2016: This Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Introduction

Who would have thought that we were living through a golden age? Possibly the most depressing thought about what is going to happen to the world in the coming years is the fact that pre-2016 will now be fondly referred to as ‘the good old days’. The days where you could laugh off extremist and racist views as those of a dying minority, safe in the view that progression was inevitable and common sense would win the day. The days where you could watch a video on YouTube called ‘Zeitgeist’ and wonder to yourself who on earth would believe such nonsense. The days where you could call George W. Bush one of the stupidest people in history. Well, those days are gone, because 2016 was the year the internet was made flesh, as complexity, nuance and logic were completely disregarded and replaced with lies, conspiracy theories and reality TV stars.

Even still, at possibly the darkest hour in a few generations, time must be made to review the inane and irrelevant things that occurred this year in movies, TV, music and memes. That is the purpose of this post, and I will do my best to stay on-topic. I’ll be back at the end for more depressing thoughts. Here’s a tip: if the text is in blue and underlined, it’s clickable and will explain what I’m talking about

2016

THE YEAR IN MOVIES!

Movies of the Year (unranked): Arrival, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Neon Demon, Rogue One, Captain Fantastic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,

Biggest Let-Down: Ghostbusters. There is a theory going around that Sony themselves were the ones to highlight the sexist comments posted on social media about the new all-female Ghostbusters, in order to give the movie marketing a narrative that didn’t revolve around how bad the movie was. I believe this theory.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: The Brothers Grimsby. Most comedies these days are absolute garbage, so I have no idea why this one got such terrible reviews. I was laughing throughout.

The Annual “Lesser of Two Evils Award” for which movie was the better of two movies that had exactly the same plot: Captain America: Civil War was the best movie this year about a pair of superheroes being manipulated into fighting each other by sinister forces. On the other hand, I barely remember anything about it, which tells me that although Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was bad, it was not necessarily as bad as we all thought at the time.

Amnesia Award for instantly forgettable movie: Several times throughout the year I saw a description of the movie Demolition, starring Jake Gylendhall, and decided that I should sit down and watch it. A few minutes into it, I would realise that I had actually watched it last January.

The (Spoiler-free) Official Verdict On the new Star Wars Movie: I said it this section last year that it has taken me a few years to get on board with the new system of possibly experiencing a new Stars Wars movie every year until I die, but this is what’s going to happen so we might as well get on board. Rogue One is fine, if unnecessary. The opening hour or so is quite boring, but the last 45 minutes or so make up for it. Also, the final scene gives hints as to how the Star Wars series will deal with the death of Carrie Fisher.

Film ad of the Year: The Sun’s front page on June 23rd, combining the newspapers love of leaving the European Union and also its love of Independence Day: Resurgance, which was to be released on June 24th.

The movie was released by 20th Century Fox, which is a subsidiary of News Corporation, which also owns The Sun. Corporate synergy has never combined so many terrible things. (Later on in the year, The Sun would repeat the idea by showing a still of Donald Trump from The Simpsons on its front cover once Trumpy was president-elect. The Simpsons is also produced by a company owned by the News Corporation).

THE YEAR IN TV!

TV Show of the Year: The Crown. It took me a while to convince myself to sit down and watch this show about a young Queen Elizabeth II in 1950’s England, but once I did, it had me in thrall like no other TV show since The Wire. It’s not bingeworthy, and you will not be able to take more than two episodes at a time, but I was at work and looking forward to going home to watch anoth episode.  Set in a time period that we don’t know a lot about, and documenting a class of people that mostly we just assume we understand, in my opinion this is Netflix’s greatest show.

Sitcom of the Year: Bojack Horseman. If I hadn’t watched The Crown, this would be my TV Show of the year. I said it in this section last year, it’s one of the smartest TV shows around today .

TV Disappointment of the Year: The Walking Dead. I only watched the new season because my girlfriend made me put them on the TV for her.

THE YEAR IN MUSIC!

