Out of the year's 365 days, here are 10 that made 2011 what it was.
A Shooting in Arizona
On the sunny morning of January 8th, a mentally ill man named Jared Loughner approached a town hall meeting being held in a Tucson Safeway parking lot by congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and shot her point-blank in the head. He then opened fire on the crowd, killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, and wounding fourteen others. As the newsmedia scrambled to get accurate reports from the horrific scene, Giffords was declared dead then alive then dead then alive, depending on who you were following. Giffords was in fact alive, and has made a pretty remarkable recovery in the almost-year since. Loughner is currently incarcerated and undergoing psychiatric treatment, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and deemed unfit to stand trial in May. In a meta media sense, the bad thing to come out of this already terrible story was a round of blame hurling, with people rushing to point at Sarah Palin's infamous target map or Loughner's left seeming (but not really) anti-Bush sentiments. In truth, Loughner is clinically insane and this was not really about politics at all. That many, including us, immediately jumped to that conclusion says some pretty sorry things about the state of our political machine.
A Revolution Begins
Starting at the very end of 2010, pro-democracy protests in Tunisia led to the ousting of that nation's dictatorial president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14th. The Tunisians' struggle and success created a wave of civic protests, both peaceful and violent, that swept across North Africa and into the Middle East, a phenomenon that came to be known as Arab Spring. Rallies began in Cairo, Egypt on January 25th, beginning the Egyptian Revolution that would see the end of Hosni Mubarak's reign and Tahrir Square's elevation to that of a household place name. Later, NATO deployed bombers to aid Libyan revolutionaries, who captured and killed long-reviled big bad Muammar Qaddafi sometime around October 20th. Now, civil unrest continues in Syria (and in Egypt and in Libya and in Yemen, etc.) and the political fate of the region remains uncertain. (As do its economic prospects.) What made January 14th, and many other days of Arab Spring, so landmark, beyond the obvious, is that much of the protesting was organized using 21st century media, particularly social networks like Facebook and Twitter. It would be grandiose and overreaching to say that either one of them personally felled any dictators, but they certainly proved effective rallying tools.
Charlie's Wild Ride
On Thursday, February 24th actor Charlie Sheen did an interview with radio host Alex Jones in which he lashed out at Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre, a bizarre and drug-fueled tirade that led to his firing from the show and began a long and strange trip down the tiger blood-soaked rabbit hole that is Charlie Sheen's mind. We all watched in awe as his brand spanking new Twitter account gained what seemed like 10,000 new followers every second on the day he started it, March 1st. The harrowing celebrity supernova experience seemed like it would never end -- there were goddesses and roasts and videos and more addled rantings -- but, as these things go, the whole thing had basically sputtered out by the fall. Now Two and a Half Men is back and going strong (ratings-wise, at least) with Ashton Kutcher as the replacement Sheen (whose character died a terrible off-screen death), while Charlie is on quiet damage control, trying to put a new show together and acting contrite in interviews. Phew!
Catastrophe in Japan
On March 11th, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that reached heights of 130 feet and traveled ten miles inland. The horror of the disaster was compounded when damaged nuclear reactors began failing and the possibility of a major fallout catastrophe loomed. Luckily the reactors were eventually cooled and repaired, by insanely brave workers who walked into radioactive ground zeros, and radiation leakage, while high, did not reach cataclysm-level. Still, some 15,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami and entire towns were wiped off the map. Reaction was immediate and mostly sympathetic, save for those few who made unfortunate Pearl Harbor references or poorly timed jokes on various social media outlets. On the lighter side of the year in earthquakes, a 5.8 magnitude quake struck in Virginia on August 23rd, a surreal but ultimately harmless experience that shook (and shocked) East Coasters who thought such a thing impossible. The National Cathedral and Washington Monument were damaged, but really the Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011 mostly existed so people in the BosWash corridor can now say we've felt an earthquake too.
A Surprising New Star
Also bizarrely on March 11th, fittingly a Friday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 comedian Michael J. Nelson tweeted a link to a music video calling it "the worst video ever made." That video? "Friday," a tuneless yet auto-tuned music video by a young lady named Rebecca Black, the first guinea pig out of the Ark Music Factory, a company that records songs and makes videos for teen wannabes in exchange for cash. For whatever reason, by the time Friday had become Monday, Black's video was a phenomenon. When Ark pulled the video from YouTube (only to repost for maximum monetizing) on June 16th, the video had been watched nearly 170 million times. (That's almost three views for every living soul in the UK, for some perspective.) Did Rebecca Black's insane rise to infamy teach us anything? Maybe something about the power of YouTube, or Twitter, or how fast-spreading the digital conversation can be. But mostly it taught us the days of the week. If yesterday was Thursday, then today is... Friday!
