2021: What the Actual Shit Was That?

2021: What the Actual Shit Was That?
Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Einstein famously established the relativity of time. But even his elegant theory and the refinements that have followed perhaps fail to capture time’s true elasticity. There is no truer test of what we are tentatively calling the Unified Theory of Relativity than 2021, a year where moments stretched and collapsed upon each other and made it impossible to gauge if minutes or months have passed.

Consider that this year contained both the rise of the MyPillow guy and Joe Manchin, hitherto relative randos in the political ecosystem. Or that JPEGs and GIFs suddenly received hushed reverence usually reserved for the Mona Lisa. Or the boat. Remember the boat.

As we chatted with our fellow editors here about 2021, there were no shortage of double checks to make sure that our memories were not, in fact, failing. That this year was, in fact, extremely fucked up and contained more twists and turns than seemed possible to cram into 525,600 minutes. (Well, technically we still have a couple more hours to reach that mark, but as we’ve already established at this point, time is plastic than previous theories let on.)

We’ll leave it to scientists to reevaluate their understanding of time as they crunch the numbers from 2021. While they go through their peer-review machinations, though, here’s the raw data.

Attempted Coup

Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images

Last year might have gone down in history as the worst year in recent memory due to the whole global pandemic situation were it not for the fucking insurrection that kicked off 2021. (Oh, and the pandemic rages on. Cool!)

On Jan. 6, a mob of right-wing extremists goaded by then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC, in an attempt to overturn the free and fair election their candidate lost. Many of us watched CNN or refreshed Twitter in stunned silence as the rioters violently forced their way into the Capitol. After the hours-long siege ended in five deaths, it was clear that this was no mere protest: This was a violent attempt to overthrow American democracy.

The aftermath — arrests, trials, verdicts, sentencings, and now a Congressional undertaking to figure out who exactly was behind the attempted coup — is still unfolding. Most of the planning happened online, so the paper trail is extensive, to say the least. And while it is now obvious that the U.S. political system, once a foregone conclusion, is actually fragile, the outcome of Trump’s seemingly inevitable 2024 candidacy will prove if we actually learned a lesson this year. Early returns — from the rise of MAGA grifting to Republicans curtailing voting rights — indicate the answer is deeply, depressingly clear: No, not really.

Covid: Still Not Over!

Photo: Diego Fedele, Getty Images Photo: Diego Fedele, Getty Images

As the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 2020, we were all so hopeful. The covid-19 vaccines that would enable us to safely reemerge into society — maybe even without masks! — were just around the corner. We were promised a year of hedonism, a return of the Roaring ‘20s. But Hot Vax Summer never really began, because new, dangerous strains of covid-19 like Delta popped up faster than we could keep up with.

As 2021 draws to a close, the Omicron variant is wreaking havoc. Restaurants are closing, long lines are queuing for covid tests, and positive test rates are skyrocketing. You’d be forgiven for feeling like we’re living in some twisted Groundhog Day-meets-Pandemic film crossover. Why can’t we be done with this?

The news isn’t completely dire. Though early data has shown that the newest covid strain is more contagious than Original Covid and Covid the Sequel, it also appears to be milder, especially for those who have received three doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. But the sheer contagiousness means Omicron could still overwhelm healthcare systems, leaving the world in a place that’s still precarious. Despite that, the Centres for Disease Control issued guidance this week shortening isolation time for those who test positive, which is, according to scientists, tone-deaf at best and “reckless and dangerous” at worst. Sadly, it’s clear the pandemic isn’t over, no matter how hard we willed it to end.

Replicable JPEGs Now an Asset Class

Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock

Nothing perhaps better encapsulates the mad libs year we lived through than the rise of the NFT. (Insert meme) sold for (insert dollar amount equivalent to working many years at minimum wage) to (insert random string of numbers and/or crypto villain) became a tried and true template.

