives voice to the often voiceless. It’s one of the most devastating, human accounts of the Afghan war and its aftermath that you’ll ever read.”

Further Reading: Making Sense of Afghanistan by Megan K. Stack for Pocket Collections.

Our Heating Planet: “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try.”

Elizabeth Weil

AD: “For many of us living in the United States, 2021 was the year the climate crisis hit home. By one estimate, 1 in 3 Americans were affected by a weather disaster during a summer marked by extreme heat, fires, hurricanes, and flooding, all intensified by the heating of the planet. Elizabeth Weil’s wrenching story about a climate scientist struggling to live an ethical life—Pocket’s most-read story about the climate crisis this year—shows the toll it takes when you try to stare unflinchingly at the threats we face. ‘The truth of what is happening,’ Weil writes, ‘shakes the foundations of our sense of self.’ As the events of this year have shown, it’s a truth that we’re all going to have to reckon with sooner rather than later.”

Further Reading: Sixty Years of Climate Change Warnings: The Signs That Were Missed (and Ignored) by Alice Bell for The Guardian and After Alarmism by David Wallace Wells for New York.

Responding to Anti-Asian Hate: ”Swallowing Our Bitterness”

Kathleen Hou
The Cut

AM: “2021’s shameful rise in racism against Asian Americans and violent attacks on AAPI communities was one of the darkest developments in an already heavy year. But why did it take so much trauma to get our attention? ‘The damaging model-minority myth suggests that Asians actually have it pretty good in this country, especially compared to everyone else, and propels a perception of universal success,’ writes Kathleen Hou, in one of the most read and shared Pocket stories on this topic. Less than a month after publication, six Asian women were murdered in a shooting spree in Atlanta, showing just how damaging and dangerous that myth is—and reminding us that relying on trauma for awareness and action is not just ignorant, it’s dangerous.”

Further Reading: The Inadequacy of the Term “Asian American” by Li Zhou for Vox.

The Techlash: ”A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?“

Steven Levy

AD: ”The question of whether technology has left us better off resonated with Pocket readers this year, but it isn’t a new one. In 1995, a techno-optimist editor at WIRED and a neo-Luddite technology skeptic made a bet on whether society would collapse by the year 2020. Spoiler alert: we’re still here. But the verdict, handed down amid political instability, climate catastrophe, and a raging pandemic, was perhaps closer than almost anyone would have expected. And it doesn’t exactly feel final either.”

Further Reading: Why These Facebook Research Scandals Are Different by Casey Newton for The Verge.

The Pandemic Economy: ”The World Economy Is Suddenly Running Low on Everything“

Enda CurranBrendan MurrayKim Chipman

CO: “When it was hard to find toilet paper during the height of the pandemic in 2020, it mostly made sense. But when the world started running short on computer chips, exercise equipment, lumber, appliances, rental cars, and more this year, we all became a bit more familiar with an arguably lame but critically important phrase: ‘supply chain.’ This smart, efficient Businessweek piece does a great job of demystifying why shortages keep cropping up and how long pandemic-driven bottlenecks will be with us.”

Further Reading: Why the Supply Chain Is Tangled Up in Knots and A Guide to ‘The Great Resignation’ by Alex Dalenberg for Pocket Collections.

#FreeBritney: ”How Britney Spears Got Free, and What Comes Next“

Jia TolentinoRonan Farrow
The New Yorker

AM: “Did you have ‘a divided nation comes together in service of freeing a pop star from a dictatorial conservatorship’ on your 2021 bingo card? Back in July, dream team Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino wrote about how Britney Spears’ conservatorship nightmare captured our national attention and empathy; in November, when ‘Free Britney’ went from a rally cry to a statement of fact, they dropped part two, which explains the bind Spears, though free, remains in. As this piece reminds us, ‘there are hundreds of thousands of other Britneys across the United States, people who aren’t famous, but who deserve the same rights we all take for granted—until they get taken away.’”

Further Reading: Failing Britney Spears via Craig Jenkins for Vulture.

Money Madness: ”There’s Nothing to Do Except Gamble“

Max Read
New York

AD: “Getting rich went gonzo in 2021. Amateur investors sent ‘meme stocks’ like GameStop and AMC soaring, not because of anything on the companies' balance sheets, but because it was hilarious. Investors paid tens of millions of dollars for NFTs in order to ‘own’ animated GIFs that anyone can look at for free. Fortunes were made and lost trading a cryptocurrency inspired by an Internet-famous Shiba Inu. And SPACs did whatever SPACs do. Max Read captured the mood in one of this year’s most popular finance stories on Pocket in which he argues that the way we think about money itself is changing, and that it didn’t start this year. In an era of low growth, deepening inequality, and accelerating ecological crises, money ‘feels at once deadly serious and stupidly silly,’ he writes. After all, ‘what’s the point of investing safely when Elon Musk can create and destroy millions of dollars of value with a couple of tweets?’”

Further Reading: A Guide to 2021’s Bizarro Markets and Wild Investing Trends from Alex Dalenberg for Pocket Collections.

Kids These Days: ”Everybody Hates Millennials: Gen Z and the TikTok Generation Wars“

Sejla Rizvic
The Walrus

AM: “Don’t be ashamed if you spent any part of 2021 confused by TikTok, Gen Z, or why #bullymillennials was trending. You’re not alone, and it’s easy to get up to speed, I promise: Sejla Rizvic’s Walrus essay is so much more entertaining and generous than you might expect an explainer on generational animosity to be. And it covers everything from predictive algorithms to media richness in an easy, conversational way that won’t make you feel like (yes, I’m going to say it) a boomer.”

Further Reading: It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations” from Louis Menand for The New Yorker.

On Top of Everything, Maybe Aliens?: ”UFOs Are Suddenly All the Talk in Washington”

Alex Seitz-Wald
NBC News

AD: “Here’s everything you need to know about the kind of year we just had: the Pentagon released a report documenting service members’ encounters with UFOs and it flew under the radar. The military brass won’t say these ‘unexplained aerial phenomena’ are alien spacecraft, but they haven’t exactly ruled it out either. Which… what?! Pocket users might still have more questions than answers, but, as Alex Seitz-Wald’s dispatch about the bipartisan end of the UFO-taboo on Capitol Hill shows, asking no longer feels off-limits.”

Further Reading: What the Pentagon’s New UFO Report Reveals About Humankind by Adam Mann for Wired.

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