Ah, 2017, a new year and a new beginning for people who felt last year just wasn’t up to snuff. A lot of people entered this year with the idea that last year was somehow the worst year ever. For the longest time I thought it was just hyperbole in jest, a little poking of fun at the various misfortunes that happened, but eventually it became very clear that people meant it. Many were convinced that somehow the year itself was just so unrelentingly bad that it surpassed all previous bad years. To the internet, in particular, the idea that 2016 was a terrible year is just accepted fact. So, to all those relieved the year is over, here’s to a clean slate!
But I’ve never been too attached to the idea that the particular year really means anything. Trends happen across large periods of time, not just within the confines of a particular year, so no one year is really any better or worse than any year around it. And a lot of people have gone around picking at the idea 2016 was the “worst year” and found that it wasn’t actually as bad as people thought it was. Do a quick search and you’ll find dozens of articles and hundreds of social media accounts listing off the long list of reasons 2016 wasn’t so bad.
So that left me with a question that I realized hadn’t been asked too often: if the year wasn’t really that bad, why did everyone think it was? And, more importantly for this blog, what does it tell us about human nature?
A Thousand Cuts
Several reasons have been proposed for why 2016 was the worst year ever, ranging from serious to trivial matters. Politically, things didn’t go as hoped for some with the UK leaving the EU and the White House leaving reality. But foreign relations are constantly shifting and changing and it’s not the first time a hateful moron’s been voted into office – so that can’t really be the cause. Some would cite strife in countries like Syria, which is a terrible thing, but one could argue that such strife has been unfortunately common to that region for a long time and, surprisingly, we still currently live in the most peaceful time in human history. Others could further cite the social tensions that have recently come to a head. But those tensions have existed for decades and, once again, one could argue the situation today is much better than one or two generations ago.
So it started to become common for these opinions to be dismissed as a simple lack of perspective, and some of that may be true. And that wasn’t entirely helped but the more trivial matters. Though I cited the most serious issues in the previous paragraph, there were other (lesser) issues that seemed to take the forefront in conversations. Unfortunately, those reasons made it way easier to dismiss the whole thing. The elephant in the room is that some celebrities died and it made people particularly sad because so many of them did it in such a short time. Considering most childhood heroes of the generation most active online are all hovering in their late 50s to early 80s right now, that could be a problem for 2017 as well. But is it really that simple? Was it really the worst year because it started with the death of the guy who sang Space Oddity and ended with the death of someone who went on a Space Odyssey?
I can understand being sad when someone you like or admire dies. Though I’ve never been one for “celebrity culture” I can understand the attachment some could have. We bring these people into our lives in a way, they’re the faces attached to the stories and events that shape our lives. Sometimes we get to know them and we understand that they’re not only somewhat like us but that they’re evidence that we can be okay. Others were people who gave us something to aspire to. It was a year not only where we lost actors and musicians but writers, philanthropists, architects, and even an astronaut. Though essentially strangers, they took part in creating our world view, our very personalities, and their loss can be felt as losing a part of ourselves.
Still, for as many names as will likely grace the “in memoriam” section of this years award shows, it’s incredibly unlikely that every single name mattered to every single person who saw the year as doomed. In fact, even those who did care about specific names weren’t likely to hurt for long. No one outside of Carrie Fisher’s family is likely to be torn up about her missing until they happen to see a picture or movie she was in. So while it can be quite an upheaval, is it really catastrophic?
It was while thinking of this that I realized something: 2016 wasn’t the worst year ever, it was just one of the most consistent. And that’s when it really started to pique my interest, because as a writer and someone who analyzes culture, the way people responded to that consistency was fascinating. See, if 2016 were a movie, it would have been a terribly paced movie with no real sense of an act structure. There was no time to breathe between the beats, it was too crowded with events. It wouldn’t have been a sad movie or a tragic book, it would have been an exhausting one.
Consider for a moment, while no single event managed to surpass an event from previous years, the smaller events came with such a consistent frequency that there wasn’t really a pause between them. There were no times to stop to cry, there were no times to appreciate the finer things in life, every few days had people mourning something else. And it was compounded by our current hashtag culture, because even if you didn’t personally care about an event – it was trending somewhere.
Even if you didn’t much care for a specific celebrity, the fact that their name ended up trending everywhere you went online meant that you were forced to experience it with everyone else. And in some instances, the death of one celebrity was punctuated by the death of another that made it all the more significant. How many people were really familiar with both the work of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds? And, of those, how many knew they were related? I know many do, but because they died back to back, that suddenly went from “many” to “everyone”.
Human emotions require peaks and valleys, there needs to be more than a single beat. In a sense, 2016 still had peaks but almost every one of them shared space with something that was, if not horrible, at least a little inconvenient. For every good point there was a bad point almost immediately after, and because there lacked space between these you have a situation where the good thing just doesn’t have the luster it should have. Those who have gone out of their way to find all of those high points haven’t had a hard time compiling a great list, but that list misses the fact that almost every time one of those good events happened, a different negative event was trending on social media.
People had bad news fatigue, not because of the size of the news, but instead because of the repetition of it.
And that’s the lesson I take away from 2016, something that I already knew but had never seen on such a grand scale. As a writer, as a creator of any sort, we all need to remember that people need those breathers, that simply piling on similar events one after another doesn’t do anything except make for a tiring mess. Even if you’re just hoping to build tension or create a bleak atmosphere, there needs to be a breather in there to allow people to process. Even if those events you string together are just inconveniences or annoyances, there needs to be a change to the style and the pace. Because, if you don’t remember to keep those breathers…
You’ll make the same mistake 2016 did (though the exploding phones was a nice twist).