Song of the Year: Portishead – S.O.S.

If ever a song could define 2016, it’s this one: A depressing cover of a song that older people may remember fondly from the early 1980s.

Performance of the Year: The Swedish hosts in the Eurovision.

 

Here’s some 2016 music that I actually listened to and liked this year. Most are from movies, TV shows, and memes, which shows how in tune I am with modern music. All I can say is that you can make fun of Kanye all you want: he makes great songs even when he is quite obviously going through a nervous breakdown.

THE YEAR IN SPORTS!

Game of the Year: Liverpool 4-3 Dortmund. I am still upset that Klopp is not currently the Arsenal manager.

Goal of the Year:

Robbie Brady, Italy v Ireland. I was left speechless twice in two days in June 2016. The first time was when Robbie Brady scored this goal to send Ireland through to the knockout round of Euro 2016. Once the game ended, all I could do was try as best I could to say goodbye to the people I was watching it with in the pub. I went home and began making travel plans to go to Ireland’s next game in France (and against France!), the following weekend. I’m glad I didn’t book anything, because two days later, the Brits had voted for Brexit, and I was in no mood to celebrate anything.

Contrarian Statement of the Year: Leicester winning the league wasn’t a fairy-tale for me, it was downright depressing. All those years of getting depressed about Arsenal’s failure meant nothing, as Leicester showed any old team could do it if they play well. Arsenal can’t even complain about being outspent by their rivals anymore.

 

THE YEAR IN INTERNET!

Tweet of the Year: Those poor stateless kitties. The most poetic illlustration of the absurdity of Britains decision, in one simple tweet.

Tragedy of the Year: The Death of Torrentz. To a certain type of person, Torrentz was an important part of daily life on the internet. A visit in the morning defined what movie/tv show could be watched in the evening. Many people have not recovered from their decision to liquidate, despite the emergence of torrentz2, which is a vastly inferior product.

Stupidest Meme of the Year: Uplifting lists of good things that happened in 2016. Scientific discoveries, pandas multiplying, disease eradication etc. are great, but people who write these things have missed the point. None of those things “happened” in 2016, they were simply the results of decades of work funded by the system that we soon will regard as the good old days.

THE YEAR IN REALITY!

Thing of the Year: The Internet. Like Anakin Skywalker, the internet was supposed to bring balance to the force, and no one really imagined that this would be a bad thing. One would have thought that by making all the information of humankind available to everyone that this would be a good thing, a new enlightenment that freed minds all over the world. Alas no, as all it resulted in was that different people believe in different facts.

Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin. I actually gave him this award in my 2014 version of this review, and all I wrote here was “because the whole world has gone to shite anyway”. How funny was I two years ago? And who would have thought that Russia would end up winning the Cold War?

Idiots of the Year: Liberals. While the world changed around them, the liberal heroes of the internet argued about how to construct a sentence that was in no way offensive. Like many liberals (myself included), we trusted enough in our opinions to know that what we wanted to happen in both Brexit and the US election would just happen. Liberal smugness like this is why the Right hate the Left. To win an argument, it isn’t enough to know that you are right. The Right think they are right too, if that makes sense. There are two extreme groups on the internet: the alt-right, and the always right. Neither are very pleasant.

The “Kardashian Award” for News We Shouldn’t Care About But Was News Nonetheless: Post-election/referendum protests. Many thought these were important, and that it could have led to something. It was just clickbait. A quasi-intelligent version of fake news, offering a glimmer of hope through archaic loopholes and laws, while ignoring the political situation completely. Brexit’s gonna happen, Trumpy will be president. You don’t have to accept it, but for gods sake why did you click on all that stuff about the Electoral College possibly revolting against Trump?


