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12 Stories That Defined 2023

2023 brought in a blur of wildfire smoke, labor strikes, and an economy bolstered by pop stars. Let creator Rachel Hislop walk you through the key stories that shaped a year unlike any other.

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In the future, we’ll look back at 2023 and recall a year that went by like a blink—and yet somehow felt like a long, did that really happen? daydream. It was the year the pandemic was officially declared “over” by the World Health Organization—a much-anticipated milestone swallowed immediately by a news cycle dominated by inflation (at a record high) and mass shootings (also at a record high), among other lows.

The months felt like weeks and the days felt like hours. The explosion of Oceangate captured our collective attention, wildfires amplified concerns about global warming, and the sorrow and rage in our headlines reached a fever pitch on October 7th when Hamas launched an attack on Israel. Suddenly, first-person documentation of war spun onto our social media feeds and into our conversations.

And yet. Even on the constant brink of turmoil, humanity did what it does best: We found some levity and stimulated a worrying economy just to feel something. Friendship bracelets were strung and metallic outfits were donned as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé fans traveled near and far to un-break our souls and shake off any lingering reminder of what we have endured. We reluctantly returned to movie theaters to usher in a blockbuster moment just in time for a historic Hollywood strike. And then we stood in solidarity as stars, just like us!, worried that AI would take all the jobs.

From cultural phenomena to geopolitical shifts, each story is a brush stroke in the picture of events that captivated our attention this year and united us in...well, something to talk about. Ready to zoom in?

Make the Whole Place Shimmer: America Spends Big for Beyoncé and Taylor Swift

Maggie ShannonJeanna SmialekJordyn HolmanDeSean McClinton-Holland
The New York Times

Amid record-high inflation and the Senate scrambling on the house floor, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift took the reins of economic revival into their own hands by launching groundbreaking world tours.

The Swifties and The Hive were united in their zeal as the musical giants embarked on their respective world tours. Beyoncé's Renaissance World Tour paid homage to queer ballroom culture while grossing $850 Million, and Taylor paid homage to her 17-year-long discography with the Eras Tour grossing $900 Million. The stadium tours not only brought in impressive amounts but also played pivotal roles in stimulating the global economy as fans traveled, booked hotels and flights, and contributed to the thriving businesses in tour stops worldwide.

To stop there would be child's play, so both women led their fan armies to the movie theaters, striking exclusive deals with AMC to release their tour documentaries and generate even more tens of millions in North American ticket sales. And that’s not even touching what Swift did for the NFL—and the gossip industry economy—as she debuted her new boyfriend, Kansas City Chief Travis Kelce.

The Movies Are Back. but We’re Still Learning How to Love Going to Theaters Again

Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times

This summer, we witnessed the triumphant return of blockbuster films to the big screen thanks to the brilliantly named (and memed) Barbenheimer. Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan crafted immersive opportunities with their respective creations—Nolan’s 180-minute, 9-second epic, Oppenheimer, and Gerwig’s subversively pink-washed marketing juggernaut, Barbie. Fans seized on the brilliance of their identical release date and created the kind of pre-release buzz streaming candidates have yet to replicate. Of course, initial phases of the historic SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes cut the official press runs short, depriving fans of a few more moments of Ryan Gosling in full Ken personality cosplay on red carpets, a loss worth it in the long run.

Worker Strikes Grip Los Angeles As Nation Faces ‘Hot Labor Summer’

Erica Werner
The Washington Post

The pandemic upended American office culture and 2023 had workers across the country flexing their muscles in demand of better conditions. And this upheaval—magnified by soaring inflation, corporate greed, and the looming threat of artificial intelligence's long-term impact—ignited a wave of support for unions. Throughout the summer, the United States experienced an unprecedented surge in labor activism, marked by an astonishing 312 strikes involving at least 453,000 workers. In addition to the unprecedented dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, the United Auto Workers orchestrated targeted strikes against General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford. At the same time, thousands of hotel workers in Southern California staged staggered walkouts, and Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers walked off the job in multiple states.

Seeing actors and writers—typically not the most relatable bunch—fight against the growing threat of AI’s potential created a wave of public support that undoubtedly contributed to both unions’ wins. And set the stage for the kind of protections more industries can fight for.

Inside the A.I. Arms Race That Changed Silicon Valley Forever

Mike IsaacCade MetzKaren WeiseNico GrantTally Abecassis
The New York Times

ChatGPT went viral in late 2022, but 2023 saw it quickly swerve from novelty to hot button issue. We witnessed an accelerated implementation of AI in ways reminiscent of the rapid adoption of the internet, with each wave of innovation accompanied by fears of potential consequences. The tech giants clamored to introduce AI tools in an arms race that led the godfather of AI to worry aloud that the technology could pose an “existential threat” to the human species. Also, a Bing chatbot told a New York Times reporter, “You’re married, but you love me,” but that seems tame in the grander scheme.

Trump Investigations

Michael R. Sisak
AP News

How many tabs do you need open to keep track of former President Donald Trump’s legal issues? The New York Times breaks down the four major criminal cases underway. Still, you’ll need to pull up another article to get into the details of the $250 million civil fraud trial he’s trying to delay or the $5 million jury verdict from the sex abuse and defamation trial earlier this year. 

But how much of it will matter when he’s on the ballot in 2024? Some Republican voters are on board with his “I’m being indicted for you” spin; others see his criminal activity as serious—but still plan to vote for him. And all of America will be forced to watch the theater of Trump dominate the news cycle far into 2024.

