We lived this year in the wake of other years. Big stories with decade-long arcs came to a close. Things we'd been wondering about for decades finally shook out in the wash. The chickens came home to roost because the economy was tanking and they couldn't find a job to support themselves.
Steve Jobs, the guy who spent the last decade creating the next big thing, died of a terminal illness he'd been battling for years, but his death felt sudden. The technology blogs and consumers who had come to expect him to change their lives every couple years were forced to pull focus on how recently we were walking around with Discmans.
No man in history has had more of an impact on the way we masturbate.
The generation that grew up never knowing a world without iPods had a big year, as they were forced to face the end of Harry Potter and the third-act climax of the 9/11 story that had defined their generation more than most of us had realized. The wake they threw for bin Laden on the night he was assassinated was one of the more surprising events of the year. It was the first time those of us who were adults in 2001 realized how weird it would have been to have September 11 be a seminal experience.
With most people learning of his death on Twitter, every one of us was asked to participate in the story -- write our own eulogies. Some of us even succeeded.
Others not so much.
The speed with which we began creating conspiracy theories in the wake of the bin Laden announcement was remarkable. This was the year that the wake of old news stories was still echoing through our culture, while the wake created by new stories was disintegrating faster than ever.
In an episode of 30 Rock that aired in March of 2011, Aaron Sorkin complained that "Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds." Normally, this would have scanned to me as "Our craft is dying while [VIDEO GAME REFERENCE]." I've been video game abstinent since my Mario 64 habit caused the saddest intervention anyone has ever had to organize for a high school student.
This year, I found my wife playing Angry Birds on her phone and decided I could handle this, and soon after realized I was wrong. I've seen entire nights disappear while I tried to kill what I have to imagine are the least intimidating video game villains of all time (are there other video games where the bad guy is a limbless, paralyzed blinking torso? I honestly don't know).
This is what the mainstream looks like, gamers.
After a decade of video games occupying a collection of niche markets that I'd managed to slalom between, Angry Birds made me feel like I was missing out on something. I think there's a reason this happened. Angry Birds is not just another video game. My wife was playing the game because my wife is a person, and Angry Birds officially conquered that demographic this year.
The head of Rovio, the company that makes the game, believes they can be bigger than Mario and Mickey Mouse, and I half believe him. (The Mario half.) They gave smartphones an adorable mascot the way Mario became the first mascot for home gaming. Mickey Mouse would seem to have a pretty giant advantage over anything born these days, the same way George Washington is always going to be the most popular president. Then again, if Mickey Mouse was released today, he'd be just another cartoon character. Angry Birds' ability to dominate a world of cartoon characters, apps and touch screen games all engineered to addict us might mean that they're a superior species.
They certainly translate into cupcakes better than the cast of StarCraft II.
Any attempts to expand them into a feature length film (in the works) or anywhere off our smartphones could be disastrous. But whether they become the new Mario or the future California Raisins, they will always have the past few years. Just ask the most unflappable player in the NBA, Kevin Durant, who is apparently way more flappable when he's trying to kill non-ambulatory, cartoon pigs.
In the NBA and NFL, great coaches can cause their opponents to lose after they play them. A well coached team may win or lose that particular game depending on how much talent they have, but their opponents then tend to lose their next game. That's because great coaches expose a weakness nobody has seen before -- one that subsequent opponents see and exploit. Donald Trump is the mainstream media equivalent of a great coach. He is a genius of manipulating national attention, regardless of how clearly we see through what he's doing and hate him for it.
That's still a terrible toupee, but it's the terrible toupee of a puppet master.
While Trump has had more obviously successful years before, this year he exploited the weakness in the mainstream media that would define the Republican primary. He may have dropped out before anyone was paying attention to the race, but he spent the first four months of this year creating the blueprint for the GOP candidates who have dominated the news in the second half of the year.
He invented what I'm calling the Trump Law of Media Manipulation, which states that if you make ridiculous enough claims with a straight face, the media will be forced to cover what you're doing as though it's legitimate. Therefore, if you don't really think you can win, it's better to make a splash while being entertaining and shameless than it is to be a coherent, serious politician.
This works because the modern media is built on a logical fallacy: that "fairness" involves covering both sides of a story even if one of those sides is profoundly stupid. It also doesn't hurt that the modern media is driven by ratings and clicks, so they will give the advantage to whichever side makes the more sellable story.
The plainspoken pizza mogul with no prior political can take the lead in the polls because he will make outrageous claims, outline Sim City-inspired tax plans and generally be entertaining.
"I am exactly as good at politics as I am at making edible pizza."
When that guy gets accused of sexual harassment, suddenly the old fat guy who helped create the Clinton sex scandal (a brief period in the '90s when it was Christmas for an entire year at major news outlets) becomes a front-runner.
Trump has always been willing to do whatever it takes to create a story, and that seems to be what defines whoever is "leading in the polls." He knew exactly what he was doing when he made the preposterous accusations about Obama's birth certificate that were later disproved. The version of that story that is currently being repeated by the popular media is that Trump lost when Obama showed his birth certificate and promptly killed bin Laden. The fact that Obama felt the need to disprove Trump's absurd accusations is what we should take from that story. It's certainly the lesson that the most successful Republican nominees up to this point seem to have learned.