Conclusion

Well, I tried as much as I could to leave the current state of the world out of the mini-rants above, but as you know, the events of this year completely permeated every aspect of our culture, both on- and off-line. Here I have not even mentioned the carnage of Aleppo, nor the horrors of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, or even the continuing suffering of refugees all over Europe. None of this is likely to improve in the near future, as well as the state of affairs with regards to climate change. Some of you may have noticed that I have been publishing less on this site recently, and all I can say is that this is a result of the events of this year. The things I write about really are not very relevant or interesting in comparison to things that have occurred in 2016.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing: I just don’t see the point in publishing. On the night of the Brexit referendum, I wrote a blog about how Germany (I moved there this year) was a quasi-fascist state. I went to bed without publishing it, and I’m glad I did, because by the time I woke up, the United Kingdom was a bone-fide fascist state. A few weeks ago I wrote something about how Westworld was disappointing, but in this climate, who cares? I didn’t publish that either, but I hope to get back on track in 2017 with my usual aim of a new post every two weeks. Thanks to all of you who have read this far, or indeed anything I have written in 2016 or before. I’m not going to say 2017 will be better, but at least we are all now awake to what is happening. It’s not a joke anymore, but that’s not to say it can’t be funny. Have a great 2017, everybody!

 

For those who would like a trip down memory lane, here is my review of the year in 2015, 2014 and 2013.

The Commodification of Outrage

Commodification: the transformation of goods, services or ideas into objects of trade.

Prologue:

Last week, the internet was very upset with Roosh. Roosh is an author, motivational speaker and media personality who comments through the lens of an ideology that he calls neomasculinity. Neomasculinity is an ideology that brings together idiots, misogynists, and nerds who happened to have read “The Game” by Neill Strauss, and found their life’s calling inside its meagre page count. Roosh has been around for a while, and has written several books for his target market, as well as providing paid instruction courses on how to pick up women for those without his obvious skills, and pops up on TV every now and again whenever a panel show wants a provocative guest to rile up the audience and other guests.

Roosh felt however that he could do more, and decided to take his following one step further, and organise real-world meetings of his supporters, in dozens of cities all over the world, at the same time: all to occur on Saturday February 6th 2016. This physical manifestation of misogyny was too much for one internet to take, and in the days and weeks leading up to the main event, Roosh was not a popular man, as mainstream media took on the story, fuelled by a narrative that he was ‘pro-rape’. As impassioned Facebook statuses, likes and shares began to pile up, as well as sincere retweets and think-piece gifs pointing towards a unanimous public consensus that Roosh was indeed a very bad man, a few days before the intended meet-up, he cancelled the worldwide event, saying that he feared for the safety of those who intended to attend. A victory was declared for progressive-thinking internet folks.

To make a decent living by preaching an ideology such as neomasculinity, I would imagine that Roosh is quite a smart man, yet it is hard to see anyone who follows his nonsense as anything but a complete idiot. No one had any idea how many people would turn up to his meet-ups, but I think we all would admit that it probably wouldn’t be a lot. Opponents in every city he planned an event in, from Ireland to Australia, all expected the man himself to show up at their local event, preaching vitriol about how the rape of a woman in the comfort of your own home was no rape at all. The Immigration Minister of Australia pledged to deny Roosh an entry visa into the country, and Roosh replied with a photo of himself with a wad of cash saying he would sneak in through the unguarded North-West Coast. Australia was outraged. The entire world was outraged, and the entire world was not quiet about it. When Roosh cancelled the worldwide event, he was eventually tracked down by a tabloid reporter, living in the basement of his mother’s house in Maryland, USA. It turned out that while the world was outraged at his very existence, Roosh was busy selling ad-space on his personal website. The man set the world on fire while lounging around in his underwear, and was getting paid for it.

outrage

What Is A Two-Sided Market?

