The Companies that Defined 2021
Attention is an increasingly valuable form of currency in the Information Age.
In 2021, a handful of companies stood out from the pack, dominating the conversation and influencing society in both positive and negative ways. After vigorous internal debate, here is Visual Capitalist’s list of companies that defined 2021:
We looked at a number of metrics to select these companies, including Google search and news volume, performance relative to competitors, industry-specific indicators, and more.
Many of these are digital companies, and all have massive reach, scale, and influence. Interestingly, many of these companies also faced controversies along with their success, and were caught up in movements that were bigger than themselves.
With this context in mind, let’s dive in.
Robinhood’s eventful year reached its peak when the stock trading app was caught in a frenzy involving retail traders, short sellers, and “meme stonks”. It did not take long for Robinhood to go from hero to villain in this story. As the Gamestop stock shot up past $400, trading was halted and position limits were initiated on the app.
As well, Robinhood’s stated goal of democratizing finance came under scrutiny due to their pay-for-order-flow business model, where sensitive user trade activity data is sold to the highest bidder who then gets ahead of the trade, otherwise known as “front-running”.
Despite the controversy, Robinhood’s platform now has over 22 million users, many of whom are younger, first-time investors. While they have key attractions like zero commission trades, they were also accused of gamifying investing with features like confetti shooting across the screen after a trade is made (a feature that was removed after media criticism).
The company frequently made front page financial news in early 2021, and while the often negative press didn’t get in the way of their IPO—which commenced in late July—it has affected investor sentiment. Since their 52-week high of $70 per share in August, the stock has fallen some 70% towards the $18 range.
Furthermore, the SEC is rumored to be launching an investigation into them. With these headwinds, investing on Robinhood has probably fared better so far than investing in Robinhood.
Perhaps there was no bigger story in 2021 than COVID-19 vaccines.
Early in the year, the race to secure vaccines was on. Wealthy countries scrambled to buy stock and roll out widespread vaccination programs ahead of spring.
And the companies that managed to produce efficient vaccines saw the biggest benefits, like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The company’s COVID-19 vaccine, made in partnership with German firm BioNTech, ended up becoming the world’s most-preferred vaccine to fight the pandemic.
The company is forecasting revenue of $36 billion from its vaccine this year.
Competing vaccines from Moderna and AstraZeneca also saw their parent companies rise in both market cap and newsworthiness. All of the involved pharma companies have also faced constant scrutiny, with many countries in the world struggling to secure COVID-19 vaccines, and others dealing with vaccine hesitancy.
As the pandemic continues with the Omicron variant quickly spreading around the globe, Pfizer and its competitors will continue to be impactful into the new year. The company announced a COVID-19 antiviral pill that is planned to be released in the near future, and more effective vaccines and boosters against other variants are still a hot commodity.
2021 was a pivotal year for cryptocurrency. Prices reached new highs, and institutions and retail investors alike poured into the market.
With its user-friendly app and focus on security, Coinbase was well positioned to benefit from this surge in interest. The exchange started off the year by more than doubling its transacting user base as Bitcoin prices shot to new heights.
It’s easy to underestimate the influence of the company’s IPO—especially as its share price slid as the crypto market cooled off—but the exchange’s very entry into the public markets was a huge boost in legitimacy for crypto, paving the way for similar companies to IPO in the future.
Nobody captures attention and creates controversy quite like Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk.
Most of Tesla’s actions are tied closely to the famous entrepreneur, who’s known for his brazen online presence. Musk’s social media persona is so strong, one tweet can send Tesla’s stock plummeting, like it did last year after Musk told Twitter that “Tesla’s stock is too high imo.”
While naysayers are quick to criticize Tesla and Musk, the company has some impressive numbers to back up its hype. 2020 was already a ridiculous year for Tesla—its stock surged by nearly 700%, and with a valuation of $630 billion, it became one of the most valuable companies in the world.
This momentum carried over into 2021. This year, revenue rose each quarter, and in October, the company’s market value surpassed $1 trillion.
Tesla was also intertwined within other societal narratives over the course of the year. The automaker’s move from California to Texas was part of a larger conversation about the “Bay Area exodus”, as jurisdictions in Texas and Florida looked to steal Silicon Valley’s thunder.
Musk’s Tesla stock sales generated a lot of buzz in Q4 as well.
Seemingly in response to criticism over inequality and tax avoidance, Musk ran a Twitter poll to decide whether or not to sell a significant portion of his Tesla holdings. After a majority “yes” vote, the Tesla CEO now appears to have sold off enough stock to hold up his end of the bargain.
TikTok was already popular in 2020, but this year truly solidified its status as a cultural phenomenon.
The app topped a billion users in 2021, just five years after its launch in 2016. For context, it took Facebook and Instagram nearly eight years to hit that same milestone.