‘We Will Coup Whoever We Want!’: The Unbearable Hubris of Musk and the Billionaire Tech Bros

Douglas Rushkoff
The Guardian

The morality of billionaires is a conversation as old as time, but this year, the sanity of billionaires was called into question like never before. Sam Bankman-Fried, former CEO of FTX, was on trial for much of the year and convicted of fraud. Elon Musk continued his overhaul of Twitter by rebranding the company as X, alienating advertisers with expletive-laced rants, and allowing and inciting hate speech on the platform. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerburg had enough time on his hands after launching Threads, Meta’s answer to X, to accept a challenge for a cage fight from Musk. And what is a story about billionaire bros if Jeff Bezos isn't mentioned? The Amazon giant has spent the greater part of 2023 yachting around the Mediterranean, planning a move to Miami, and revving up the PR machine around his fiance, Lauren Sanchez, which is pretty tame when compared to cage fights.

OceanGate Was Warned of Potential for ‘Catastrophic’ Problems With Titanic Mission

Jenny GrossNicholas Bogel-BurroughsAnna Betts
The New York Times

The story of OceanGate had all the makings of a good headline: The Titanic! $250,000 admission tickets! A game controller used for navigation! But instead, tracking the fatal voyage became a global event: When the carbon fiber submersible went missing during its deep-sea voyage, search efforts were launched as quickly as they were criticized, sparking debates on how we decide who “earns” rescue missions and the morality of extreme tourism.

How We Talk About the Israel-Hamas War

Nicole NareaEllen Ioanes

October 7th changed the conversation around the Israel and Palestine conflict forever. The generations-long conflict reached a fever pitch when Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched an attack in southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking 200 hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu quickly declared war, and to date, more than 16,000 Palestinian lives have been lost. Journalists and creators on the ground are reporting live from the ruins of Gaza), bringing the horrors of war into our phone screens, homes, and social interactions. At home, ripple effects from the war fuel hate crimes and attacks, with conversations splintering friends and families and launching a nuanced discourse on language, virtue signaling, and who needs to talk about what online.

Will the Ozempic Era Change How We Think About Being Fat and Being Thin?

Jia Tolentino
The New Yorker

The conversation around weight and bodies has shifted dramatically since the introduction of Ozempic into the mainstream vernacular. The injectable medication, initially sanctioned to treat type 2 diabetes, became a lightning rod, fueling complex discussions of weight bias and inequality. Some viewed it as a means for stripping morality from the concept of thinness; others were concerned about how it might further marginalize people in larger bodies. And that’s not even touching on the side effects or the fact that a Hollywood-fueled shortage left many diabetic patients unable to fill their prescriptions. Still, much remains unknown about the drug’s potential—newer studies suggest that Semaglutide, the main ingredient in Ozempic and similar medications, might be an effective tool against substance abuse and dementia

It’s a space worth watching—if for no other reason than for the commentary it has inspired from some of today’s most thoughtful cultural critics.

From Europe to Canada to Hawaii, Photos Capture Destructive Power of Wildfires

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

This summer, the wrath of climate change couldn’t be ignored. Maui’s historic Lahaina faced the deadliest wildfire in 100 years just months after plumes of orange-hued smoke descended on New York City by way of Canada. The raging flames and settling ash served as a heartbreaking and tangible reminder of our warming planet, underscoring the urgency climate activists have been highlighting for decades.

Meanwhile, cities across the nation experienced the hottest summer on record, and our Earth’s temperature is on track to be, on average, 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times.

US Supreme Court Continues Conservative Lurch in Recent Decisions

Joseph Stepansky
Al Jazeera English

While we are readying to enter 2024, the Supreme Court has been stuck in a loop that resembles the 1960s. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court doubled down on conservative shifts. Key decisions, such as overturning Roe v Wade and impacting federal restrictions on greenhouse gasses and gun ownership, have contributed to a decline in public opinion of the US’s highest court. The effects of the 2016 election, namely the conservative majority of the court that took place during Trump’s presidency, have begun to erode the trust American people once had in the courts. Supreme Court aside, I would be remiss if it didn’t find an opportunity to mention George Santos’ lie-laden fall from Congress to Cameo star. Is everyone okay?

The Supreme Court Dismantled Roe. States Are Restoring It One by One.

Alice Miranda OllsteinMegan MesserlyJessica Piper

It turns out abortion support may be less of a binary issue than everyone on X (formerly known as Twitter) would make you believe it is. When the Supreme Court undid half a century of progress by overturning Roe V. Wade and putting abortion access in the hands of voters, things got scary. Very scary. Women drove across state lines, underground networks for abortion pills popped up, and the whisper networks supported care where needed. But in the 17 months since the overturning of the ruling, the polls imply that support for abortion cuts across party lines. According to an analysis by POLITICO, support for abortion has not only held its ground but has, in fact, in certain areas, outpaced the electoral success of President Biden and other Democrats. This revelation highlights a growing trend of voters being willing to deviate from a party platform to express their personal stance on an issue. The implications of this shift hint toward a new way of engaging with political parties—and how that affiliation weighs at the voting booth. As we enter an election year, spidey senses point to this being a trend worth watching.

Rachel Hislop

Rachel Hislop is a New York City native, writer, editor, strategist, and public speaker whose knowledge of digital culture has aided in the growth of some of the biggest brands and celebrities to date. In October 2023 she was named one of Mozilla’s RISE 25 honorees.

Most recently, she served as the VP of Content of OkayMedia and Editor-in-Chief of both Okayplayer.com and OkayAfrica. Prior, Hislop ushered in the unprecedented and now-historic growth of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s digital footprint as Digital Content Director for Parkwood Entertainment. As a speaker/moderator she has captivated audiences at Instagram, Google, Global Citizen, AdWeek, and Stanford University, to name a few.

Currently, Hislop is somewhere behind her MacBook consulting with mission-led businesses and brands helping them tell effective digital stories. You can find her on IG @Amazingrach.