The year began with a Nyan Cat GIF selling for $US587,000 ($808,651), continued with a Beeple JPEG (it’s not even animated!) selling for $US69 million (around $95 million), and has somehow ended with people paying hundreds of thousands for shitty drawings of bored apes. Gizmodo staff writer Tom McKay sold a tweet of his cat, too. (At $US50 ($69), it was a relative bargain for such an excellent cat.) In between, we were treated to a slew of climate, copyright, and What Is Art, Really discourse. Could good things come out of NFTs? Sure. But the current dominant aesthetic and investor class snapping up NFTs leave a bit to be desired. Gawker published what may be the single clearest sentence about NFTs earlier this month: “It’s as if the whole discipline of photography consisted of pictures of George Eastman with his shirt off holding a samurai sword.” Which honestly, how is that not an NFT yet? Would right-click the shit out of that.

The Metaverse Is Happening Whether We Like It or Not

Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in October that the social media company was changing its name to Meta to reflect its next phase, building a virtual world called the metaverse, many of us laughed. Virtual reality headsets have many hurdles to jump before becoming ubiquitous, the metaverse will require a lot of technical achievements to become fully realised, and the timing was more than a little sketch — Facebook was all over the news due to whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaks of the Facebook Papers. The name change and new mission seemed like a convenient way to dodge some bad press.

But Meta might make the metaverse happen by sheer force of will, and other tech companies are more than willing to participate in whatever this turns out to be. Brands — never ones to sit out a new platform they don’t understand — decided to do The Most to prove they, too, are extremely hip and ready for the metaverse! Whatever that means!

Case in point: Applebee’s recently kicked off something it calls “Metaverse Mondays” with an NFT of a burger that sold for $US25 ($34). (The buyer also got a year’s worth of actual burgers for that winning bid, so at least they got something of value out of the whole thing.) Isn’t everything just… absurd? Whatever. Olive Garden, your move. Just hurry up.

Joe Manchin Becomes Famous for Being Awful

Photo: Samuel Corum, Getty Images Photo: Samuel Corum, Getty Images

Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia whom we have been blessed to avoid paying attention to for most of his 11 years in office, decided 2021 was his year. No longer content to sit on the sidelines while other politicians made headlines for being evil pieces of shit, Manchin pulled out all the stops.

He all but singlehandedly blocked his own party from passing legislation that would address climate change, help families pay for childcare, and expand affordable healthcare — all things a Democrat should theoretically be down to to vote for. Instead, Manchin spent much of the year stalling Senate Democrats from passing President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, presumably to force changes that would benefit West Virginia coal miners or something. (Please pay no attention to Manchin’s largest corporate donors or the fact that he reportedly takes weekly calls with Exxon.)

But just days before Christmas, Manchin revealed his hand on, of all places, Fox News: He would not vote for the bill he spent months watering down, citing his sudden grave concerns about the national debt. Even the coal miners think he sucks. Will Manchin just admit he’s a Republican already and stop annoying everyone with his stupid antics in 2022 so that the world can burn in peace? One can only hope.

Billionaires Went to Space, Unfortunately Came Back

Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images

For a few brief moments this year, the Earth had one less billionaire. While it didn’t yield a lasting Communist utopia, the planet was at least metaphorically and literally lighter. Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos engaged in a space tourism pissing match, with the former becoming the first billionaire to visit space this summer by a few days (or get close to it anyways, who can say really). The goal, our new space barons say, is to put humanity on track to become an interplanetary species. Or in Bezos’ case, to ship all polluting industry into space to save the Earth so future generations can come to visit it like we do today with Yellowstone. But based on the number of high-profile people being sent to space willy nilly now, it also seems like they’re maybe just trying to make space tourism A Thing. Which sure, cool. Maybe we could also try to fix a few other things before going that route, though.

Nicki Minaj’s Cousin’s Friend’s Swollen Balls

Screenshot: Gizmodo/Twitter Screenshot: Gizmodo/Twitter

There was no shortage of anti-vax bullshit and misleading statements in 2021. But the story of Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls is perhaps most emblematic of how off track we got. Before discussing said balls, let’s be perfectly clear: The various covid-19 vaccines will not affect your or your loved one’s nuts. Now, onto the saga of the family friend’s family jewels.