What’s so appealing about TikTok? Experts have many theories, but in an interview with Forbes, John Holdridge, GM of Fullscreen, puts its simply: “TikTok’s success can be attributed to how it flips what we think of as social media on its head, while at the same time returning us all to roots of the original appeal–the ability to go viral.”
TikTok’s short-style video format has become so popular that it’s inspired a slew of copycat apps, especially in regions like India where TikTok is banned.
Even established companies like Meta have tried to mimic TikTok’s success. In 2020, Instagram launched “reels,” its own short-form video feature where users can create and share 30 second videos. But Instagram reels failed to overtake TikTok’s growth—instead, reels has become a place for users to share and promote their TikTok videos.
Facebook frequently finds itself in the news, given its status as the world’s largest social network. In 2021, however, it was for two different reasons.
The first was the U.S. Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. In the aftermath of this event, many blamed Facebook for not doing enough to mitigate the negative effects of its platform—mainly polarization, conspiracy theories, and hate speech.
The controversy reached its peak in September 2021, when internal files leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen were published. These documents exposed Facebook’s internal struggles with combating misinformation, as well as employee dissent.
Ultimately, Facebook weathered the storm and opted to shed its baggage with a new name. Not only does this help the company disassociate from its previous scandals, it also lines up with Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions of pioneering the metaverse.
Following the announcement, “metaverse” exploded overnight and became one of the hottest topics of 2021. The word “Meta” has also become incredibly valuable—Meta (the company) recently completed a $60 million deal to acquire the trademark assets of Meta Financial Group, a regional U.S. bank.
While the companies highlighted above were undeniably influential in 2021, any list like this is bound to be subjective and open to debate. Here is a shortlist of other companies that we considered for the Companies that Defined 2021 list:
The surge in investment that propelled Robinhood and Coinbase to new heights was partially fueled by communities on Reddit. One of the most fascinating moments of the year came when Reddit user u/deepfuckingvalue appeared before the House Committee on Financial Services proclaiming, “I am not a cat” and “I like the stock”.
On the business front, the “Front Page of the Internet” saw double-digit user growth during the pandemic, and now has a valuation of $10 billion after a hefty round of funding.
NFTs had a Cambrian explosion alongside the crypto bull run, with OpenSea emerging as the dominant marketplace this past year. In the second half of 2021, OpenSea made up 95% of NFT trading volume on major marketplaces, and has transacted $1.42B in volume in December so far.
While it seemed OpenSea was planning an IPO after their CFO Brian Roberts commented how “you’d be foolish not to think about it [OpenSea] going public,” user backlash resulted in Roberts later tweeting that the company is not actively planning an IPO. Whether or not OpenSea does set sail onto the public markets, they’ll soon have some serious competition from Coinbase’s own NFT marketplace currently in the works.
Despite intense competition from rival streaming platforms, Netflix will finish the year on top once again. The company has a number of impressive tallies in the win column this year.
First, Squid Game was a cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming the streaming service’s number one show, and also the world’s most Googled TV show of 2021.
Next, Netflix’s Red Notice is likely the most watched new movie of 2021, logging well over 300 million hours of viewing time. Not bad, considering its tepid score of 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains to be seen whether deep-pocketed competitors like Disney+ are able to dethrone Netflix, but for now, the company is as culturally relevant as ever.
The fact that Elon Musk has two companies in this conversation points to why he was named Time’s Most Influential Person for 2021.
SpaceX has made launching rockets drastically cheaper in recent years, which helps explain its massive reported valuation of $200 billion. The company, which is the top commercial launch provider in the U.S., will round out the year with 31 launches.
Which companies would you add to this list?
Visualizing the World’s Top Social Media and Messaging Apps
From Twitter to TikTok, this infographic compares the universe of social media and messaging platforms by number of monthly active users.
The Social Media Universe in 2022
For a time, life in the social media universe was mostly uneventful. Consider these spicy (at the time) headlines:
- Even President Obama Thinks That Facebook Isn’t Cool Anymore (Techcrunch, 2014)
- Jack Dorsey Returns to Twitter as Chief, to Shrugs and Quips (New York Times, 2015)
- Instagram’s new stories are a near-perfect copy of Snapchat (Mashable, 2016)
In hindsight, the years leading up to 2016 were downright sleepy in comparison with what would follow. Donald Trump’s meteoric, tweet-powered rise to the presidency. The Cambridge Analytica scandal. Congressional hearings on privacy and bias. TikTok at the center of souring U.S.–China relations. Each new day brought a fresh wave of controversy the shores of once infallible social media platforms.
Today, the honeymoon phase is long over and the messiness of running a global social platform is now on full display. Nowhere is this more evident than Twitter during the current Elon Musk transitional period—but more details on that later.
For now, let’s explore the social media universe in 2022.
Mapping the Social Media and Messaging Universe
In 2022, the social universe is looking more crowded than in previous years.
