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The definitive meme of 2016 was “fuck 2016”

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

The drum beat began early. At the beginning of the second week in January, both Rolling Stone and Vice published articles detailing how awful the impending year would be, citing mudslides in Los Angeles, infringements on Obamacare, the Syrian conflict, shitty pop culture analysis, and so on. They didn’t know the half of it. David Bowie was still alive.

The following week, he wasn’t, and we all joined in with the chant: Fuck 2016. Over the following months, Alan Rickman, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, and Phife Dawg would die, and each time we’d respond: Fuck 2016. We greeted mass shootings, terrorist attacks, Brexit, Zika, and roaming clowns with it. The chant was deafening during a vituperative presidential campaign that continually sought out new debasements and culminated in the unthinkable, after which we sighed, knowing suddenly how it had to end, because fuck 2016. Dazed weeks have passed, and more deaths, and more outrages, and each time we rejoinder with the ritualistic “fuck 2016.” As the end of the year gets closer, the chant has the shamanistic intensity of a death cult: Fuck 2016, we say. Let it burn.

“Fuck 2016” was the one thing we could agree on, despite everything—a calm center we could all return to. It’s an arbitrary abstract antagonist with which no one can argue. “It’s been a rough year,” we could sigh to racist uncles at Thanksgiving; “Goddamn it 2016,” we could say, eulogizing Celebrity Z on Facebook. Like any other meme, it’s a shortcut to humor, a framework anyone can riff on or just repeat unaltered. But its molten core is a keening anxiety that something is not right. Everything should not feel this bad; this much bad should not happen at once. The best anyone could do after each new outrage was to tell 2016 to fuck off earlier and better than anyone else—John Oliver has made a career of this—but we always knew it was coming, like a Crying Jordan for Serious Shit. A few days after Bowie died, David Schneider wrote, “I hope God rethinks his decision to allow an intern to run celebrity deaths in 2016.” In February, Jake Flores wrote, “I’m starting to think this is the last season of America and the writers are just going nuts.” Four months later, Pourmecoffee wrote, “I hope 2016 doesn’t get renewed. The plot is ridiculous and none of the characters are likable.” But the most common iteration, in the hot, furious summer of 2016, was this:

And then, on election night:

After which John Oliver took the meme to its logical conclusion and just blew the whole goddamn year up.

But the dirty secret of the “fuck 2016” meme is that it did not begin on January 1, 2016. We were making the same jokes in 2015, and 2014, and 2013, and 2012. It was how we responded to Robin Williams’ death, to Avian flu, to Ferguson. Hating the year we’re currently in is not a response to the various sadnesses and atrocities and deaths we encounter each year; it is a response to the internet, which demands something droll and urbane the instant a thing occurs. I’m not speaking of the anxiety and real sorrow we felt incessantly throughout this year; I’m speaking of the joke we made and repeated to console ourselves afterward. Fuck 2016, we repeated, time and again. It’s exhausting, and we are exhausted by it, so what better response than sheer, constant exhaustion?

It’s going to be exhausting, too, how much we’re going to hate 2017. It already was in 2016. One widely shared piece in 2015 declared it “the year of the internet hangover”; the memes of 2016 nursed that hangover with more booze, staving off the dehydration with increasing dehydration. We used the term “dumpster fire” to describe people and quagmires but ultimately let the fire swallow the year itself. We watched the fire lap at a cartoon dog, attempting to enjoy some coffee, muttering to himself that this was fine. We knew it was not—not in 2016. This despair was met elsewhere by a glib, Reddit-like randomness—Harambe, Boaty McBoatface, Ken Bone—each another shortcut for humor, a readymade joke that didn’t need explanation or setup. Each succeeded by volume, through sheer quantity and variety of their applications. But you could see the fire in them, too. Boaty McBoatface, after all, was the result of another election taken as a joke; Harambe was the write-in of choice for glib internet kids; Ken Bone was a politically safe punchline until we dug a little too deep on his Reddit profile. The punchline of each was, in some capacity, “Look who we are. Look how many of us there are. And look what we’ll do.”

It’s in the nexus of these two types of memes—their anonymous, latent rage—that we see the real reason we hated 2016. It was the year glib internet nihilists became an inalterable real-world force. This was not the worst year on record—any year during the Black Plague or either World War might be a better fit for that—but it was unquestionably the most internet year ever. And if you hate the look of that statement, so do I, and that is my point. In 2016 you no longer needed to be on the internet to see the worst of it, to feel yourself caught in the midst of a Twitter egg battle. The “meme magic” kids who treated Trump’s candidacy as a Rickroll on political correctness won; their idol, a cartoon frog named Pepe, bled into the real world, his name shouted at Clinton rallies and his face designated a symbol of hate, until at last he emerged in the flesh to walk among us. Hillary Clinton attempted to fight back, meme on meme: She issued a “delete your account” tweet, and appeared on Between Two Ferns, and she fucking dabbed. But there was no irony to any of it; her goose was already cooked. The internet had already chosen, and each morning we wake up in the world for which it rallied.

To be clear, Trump did not win because of the internet anymore than David Bowie died because of it. The causes were varied, as were our reactions, but the common denominator to them was a howling “fuck you” to the year itself. As we saw ever more of the internet in the real world, we funneled ever more disdain for the real world into the internet. This did not begin in 2016, and it will not end here, but it did reach its zenith. Next year will be another. Hating the year we are currently in is a great leviathan in the internet’s id, cyberculture’s Oedipal complex. I do not know how such a thing gets purged. Yoga?

It’s probably best not to try. The writer Alex Balk has surmised three essential laws of the internet, the first of which is that, “Everything you hate about the internet is actually everything you hate about people.” A transitive deduction is also true: Your response to the year in which you’re living is probably actually your response to the internet. This may not be helpful for you, but I find some comfort in it. “Fuck 2016” is a framework, not a fact. If performatively hating 2016 helped anyone get through 2016, then it was a good meme. And anyway, Balk’s third law is “If you think the internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The memes of 2017 will have to dig deep to keep up with the real world, but I have faith in the internet.