A Modern Fairy Tale
It had been thirty long years since the unwashed masses got to witness a grand British royal wedding, so anticipation for the impending nuptials of Prince William to party supply heiress Kate Middleton had reached a fever pitch by the time the shindig went down on April 29th. The ceremony, which was mostly boring pomp and circumstance, just about took over the internet -- an instant star was born as Kate's sister Pippa made her international debut, and Princess Beatrice's hat became the most important hat since Aretha Franklin's inauguration chapeau in 2009. There were kisses and horses and a long white train and all that good royal wedding stuff. While many may find the idea of royalty politically and economically silly, as far as entertainment goes, you can do little better. The problem is now our appetite for grand weddings has been whetted, and we really kinda need Harry to get married like right away. To us, preferably. But if not, Pippa will do.
Mission Actually Accomplished
On the evening of May 1st, a Sunday, an announcement went out saying that President Obama would be making some sort of... announcement later in the night, the subject of which was unclear. People on Twitter, Facebook, and all other manner of social media immediately began speculating about the topic -- a death, a war, a pregnancy? -- but the most popular guess was that nearly ten years after the September 11th terrorist attacks that he orchestrated, Al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden had been killed or captured. The conjecture quickly became fact and essentially the entire nation, or at least those that were near a television or computer, watched and waited for the formal announcement. Finally, hours after the initial speculation began, the president delivered a brief-ish speech confirming bin Laden's death and giving the rough details of the Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed him. "Long form death certificate" jokes abounded on Twitter, a strange cheering death cult formed, we were reminded of our own mortality as we realized that many kids don't even know who Osama bin Laden is, and Obama's (don't say Osama's! That was a common misspeak in those first heady days) approval ratings spiked. The mission was probably the most concrete and tangible success of the often dismaying and misguided War on Terror, and it gave many hope that our bad fortunes were reversing. Of course the news ultimately didn't change much of anything -- terrorism still exists, Afghanistan is still a depressing nightmare -- but at least we got the top guy, right?
On May 27th, beloved New York congressman Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted out a picture of a man's crotch, only to quickly delete the post and blame it on some sort of hacking. But, as happens in this internet age, the truth quickly revealed itself: Weiner had been sending pictures of his, well, self to women and one accidentally got made public. One woman he'd sent the image to gave it to conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and a standoff began. Weiner denied, denied, denied, insisting he was hacked, but on June 6th he held a press conference during which he admitted that he'd been sexting and resigned from office. Two days later, the photo leaked. An embarrassing (though perhaps temporary) end to a promising political career. Weiner wasn't the only congressman felled by technology this year, as the trawlers at Gawker got ahold of and published, on February 9th, a Craigslist sex ad posted by New York representative Christopher Lee, who resigned amid the scandal. And of course actor turned California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger split from his wife this spring, only to admit on May 17th that he had secretly fathered a child by another woman. He was safely out of office by then, but it was insanely bad PR for a guy who was trying to ingratiate himself to American movie audiences again. Tsk tsk, gentlemen.
The Rise of the 99%
On September 17th, a thousand or so protesters, spurred on by the Canadian magazine Adbusters and the hacktivist group Anonymous, took to Wall Street to protest corporate greed, big business's influence in Washington, and a lot of other stuff. They quickly settled in nearby Zuccotti Park and were dubbed, or dubbed themselves, Occupy Wall Street, which was a domain name registered by Adbusters back in June. Similar Occupy protests began to sprout up all over the world as the core Zuccotti protest grew, with celebrity endorsers and gallons of blog ink behind it. After one false start, the Zuccotti Park encampment was eventually broken up by police on November 15th, after nearly two months of drum beating, car pooping, and other annoyances that unfortunately distracted from the movement's genuinely important, if perhaps too big to wrangle, message about human lives lived as pawns of the always dispassionate and indifferent financial sector. It's hard to say if anything specific was accomplished by the Occupy protests, but there is certainly at least an acute awareness now of the left's version of the Tea Party. (A comparison that, yes, may be a little specious, but also kind of fits.)
Death of Invention
On October 5th, Steve Jobs, the co-founder, CEO, and creative visionary (to use a word often used when discussing him) of innovative tech giant Apple, died after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Jobs, who had stepped down from his position in August, was a hero to many in the tech/online community, and thus tributes were myriad in the days after his death. There were also some harsher analyses of his legacy, but mostly people just felt sad -- sad like a rockstar or someone of that status had died. Jobs made computers, yes, but he also expertly sold a particular lifestyle: Something at once sleek and functional but also whimsical and playful. The proud owner of a shiny-cool Apple product -- be it computer, phone, or music device -- was granted, to some, a kind of instant cachet. They bought the more expensive products because they smoothly functioned like wondrous external organs. And to some, they helped define personhood and personality. Because Jobs himself was so personally tied up in this mystique, some feared Apple stock would suffer in the wake of his death. But the inherent strength of his products endured and the company has continued on smoothly. Still, it's hard to imagine any other nerd in a turtleneck engendering as much adoration as Jobs, and perhaps rightfully so -- people used his products to Occupy, to watch "Friday," to text the Red Cross for Japan, to organize protests in North Africa, to read the news of Osama bin Laden's death. Job's death marked a year that, in some ways, his accomplishments helped make possible.