The scale of Meta’s platforms still dominate thanks to their global reach, but there are a number of smaller networks fighting for market share. Here’s a look at popular platforms, organized from largest to smallest active userbase:
Meanwhile, here are the top 10 social media and messaging platforms by publicly-available monthly active users:
|Rank||Platform Name||Parent Company||Primary Function||Monthly Active Users|
|#1||Meta Platforms||Social network||2.9 billion|
|#2||YouTube||Alphabet||Video content||2.3 billion|
|#3||Meta Platforms||Messaging||2.0 billion|
|#4||Messenger||Meta Platforms||Messaging||1.3 billion|
|#5||Meta Platforms||Video content||1.2 billion|
|#7||TikTok||ByteDance||Video content||732 million|
|#9||Douyin||ByteDance||Video content||600 million|
YouTube is the only true competition for Meta’s scale and reach. Alphabet’s video content hub with social features boasts more than two billion monthly active users. YouTube’s embrace of the creator economy is nudging the platform further into pure social media territory with the introduction of “handles”.
As seen in the visualization above, China has its own ecosystem of large social and messaging platforms—the largest of these being WeChat.
The only platform in the top 20 that is not based in either the U.S. or China is the privacy-focused messaging app, Telegram. The Dubai-based company has a unique backstory. It was created after the founders of Russian social network VK left the country after resisting government pressure to release data on the social network’s users in Ukraine.
Today, there are also a number of smaller, special interest platforms. OnlyFans, for example, is focused on adult content creators. Parler and Truth Social appeal to users who want fewer constraints on the content they post and consume. BeReal aims to create more authentic moments by prompting users to post a photo at a random time each day.
Below, we dig into a few of these platforms into more depth.
Big Trouble in Little Metaverse
Having a figurehead CEO is a double-edged sword. When things are going well, the market rallies around the successful leader. Case in point, Mark Zuckerberg was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2010. Even as recently as 2016, Glassdoor named the Facebook founder the “most admired tech CEO”.
On the flip side, when the tide turns, it turns fast. After a series of controversies, Zuckerberg took a multi-billion-dollar gamble by renaming his entire company Meta and pivoting its focus to the burgeoning idea of a metaverse. Meta’s New Horizons platform is rumored to have plateaued at about 200,000 active users, which is underwhelming for a company that still reaches a sizable slice of humanity with its other services.
Part of Meta’s near-term success hinges on VR headsets being a hot gift this holiday season. Meta’s cheapest headset is $400, which could be a tough sell in today’s economic environment.
Of course, it’s too early to know whether Zuckerberg’s gamble will pay off. As always, all is forgiven once a business unit takes off and becomes profitable.
Microblogging with Macro Expectations
Twitter has a complicated history.
The company was launched in the shadow of Facebook’s massive growth, and was saddled with expectations that were tough to meet. Although Twitter has an engaged and influential audience, it hasn’t managed to monetize them at the level of Meta’s platforms (for better or worse). The introduction of Twitter Blue in 2021 did not resonate with users at the scale the company hoped, and “fleets” were essentially written off as a failed experiment.
In addition, Twitter is a magnet for criticism and debate around free speech, in part because of its central place in political discourse.
These issues are directly related to the company’s recent sale to Elon Musk. At the time of this article, Twitter finds itself in the midst of a painful, and very public, internal restructuring.
Social media has always been dominated by Facebook and its related apps. When a new challenger came along, Facebook either acquired it (Instagram, WhatsApp), or “acquired” their features (Snapchat). TikTok is the first challenger to keep its momentum and growth, even as Instagram rolled out very similar features.
TikTok is also a rare case of a Chinese tech product crossing over into Western markets. The ascendancy of TikTok was not without controversy though. Suspicion over Chinese access to user data continues to be an issue both in the U.S., and in other large markets around the world. TikTok has been banned in India since 2020.
Despite these headwinds, TikTok remains wildly popular. The short-form video platform was the number one downloaded app on the planet, and it remains a favorite of the all-important Gen Z demographic.
We Shall Surveil
In recent years, neighborhood-based social networks have sprung up and gained traction. NextDoor used physical letters sent to adjacent addresses to supercharge its growth, while Neighbors piggybacked off the popularity of Ring’s doorbell cameras. Although members post about more benign topics such as lost cats and where to find a good plumber, crime is an increasingly common theme as well.
Apps like Neighbors and Citizen have a more overt focus on crime and safety. While the growth of these apps reflects an obvious interest preventing crime, critics point out that the ubiquity of personal surveillance equipment and forums built purely around public safety promote a culture of suspicion in communities.
This type of social network is still quite new, so it remains to be seen if they remain niche communities, or grow into something bigger.
Chaos and Opportunity
It was Sun Tzu who famously said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”.
