How We Turned 2016 Into A Meme And Blamed It For Everything
The Debrief: And why it needs to stop here...
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
It’s nearly the end of 2016. How many times has someone said ‘I just can’t wait for this year to be over?’ or ‘fuck 2016’ or ‘2016 ruined my life’ or ‘I just can’t wait for it to be 2017’ to you in the last few weeks? I’m going to bet the answer is…quite a few. How many ‘me at the start of 2016 versus me at end the end of 2016’ memes, featuring Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan have you seen/shared? I’m also going to bet…quite a few.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see the back of 2016. For personal and political reasons, it has been an unequivocally shitty year as far as I’m concerned. To name just a few of the things that I didn’t like about this year there was Brexit, America’s decision to elect Donald Trump (who sports the world’s worst ever toupee), the very worst of humanity in Syria, horrible terrorism in France, Belgium and Germany, and the deaths of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Prince.
But, the thing about everyone saying ‘fuck 2016’, ‘2016 ruined my life’, ‘I hate 2016’ or ‘look at 2016’ is that it has turned a calendar year, an astronomical formality, into an animate object. 2016 has become a villain. 2016 has malevolent intentions, no sense of humour and hates us all. 2016 is Lord Voldemort, 2016 is evil Kermit, 2016 is Donald Trump’s evil twin, 2016 is Iago. ‘2016 has hurt me so much that all I can do is sit in my room listening to Adele on repeat’ you tell your friend. ‘God, that’s so typical of him babe’ she says back to you…
No, stop it. 2016 didn’t do anything to you. It was the result of global socio-economic and political forces which have been brewing for a while. The celebrity deaths were, I will concede, incredibly close together but that’s what happens. People get old and then, sadly, they die.
As this awful year draws to a close it’s clear that it has become a meme of itself or, rather, that we’ve turned it into one. Why do we keep doing it?
Sarah*, 30, says she uses memes because she’s ‘not good at being articulate’. For her, they are ‘a way of conveying a feeling without having to explain’ herself. She thinks she also uses them because they’re ‘humorous’. ‘They add a side of light relief to what is potentially a serious message so you can always be like ‘HAHAH JOKING.’
Megan, 26, agrees but wonders whether that’s always a good thing. ‘I guess the Brexit ones helped make sense of what the fuck had happened, although making a joke out of it straight away probably wasn’t the right thing to do.’ What is it that makes her share them, even with this in mind? ‘adding humour to the shambles that is 2016 eased the reality a bit and made it seem less serious’, she says.
I ask Sarah if she thinks memes have helped us to make sense of 2016? ‘NO’ she says, ‘I think they paint certain people (Trump) in a humorous light rather than as the dangerous human beings they are (he is).’ She also reflects ‘I think all the Hillary ones did irreparable damage to her campaign amongst Bernie supporters.’
Megan points out that anxiety also fuels our meme sharing. ‘I feel like lots of millennials joke about having anxious tendencies through memes, to brush those feelings off’ she says, ‘it’s almost like we all go ‘hahahahaha I’m so anxious…I HATE SOCIAL SITUATIONS…but at least I can laugh about it on social media’. Does she think that’s a positive thing? ‘It’s not something to take lightly but it’s interesting to see so many young people, women in particular, feel the same way and can connect through those images.’
On the flip side, Sarah does think memes are problematic. ‘I think they encourage us to indulge our laziness, our anxieties and our low moods’ she says. Why? ‘Because they are so relatable it makes us feel like EVERYONE is being lazy and indulging negative thoughts, it gives us fewer reasons to sort anything out.’ So memes keep us thinking about problems and not finding solutions? ‘MEMES ARE ENABLERS’ she says.
Ultimately, the problem with turning 2016 into a meme is this: it absolves us of any responsibility, implies that we have no power over the world around us, and prevents us from engaging with that world.
Earlier this week, when I wasn’t scrolling through Instagram looking at Kermit memes, I read an article. It was about a report conducted by the think tank Demos. They found that ‘people who had socialised with friends from a different part of Britain were 9% less likely to have voted for Brexit than those who had not.’ They also found that people who had spent time with someone who lives in a different part of the country, or who no longer live in their hometown, were less likely to have voted for Brexit.
I asked Ralph Scott, who authored the report, if he could explain the numbers. ‘It’s difficult to know which way the relationship goes’ he said. Of course, polling data only tells part of the story, he explains that ‘it could be that people are already quite insular and therefore opposed to the European Union in principal or it could be that they haven’t had those experiences and therefore don’t see its value.’
It got me thinking about memes, and the amount of time I’ve spent on social media in 2016, talking about how shit 2016 has been instead of actually going out into the world and talking to people about it – not just those who feel or voted the same way as me, but people who lead different lives and have different perspectives.
I wondered Ralph if felt that, perhaps, it could cut both ways. Is it possible that those of us who hated 2016, voted to remain in Europe and no longer live where we grew up could be equally shutting ourselves off from the world? ‘The people you mix with’ he said, ‘will be people like you…’ he paused and then said ‘I do think an effort has to be made, it was seen with the Trump phenomenon too, that people who weren’t voting Trump couldn’t think that anyone would possibly ever vote for him.’ Isn’t this really bad, not only for politics but for our society in general? He says it could explain why so much of what happened in 2016 was unpredicted and notes ‘it makes it more difficult for you to make sacrifices and consider other people’s needs. It’s definitely a consequence of social media in some ways, information comes via your friends, so it creates this self-reinforcing world view.’
I don’t know what it looks like, or how we do it, but something needs to happen to bring people who think differently about the world back together. Whatever happens in 2017 I’m going to try something radical: I’m going to spend a bit less time scrolling through Instagram and sharing memes when bad things happen, and a bit more time talking to people and gauging their reactions to events…especially if they don’t agree with me, and then, I'm going to ask them why and listen to the answer.
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