Hey, Internet. Happy Holidays. You’re looking well.
Listen, I feel pretty bad about what I said a few weeks ago. All that stuff about how you failed us all by spreading fake news and sealing us off into bubbles and stoking our collective outrage and normalizing lunacy and I’m starting to get mad again, so let’s just forget what I said. The point is: I’m sorry.
As rocky as 2016 was — for both of us — I had no right to take out my frustrations on you in front of everyone like that. I know your heart is in the right place/on the right server. Before the Arby’s fire of this election even flared up in the grease traps, you were helping me through the one-two punch of Bowie and Prince, filling my feed with stardust and purple fog. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that.
And if I’m being honest, even though this was kind of a gruesome year for us in meatspace, it was actually an awesome year for you. If you had a back you’d deserve a few pats on it.
To prove I’m not just trolling, here are five examples of actual good you brought into the world this year. (And I promise it will be better than that Year in Review video Facebook churned out for you.)
THE NEW NOW: Even though the livestreaming revolution broke ground in 2015 with the near-simultaneous emergence of Meerkat (RIP) and Periscope, the cameras didn’t really get rolling until 2016. And while an early Buzzfeed experiment on Facebook Live involving a watermelon and hundreds of elastic bands demonstrated audiences will tune in to just about anything if it’s unfolding (or exploding) in real time, the larger impact of the rise of live video — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, YouNow, and a growing list of other platforms — is the restoration of synchronicity to our online lives. We’ve spent a decade playing catch-up with e-mails, IMs, text messages, expired status updates, and the ever-stretching archives our social media timelines, so this reintroduction of the here and now feels, well, current — and long overdue.
HOME IMPROVEMENT: At the outset of 2016, the Internet of Things was just an overused and near-meaningless buzzphrase used to refer to an incoming wave of home automation gadgetry. At the end of 2016, it’s still very much that, but thankfully we don’t have to hear as much because the many little things of the IoT are No Big Thing. Connectivity is now baked into everything from our thermostats and lightbulbs to our wine bottles and sous vide wands. The market has since shifted to sophisticated table brains like Amazon Echo and Google Home and robo-concierges like Alexa and Assistant (respectively) that moderate the dialogue between users and their many smart (but ultimately dumb) doodads. Still, this house party is only just getting started, and I still feel a little thrill when I see advanced home-hackers using rudimentary computers (like the $40 Raspberry Pi) to devise silly triumphs like a voice-activated fireplace.
PASS THE MIKE: Yes, this was a year of painful losses on a legendary scale — woe Bowie and Prince, Cole and Cohen, Wilder and . . . Miss Cleo — but 2016 also saw the Internet raising the profiles of a new wave of artists and thinkers, and it arguably galvanized what feels like a fresh renaissance of bold African-American voices carrying forth the concerns of the #BlackLivesMatter movement by advancing and expanding the discussion on every front. Artists, musicians, and creators like Dev Hynes, Solange and Beyoncé Knowles, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, Nina Chanel Abney, and Issa Rae pushed their genres (and audiences) in challenging new directions, while writers and commentators like Baratunde Thurston, MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chinaka Hodge, Vinson Cunningham, and Damon Young and D. Marcellus Wright of VerySmartBrothas.com enforced a new standard of woke online.
MIGHTY REAL: 2016 was the year VR and AR (that is, virtual reality and augmented reality) officially escaped the lab — and just in time for an unprecedented demand for replacement realities. The wild virtual critter chase launched by the launch of Pokemon Go! this summer found millions taking a (sometimes literal) crash course in augmented reality’s potential, with Microsoft and the mysterious Magic Leap waiting in the wings to superimpose their vision of the technology on the landscape. Meanwhile, virtual reality has reached Best Buy levels of actual reality. Between Samsung’s GearVR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Google’s Daydream (and Cardboard), HTC’s Vive, and an expanding selection of small-timer headsets, all that’s missing is a flood of content (check Steam right now, and just wait for 2017). VR will dramatically change the ways we shop, travel, chill, and socialize, but it may also revolutionize the way we see each other — and right now, any means toward shoring up empathy is worth looking into.
COMIC RELIEF: And finally, no matter how bad this year got, dearest Internet, you were always good for a laugh. The past dozen years have shown us that the worst of times bring out the best of memes, and 2016 was no disappointment (and I mean exclusively in this regard).
Just off the top of my head there was “Damn Daniel,” “Bernie vs. Hillary”, Ken Bone, Barack and Joe (and the burgeoning canon of other microplays), the (unrelated) amphibious trio of Dat Boi, Evil Kermit, and Pepe the Frog, and, at the buzzer, the heir apparent to Pizza Rat’s 2015 crown of crumbs, Pole-Dancing Rat.
But it’s Pepe to whom I keep returning. A laid-back cartoon frog who originated as an innocent (if likely stoned) mascot for feelin’ good (and dropping trou to do #1), Pepe found himself hijacked by racist trolls during the heat of the election season – his signature chill hijacked and replaced with bleary-eyed hate all over Twitter. The happy ending is that Pepe creator Matt Furie went on to counter the co-option of Pepe by teaming with the Anti-Defamation league to cast him in a new role as anti-hate champion.
As frogs go, Pepe still looks really high. But as memes go, he’s actually quite profound. This year, Pepe — my 2016 Thing of the Year — embodied the split personality of our country at this moment in its history. But he also demonstates for us our capacity to change for the better. It’s a whiff of hope amidst an otherwise icky swamp. Feels good man.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.