Everyone reading this sentence knows what a two-sided market is, you just maybe don’t know that it has this name. A one-sided market is when you walk into a shop and buy something. There is one customer, and one seller (or provider, if a service). A product is exchanged from buyer to seller for money, and then the transaction is over. A two-sided market is more complex: it involves the interaction between one seller and two different types of customers. In this case, the ‘seller’ acts as a platform (or intermediary) between the two types of customers, as one type of consumer attempts to extract value from the other side of the market (the other customer). It sounds complicated, but you know when you are watching television and a commercial break comes on? The product advertised (Side 1) paid the TV station (the Platform) for the privilege of gaining the undivided attention of you (Side 2). There are two sides to the market, and the traditional ‘product’ merely facilitates interaction between these two sides that would struggle to efficiently encounter each other without that platform. If one side of the market values the other significantly more than vice-versa, then often only the more desperate side will pay for using the platform, while the other side will use the platform for free.

This, of course, is why Facebook is free, and will always be free. It’s why all Google products are free, and will always be free. It’s why basically everything on the internet is free: you are on one side of the market, and the product/app/social network makes its money by selling you to the other side of the market, the advertisers. Most news sites operate like this, unless they are behind a paywall and require a paid subscription, meaning the site will get less views and thus is not attractive to advertisers that want their ad to be seen by as many people as possible. Paid subscription news sites therefore focus on extracting revenue from a different side of the market from the free-to-view news sites, but what is to be gained from taking money from readers, rather than advertisers? A free-to-view site is in the business of selling eyeballs (page views) to advertisers, while a subscription site is in the business of convincing readers into a long-term relationship based on quality content and possibly a compatible ideological viewpoint. We all know which one of the two is easier to do.

Two-Sided Markets & Clickbait

The above paragraph or two would be the best explanation I can give for the existence of ‘clickbait’: a headline of a news story shared on social media that was created solely to tempt you into clicking it. Think “He Asked For a Divorce, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”, or “9 Things College Never Prepared You for”. These kind of titles exist in order for you to click on them, and hence count as a page view for the site you have now entered, and this provides advertising revenue for that site. These things are meant to be a mild distraction, and no one really expects to be blown away by what is discovered on the other side of the click. This poses a problem for these clickbait websites, as ad revenue analytics have evolved significantly over the years, and simple page views are just not enough to charge advertisers big money: what’s required is that each page view corresponds to another click on that same website, and the holy grail: for users to share the content on their personal Facebook/Twitter accounts, meaning that successful clickbait will take on a life of its own, snowballing into thousands of unique page views.

The issue here is that fluffy clickbait stories such as every Buzzfeed post ever have gotten old very fast, and while we will share one now and again, we all know deep inside that all of our Facebook friends are silently judging us as ‘the type of idiot who shares cute cat pictures or Game of Thrones personality quizzes online’. No one wants to be that person. So in order to get you to share something online to all your friends, the content you share must be something interesting, or at least say something important about your character, or (and this is the goldmine) provoke an emotional reaction.

Remember Roosh? Roosh provoked an emotional reaction: everybody hated Roosh, and everybody shared something explaining Roosh’s diabolical acts, and how he/she felt about it. Roosh was at home selling ads the entire time he was suffering the scorn of the world: Roosh understood two-sided markets, and he knew he could charge whatever he wanted for advertising space on his website that would achieve unimaginable traffic during the whole ordeal. A page view that hated him generated exactly the same amount of money as a page view that agreed with him. Everything anyone read about him, anywhere, would provoke a google search that would lead to Roosh’s own website, or his YouTube channel, and each one of those searches put money into Roosh’s pocket. Roosh is the platform, the advertisers who pay him are one side of the market, and the outraged page viewers are the other side. He brought everyone together, and made money from it.

It’s pretty depressing, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here.  The thing is, Roosh probably didn’t even plan all this, he just took advantage of the situation. This is because all those articles written about him and his plans were written solely to lure enraged clickers to ad-funded websites, and then for this content to be shared on social networks along with a sentence or two condemning the morality of the man in question. Roosh became a big issue because websites knew his views would enrage people online, and so article after article was published, in the hope of enticing traffic based on revealing whatever depraved sentence Roosh had uttered in the past. This content would cause outrage in people who viewed it, but this content had nothing to do with Roosh, nothing to do with rape, and nothing to do with anything at all except drawing eyeballs to advertisement on an external website.

