Remember in 2016, somewhere around the summer or maybe even the spring, when everyone realized “damn, this year sucks”? Saying that 2016 sucked became a bit of a meme (and a T-shirt). By December, posts decrying the year were everywhere on social media. A quick search of the people I follow on Twitter yields dozens of posts, and I remember seeing myriad Tumblr posts about it too.
How cute we all were back then!
2020 blew 2016 out of the water. Though that’s not to say our feelings about 2016 weren’t valid. They were. A ton of terrible stuff happened in 2016, it’s just that most of that stuff hasn’t stopped happening for four years. Then some new awful stuff began to occur (such as a pandemic).
As we wave goodbye to the worst year any of us can remember, knowing full well the next one probably will also suck, let’s look back at the second-worst year any of us can remember. Why did we complain incessantly about 2016 on social media, and why do we do it much less in 2020?
Why did we think 2016 sucked?
When I sat down to plan out this article, I remembered the celebrity deaths, Brexit and the U.S. election. As I researched and added more entries to the list of what went wrong, I couldn’t believe how much nonsense happened in 2016. It truly was an onslaught. Those moments include:
- Near constant celebrity deaths
- Extreme weather events such as forest fires
- Numerous high-profile shootings and terror attacks
- Widespread protests after police killed several unarmed black men
- The rise of Donald Trump
- The concurrent rise of fake news
- Other political crises like Brexit
- Harambe’s death
- The opioid epidemic
Suffering and death were everywhere all the time. A recurring theme was deaths that people widely thought ought not to be happening. That covers everything from celebrities who went too young (David Bowie, Chyna, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher) to Harambe to the victims of unsafe opioid supplies to the many who died after a gunman opened fire at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. (A related terrible feature of 2016 were conspiracy theories that baselessly alleged events like that horrible massacre were staged.)
A lot of these events also made people feel out of control of their life or the direction the world was heading. Knowing that the U.S. was to be led by Trump for the next four years did little to assuage worries that climate change or the opioid crisis would get worse. It was a bleak time and hope was not on the horizon.
Except it sort of was
No problem that brought us all so much suffering and stress was solved when 11:59pm Dec. 31 became 12:00am Jan. 1. But when the ball dropped and the fireworks went off, we did feel hopeful something better might be coming.
New Year’s Day is a literal holiday in North America. From a young age, everyone around us leads us to believe something significant happens that day. A new year begins. We resolve to make changes in our lives starting that day because it is that day. Much of the discussion I remember from December 2016 had to do with wishing that New Year’s Eve would hurry up and get here. We just wanted to get 2016 over with.
Dunking on 2016 was a big part of building that hope. Posting things like “this year was trash” or “fuck 2016” was an act of coming together. It was a coping mechanism. We all had a common enemy, an enemy whose defeat was inevitable: 2017 was coming, and there was nothing 2016 could do to stop it. Never mind that 2016 was a nebulous concept, and never mind that time is a construct and that where we demarcate years is arbitrary. 2016 was going to be the last thing to die in 2016 and we were ready. Every time someone added their voice to the choir, they and their friends realized that despite the horrible things happening out there, together they would be okay.
Saying “2016 sucked” was community building.
One community missed the memo
That media outlets so failed to grasp the sense of togetherness people felt when they cyberbullied a year was a poetic ending to 366 days (yes, both 2016 and 2020 had the temerity to pull the shit they did while being leap years) of them failing to grasp a lot of things.
Nearly everything you type into Google about 2016 sucking brings up self-righteous articles from outlets like Slate, The New Yorker, NPR and The New York Times decrying the fact that people were being mean to a year when other years that no one alive experienced were worse. Canadian outlets simply didn’t cover the topic everyone online was discussing. Or maybe their SEO is so bad that such articles are impossible to find. I could see either being true.
These esteemed publications failed to question whether social media users truly believed 2016 was history’s worst year. I strongly doubt anyone did. No one seems to have been arguing that anyway. If I had been asked to name a worse year, I probably would have pointed to one with a plague.
Social media is a place prone to exaggeration and hyperbole. Only a major American news outlet would be surprised when people online exaggerate while saying 2016 sucked.
Many events that year taught the lesson that what happens on social media is important and ought to be reported on and understood. Key word: understood. As millions came together to throw eggs at 2016 during its final days, many major media outlets failed to learn that lesson one final time.
2020 sucks more than 2016 sucked
There is no point in doing a list of terrible events in 2020 like I did for 2016. It’s all basically the same stuff, except instead of Harambe there was a pandemic. A pandemic that many North American governments opted not to deal with during its second wave, because the economy.
At one point this year, forest fires were so brutal on the West Coast that the smoke travelled over to Toronto where I live and blotted out the sun. Life was sepia toned for a week till the winds blew it away. People out West couldn’t leave their homes because the air was so acrid, a sad alternative to not being able to leave your home because of the pandemic.
Fake news didn’t go away. In fact, it relished in COVID-19 content. At least this time social media platforms made some half-assed attempts at dealing with it. The political crises from 2016 – namely Trump and Brexit – continue, though Trump’s time is up in a month or so. Brexit is even worse than we thought it would be back in 2016, but somehow it hardly registers as news in North America given all the other nonsense. As public health groups shifted their focus to the pandemic, opioid users got left behind and that crisis worsened. And mass shootings didn’t stop – Canada’s worst took place this year in April.
You know, at least when famous people died there was time to mourn those we lost before the next celebrity death. Although, we couldn’t do it in a funeral home or in a mass public event because, again, there is a fucking pandemic.
2020 just hits different
2020 makes 2016 look like a party, so it’s no surprise we need different coping mechanisms. At the same time, the pandemic isn’t showing signs of stopping and few political leaders show signs of doing anything about that.
In 2016, we just kind of hoped fewer celebrities would die as the calendar rolled over. Today, we know more people will die of COVID-19 in 2021, even as vaccines roll out. The pandemic is exposing the myth of New Year’s Day. Nothing changes at midnight.
We still hope for a brighter future, we’re just no longer so naïve as to think it will come on Jan. 1. We know that future will dawn when enough people are vaccinated, and we can safely hug our friends again.
But I think there’s a nicer reason why we aren’t constantly saying things like “2020 can get fucked”. The community building we were doing back in 2016 by roasting an arbitrary chunk of time is unnecessary because we’ve already built resilient digital communities.
Most of life went online in March and stayed there. Even people who work in essential-service jobs, which force them to leave home for work, socialize mainly online. Zoom calls and online party games like Among Us have filled the void left by mandated physical distancing. Those moments provide a much better shared experience than making a few snide tweets for humourless journalists to take too seriously.
2020 sucked – worse than 2016 sucked – and my money is on most of 2021 sucking too. But many of us have digital communities we can use as starting points to rebuild our physical communities once we can safely enter buildings again. I’ve seen some people predicting that we’ll have another Roaring 20s on our hands once everyone is vaccinated. Let’s hope it doesn’t end with a once-in-a-generation major recession, the third in my lifetime. Maybe we could return to the 90s and alter the course of history instead.