From David Bowie’s death in January to Donald Trump’s election in November, this year offered a steadily intensifying stream of indignities and offenses. While any responsible historian will tell you that every year is terrible, social media made avoiding our latest round of horrors all the harder. As Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker, “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it.”
Indeed, in 2016 there was nothing less refreshing than refreshing your Twitter feed, and nothing that made you want to log out altogether more than logging into Facebook. It was a self-reinforcing loop: Social media brought home the miseries of 2016, even as 2016 made social media that much more miserable.
Small wonder, then, that the year’s best—or at least most necessary—meme sought out ways to frame our experience of the year’s awfulness, and not just all that awful news itself. In its basic form, it shows us two images—one typically cheery and hopeful, the other most often grim and despondent—then ties them together with a caption: “Me at the beginning of 2016 vs me at the end of 2016.” More often than not, it’s the same character or performer in both, full of hope in the one, spirit broken in the next. These are stories of catastrophic decline, played for laughs:
General consensus seems to identify this meme as a marker of mourning, one that, as a typical reading puts it, says something universal about “how much we all hated 2016, because this year was just that awful.” Tolentino, likewise, writes of the meme, “[T]he joke is that this year’s depravity has permanently embittered us.” Except, that isn’t the joke—or at least it’s not the only one. To the contrary, this meme’s pleasures reside in its versatility, its openness to feelings beyond rote frustration, disappointment, or disgust.
Some of the best versions of the meme suggest a kind of steely-eyed preparation, their creators not so much bemoaning what’s past as readying themselves for what’s to come. Some—like one that pairs a glamorous black and white image of Charlize Theron with a still from Mad Max: Fury Road—still imply a fall from grace, even as they suggest that our descent might make us stronger. Others, including a few prepared by the Observer’s Dana Schwartz—who publicly sparred with her boss, Jared Kushner, over Trump’s support of anti-Semitism—propose that it’s time to get serious and fight back.
At core, all good memes provide opportunities for controlled, collective experimentation. Given basic forms—say, Kermit the Frog talking to an evil version of himself—they establish an easily repeatable set of largely implicit guidelines before leaving us to do as we will. There’s an easy pleasure in seeing clever people toy with and push against the rules that such a space suggests: When we play with memes, we play alone, but with an eye toward one another. We craft them to make others laugh, of course, but also in the hopes that they’ll recognize our individual mastery of the secret we share. What, for example, could be better than having a meme’s subject laugh with you?
The engine that drives all our memes, in other words, feeds on a combination of personal specificity and communal structure. This speaks to why “Me in 2016” works so well: Because its crystalline borders are so well-defined—and because we can do much within them—it leaves us with room to explore unusually precise particulars. When I solicited examples from my friends, many sent along images that didn’t quite click for me—and that’s fine. With these variations on the joke, we’re processing a year we loathed through things we love, imprinting our own passions on awful events. We swaddle ourselves in popular culture, wearing resonant references like a blanket against the winter of our discontent.
Significantly, though, this embrace of entertainment isn’t about retreating from the world, but remaining in it. It both acknowledges how lousy things have gotten and tries to reclaim a space for pleasure and play. In recent weeks, that’s been especially important on platforms such as Twitter, which increasingly seemed to have lost any sense of fun. Like punctuation in an endlessly unfolding sentence, 2016’s best meme invited us to pause (and maybe laugh), even as we kept paying attention. It may not have made the world better, but it made Twitter just a little less awful—and helped us reclaim small sliver of agency in the process. Here at the end of 2016, that may be enough.