The Commodification of Outrage

Did you ever wonder why the death of Cecil the lion was such a big deal? Why you probably know what the Westboro Baptist Church is, despite it consisting only of one family and perhaps 30 members? Why all of a sudden there are calls for race quotas at the Oscars because there are no non-White acting nominees? Why Donald Trump is always in your timeline, yet you don’t know anyone who would vote for him? Why some websites will actually complain that Harrison Ford was paid so much more than Daisy Ridley for appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? I am not saying there are not real, important issues involved here, but my argument is that the reason for a website writing about any of these issues is more about inducing a click by causing anger to the viewer, rather than any genuine concern for the issues that are very superficially discussed on the other side. The goal of an ad-supported, content driven website is thus to pick up on whatever is currently pissing people off, or whatever could possibly piss people off, and throwing it out there to see how it does. If it attracts attention, more will be written about it, and ad-driven websites will recognise the power of the issue, and reap their rewards through advertising revenue.

People like Roosh don’t matter, they just personify a certain type of outrage that we all feel from time to time, and this outrage was successfully focussed and directed at him for a certain amount of time, and many made money from this. They didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, they just knew how to benefit from it. They successfully acted as a platform that brought together two sides of a market, the outraged and the advertisers. The platform extracted money from the advertisers due to the increased interest and page views caused by the outrage, and this is part of their business model. The interesting point is that in the order to extract money from one side of the market (the advertisers), the platform was forced to produce exploitative content that extracted emotion from the other side (the customer). Clickbait has evolved, it is not fluffy photos of animals anymore, it is content that is meant to offend, outrage and then be retweeted afterwards with a few words indicating your moral standpoint. There are a few old memes that tell us “if you’re easily offended, then get off the internet”. This could not be more wrong: isolating easily offended groups is the future of the internet, at least outside of paid subscription sites.

A Very American Pornography

Donald Trump is an endlessly quotable guy: his straight-talking, no-nonsense, ill-informed speeches are analysed both by his critics and supporters for lines of dialogue to either ridicule or celebrate him, respectively. Unlike much of the internet, I don’t get much from learning each of the new stupid things the man has recently said, but in all honesty I must admit that one thing he said a few months ago (and then repeated it every time he had a microphone) on the US Presidential Nominee circuit really stuck with me, and it was one of the few things he said that did not spawn articles and outrage, and it probably should have. Back last year, in the middle of any speech he was making, he would proclaim with pride that he was personally funding his own campaign for the Republican Nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election. In one of the televised debates last year, he boasted to his rivals that he was the only one among them who was paying his own way in the campaign.

We’ve all heard this fact, so it seems pretty innocuous to hear it again, but it is worth pointing out exactly what it means. By saying that he uses his own money to pay for his campaign, Trump is saying that he did not need to use the traditional (democratic) means of campaign funding, did not need to raise money from individuals and groups that liked what he had to say and would like to see him in office representing them, and did not need any support from the hierarchy of the political party whose nomination he wished to win. He would bypass all of this, because he was insanely wealthy and could pay his own way. And he was very, very proud of all of this. Trump was in effect boasting about being able to buy his way into consideration for the biggest job in the country, and considered this a point of honour: to him, his rivals for the Republican nomination were smaller people than him because they relied on donations while he was self-sufficient.

With his self-funded campaign, Donald Trump purchased for himself a platform with which to shout at us from, and ensured there would be no escaping the man for the foreseeable future. In the US, you don’t necessarily have to have something to say in order to be given a voice, you merely must be able to pay for the microphone. This of course ignores the fact that people in America always listen to Donald Trump, and not because he is loud and says funny things, but because he is a billionaire, and Americans worship billionaires.

trump2

When viewing a billionaire, or merely a millionaire, an American pair of eyes would not just see a very rich person, they would see a successful, great, powerful and wise person who could maybe have wisdom to impart to all of us about how to achieve similar success. This is the only way I can possibly rationalise the sudden sainthood achieved by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once his wealth passed a certain level and he claimed his place among the richest people in the world. Zuckerberg is obviously very good at what he does, and was very clever at building his product at a certain time and in a certain way that proved very successful. He engages in sizeable philanthropy, and strives towards a better American workplace in his own employment policies at Facebook. That’s all very good, but does it really make him worth listening to? Apparently so, as according to the World Economic Forum, he has some lessons to teach all of us through his choice of literature.