Minaj set off an international incident via tweet in September. It’s too stupid to even copy and paste the words so we’re just gonna go ahead and refer you to the screenshot above and note it got a lot of engagement. Which is great for Minaj and a nightmare for public officials around the world, who went into scramble mode to counter yet another comically spurious vaccine claim. Minaj’s tweet about swollen nuts and a wedding called off led the White House to offer a call (Minaj claimed it was an invite), pissed off the UK’s chief medical officer, drew a rebuke from a surely exhausted Anthony Fauci, and forced the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Health to go on a wild goose chase searching for any signs of junk in distress.

“One of the reasons we could not respond yesterday in real time to miss Minaj is that we had to check and make sure that what she was claiming was either true or false,” Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said during a press conference. “Unfortunately, we wasted so much time yesterday running down this false claim.”

May we never speak of Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls again.

Reddit vs. Wall Street

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Can you believe 2021 was the year that regular folks decided to have fun with stocks and kind of upend the entire financial system? What a wild ride.

In January, retail investors who congregated on the r/WallStreetBets subreddit decided to start buying up the stock of decidedly not cool companies to stick it to hedge funds who were counting on those companies to fail. When a coordinated move sent GameStop’s stock up 1900 per cent, traditional investors took note — and they were big mad about it. AMC and Nokia also benefited from the chaos, and for a few weeks it seemed like Wall Street was in for a brutal year. Things eventually calmed down, but GameStop’s stock continues to trade higher than anyone at GameStop really had any right to expect.

In a fitting close to the year, GameStop just joined a payment network that lets you pay for games with Dogecoin, a meme cryptocurrency. Does anything make sense anymore? Not really.

Boat Problems

Photo: Mahmoud Khaled, Getty Images Photo: Mahmoud Khaled, Getty Images

Putting aside the near overthrow of the U.S. government, 2021 actually started out fine if you squint enough. Vaccines were rolling out, Julien Baker put out a great album, supply chain issues were somewhat resolving. Then, the Ever Given happened. Operator error managed to get a big arse boat wedged across the Suez Canal, snarling traffic along a key trade route. Chaos and memes ensued. Some dreamed of blowing the boat up into a million little pieces. Alas, those wishes were not granted. The Ever Given was freed using much more mundane methods. The boat even returned to the scene of the commercial crime earlier this month to take another pass through the Suez Canal. It made it, which is good because the supply chain doesn’t need any more disruptions.

MyPillow Goblin Tries to Take Down Democracy, Fails

Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images

That a man who made a fortune hocking pillows on Fox News could ring the death knell of democracy speaks to both the fragility of our political system, the poisonous right-wing media ecosystem, and the utter banality of our moment. Yet here we are. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell had himself a year. Between selling pillows to own the libs, he also managed to produce a conspiracy theory “documentary;” scooped up hours of time on far-right OAN to screen it; got sued by Dominion for $US1.3 ($2) billion due to defamatory and easily disproven claims; launched a failed social media platform; and, during an attempt to salvage the failed launch, had to answer hard-hitting questions from Gizmodo live about whether there are knives in his pillows. He refused to provide a straight answer so take away from that what you will.

While Lindell did not succeed in overthrowing democracy in 2021, let us once again tap the sign: Things can always get worse.

The Ocean Caught on Fire

On the list of things that would catch on fire, “the ocean” would rank near the bottom in an ideal world. But that world is not ours to live in, friends. Just as the U.S. was sliding into July 4 weekend, a series of tweets that looked like a trailer for a new Michael Bay movie emerged. Footage shot from a helicopter captured the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico ablaze as boats tried to put the burning water out with… water. (????) If we’re being honest, it’s a pretty good metaphor.

The fire was the result of a ruptured pipeline in the Ku Maloob Zaap oil field managed by Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company with a long history of mishaps and questionable safety videos. Not that we needed another reason, but having the ocean not catch fire is certainly another pro on the “stop extracting fossil fuels” pro/con list.