This is the risk and opportunity in the social media universe today. With their massive networks and high switching costs (e.g. personalization, library of existing posts), the largest platforms have created moats that make life hard for upstart brands looking to replace established platforms. On the other hand, controversy on platforms like Twitter and Facebook may cause some users to consider new options.
The multi-billion-dollar question—is dissatisfaction with major platforms temporary, or will emerging networks like Mastodon or BeReal hit critical mass and become new staples for people connecting online. Time will tell.
Visualized: FTX’s Leaked Balance Sheet
As Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange FTX files for bankruptcy, this graphic visualizes FTX’s balance sheet leaked by the Financial Times.
Visualizing FTX’s Balance Sheet Before Bankruptcy
In a difficult year for the crypto space that has been full of hacks, failing funds, and decentralized stablecoins going to zero, nothing has compared to FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF) rapid implosion.
After an astronomical rise in the crypto space over the past three years, crypto exchange FTX and its founder and CEO SBF have come crashing back down to earth, largely unraveled by their misuse of customer funds and illicit relationship with trading firm Alameda Research.
This graphic visualizes FTX’s leaked balance sheet dated to November 10th, and published by the Financial Times on November 12th. The spreadsheet shows nearly $9 billion in liabilities and not nearly enough illiquid cryptocurrency assets to cover the hole.
How did FTX wind up in this position?
How FTX’s Bankruptcy Unfolded
FTX’s eventual bankruptcy was sparked by a report on November 2nd by CoinDesk citing Alameda Research’s balance sheet. The article reported Alameda’s assets to be $14.6 billion, including $3.66 billion worth of unlocked FTT and $2.16 billion of FTT collateral.
With more than one-third of Alameda’s assets tied up in FTX’s exchange token FTT (including loans backed by the token), eyebrows were raised among the crypto community.
Four days later on November 6th, Alameda Research’s CEO, Caroline Ellison, and Sam Bankman-Fried addressed the CoinDesk story as unfounded rumors. However, on the same day, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (CZ) announced that Binance had decided to liquidate all remaining FTT on their books, kicking off a -7.6% decline in the FTT token on the day.
Back and Forth with Binance’s CZ
While Ellison publicly offered to buy CZ’s FTT directly “over the counter” to avoid further price declines and SBF claimed in a now-deleted tweet that “FTX is fine. Assets are fine.”, FTX users were withdrawing their funds from the exchange.
The next day, the acquisition fell apart as Binance cited corporate due diligence, leaving SBF to face a multi-directional liquidity crunch of users withdrawing funds and rapidly declining token prices that made up large amounts of FTX and Alameda’s assets and collateral for loans.
FTX’s Liabilities and Largely Illiquid Assets
In the final days before declaring bankruptcy, FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried attempted a final fundraising in order restore stability while billions in user funds were being withdrawn from his exchange.
The balance sheet he sent around to prospective investors was leaked by the Financial Times, and reveals the exchange had nearly $9 billion in liabilities while only having just over $1 billion in liquid assets. Alongside the liquid assets were $5.4 billion in assets labeled as “less liquid” and $3.2 billion labeled as “illiquid”.
When examining the assets listed, FTX’s accounting appears to be poorly done at best, and fraudulently deceptive at worst.
Of those “less liquid” assets, many of the largest sums were in assets like FTX’s own exchange token and cryptocurrencies of the Solana ecosystem, which were heavily supported by FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried. On top of this, for many of these coins the liquidity simply wouldn’t have been there if FTX had attempted to redeem these cryptocurrencies for U.S. dollars or stablecoin equivalents.
While the liquid and less liquid assets on the balance sheet amounted to $6.3 billion (still not enough to equal the $8.9 billion in liabilities), many of these “less liquid” assets may as well have been completely illiquid.
Relationship with Alameda Research
When looking at FTX’s financials in isolation, it’s impossible to understand how one of crypto’s largest exchanges ended up with such a lopsided and illiquid balance sheet. Many of the still unfolding details lie in the exchange’s relationship with SBF’s previous venture that he founded, trading firm Alameda Research.
Founded by SBF in 2017, Alameda Research primarily operated as a delta-neutral (a term that describes trading strategies like market making and arbitrage that attempt to avoid taking directional risk) trading firm. In the summer of 2021, SBF stepped down from Alameda Research to focus on FTX, however his influence and connection with the firm was still deeply ingrained.
A report from the Wall Street Journal cites how Alameda was able to amass crypto tokens ahead of their announced public FTX listings, which were often catalysts in price surges. Alongside this, a Reuters story has revealed how SBF secretly moved $10 billion in funds to Alameda, using a bookkeeping “back door” to avoid internal scrutiny at FTX.
While SBF responded to the Reuters story by saying they “had confusing internal labeling and misread it,” there are few doubts that this murky relationship between Alameda Research and FTX was a fatal one for the former billionaire’s empire.
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