This type of post is so ubiquitous on the internet, we hardly even notice them anymore. A simple browse of LinkedIn will bring up posts about “7 things some rich guy says you should do before 7am”. Donald Trump himself originally achieved fame in the US by publishing his business strategy manual ‘The Art of the Deal’, which aimed to simultaneously teach the reader how to be better at business while also acting as printed evidence of how great Donald Trump is at business. Books like this, where a very successful person reveals their secrets always sell well. There is thus a direct link between the success of an individual and whether that individual is worth listening to.

The real issue here is the link between wealth and virtue in the US. While it is not explicit, in American culture it is highly apparent that success (measured by wealth) is considered a high virtue, and one to aspire to. If someone is rich, there is an unsaid understanding that that person works very hard and deserves everything he/she has achieved. The successful individual is seen as the sole author of his/her success, and therefore this person is an authority on success and can impart wisdom to others in and help them achieve similar success. The problem here is that there is no role given to luck or good fortune in the success story. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t benefit from being born into an intellectual family that encouraged education. He didn’t benefit from being born at the exact right time and right place to take advantage of technology and resources. Donald Trump didn’t benefit from being born into a rich family and honing his business acumen with massive private wealth as a safety net in the event of failure. Both these men are great successes, but it is difficult to argue that they both have not been incredibly lucky also.

Many reading will see aspects of this mentality in their own cultures, and indeed it is prevalent worldwide, but this is only a by-product of globalisation and the Americanisation of culture. The link between wealth and virtue is an almost uniquely American idea. Asking a Russian billionaire for tips on how to make money would involve merely a few sentences about being friends with Putin. Similarly, for the Chinese super-wealthy, all the tips would be about cultivating ties with the ruling political party. But even in ‘free’ democratic countries, there is an understanding that wealth and success are a mix between good fortune and hard work. The graph below shows how far the US is out in front of other countries with regard to individualism (The UK is in there too: that’s what Margaret Thatcher did to the country).

Americans Stand Out on Individualism

The stand-out statistic is the 26 percentage point gap between German and US opinions about the role of luck in success. Similarly, 73% of Americans see the sole act of working hard as the driving force of individual success, while other developed countries are far more cautious.

This idea that any American can achieve individual virtue through success (obscene wealth) by simply working hard is the American Dream in abstract, yet unromanticised terms. It is the reason brash billionaires are not only tolerated, but celebrated. The super-rich are the chosen few who have reached the highest level of American society. There are people who listen to Mark Zuckerburg and Donald Trump and dissect everything they say, in order to gain wisdom on how it is they became so successful, and then attempt to apply this to their own lives and achieve the same success. This is the same with the books written about success stories: Steve Jobs’ autobiography didn’t sell millions because people were interested in his life, it sold because people want to know his secret to success. This is why his profound quotes litter the internet, as people attempt to use the life of Jobs to sow the seeds to their own success. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t great, but he was rich, so there must be something he did right.


“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.

John Steinback

The reason Donald Trump is tolerated, and admired, in the US is solely because he is obscenely wealthy. His admirers like him because they have dreamt of being in the same position themselves, and can imagine all the sort of crazy things they would do in this situation: be mean to people, say stupid things on TV without caring, attempt to buy the presidency of the country. It’s a fantasy, a uniquely American fantasy, and this is why I see this billionaire worship as just another form of pornography, playing out in the minds of millions all over the United States of America, and probably beyond.