Category Archives: opinion

Did David Bowie predict memes?

Ok, shut up and watch this.

Watch it a few more times. It’s two seconds long. Watch it like fifty times.

Watch it, and then tell me that David Bowie didn’t just say “meme school”.

HE TOTALLY DOES, RIGHT?

I want to investigate just what is going on here. Because it’s so weird and fantastic and the fact it’s David Bowie just makes it all that much more magical and interesting. So let’s start at the beginning.

This is a clip from a 2002 ‘Live By Request’ show. Live By Request was a program on the A&E Network in the US that was basically a phone-in show where artists would play songs as requested by callers. It’s a pretty cool idea, and the Bowie one is, of course, amazing. Here’s the full thing.

Anyway, the interesting bit occurs about 1hr35mins in. He’s talking about his early days. Transcript as follows:

INTERVIEWER
A lot of people don’t know, you studied as a mime when you were starting?

BOWIE
I’m afraid I did, yeah it’s vulgar.
I couldn’t get into clown school, so I ended up with mime school.
There were so many more vacancies!

PAUSE

BOWIE
[LOOKS AROUND. SMILES]
Meme school.

So it’s clear that Bowie is talking about mime school, right? WRONG. He clearly can say “mime school” normally, he does it seconds before he says meme school. It’s the pause that gives it away. He pauses, clearly thinking about his next words carefully. He looks around, gives a knowing smile, and says the words “meme school”.  Which doesn’t make any sense.

Unless, of course, you believe (as I do) that Bowie was predicting the rise of memes. In which case this makes perfect sense. His smile reveals that he’s enjoying a little in-joke. He knows the audience won’t understand, but it’s just a little fun for him. Maybe he even knows that a decade and a half on people will uncover this clip and be like “oh my god, he saw all of this coming.”

Anyway, he definitely says meme school.

Don’t believe me? Well, here he is in an even earlier interview saying the phrase “meme companies”.

CASE CLOSED

What’s the deal with online petitions?

Petitions are weird. On the one hand, they’re part of a healthy democracy – the people making their voice heard when other channels have failed them. They definitely have their place.

But they’re also pretty bonkers a lot of the time.

For a long time I’ve been suspicious of the efficacy of online petitions. Sites like change.org seem to be churning out hundreds of petitions daily, and you’ve got to wonder… what’s the point? How often do petitions actually change anything?

Are petitions a symptom of so-called slacktivism? Where people thing they’re making a difference, but in the most low-effort/low-impact way possible? And, even worse, is there a danger of online petitions snowballing into quasi-witch hunts? (I’m thinking of those petitions you get that demand companies fire employees who’ve done something Twitter has decided is bad).

But rather than attempt a serious discourse on whether or not petitions are bad (my position in one sentence: mostly harmless and sometimes good), I thought I’d rather do the MUCH FUNNIER THING of just digging up some funny ones. Stuff like these –

And yeah, I’ve personally signed all of those.

Change.org has a great section where you can browse by most recent. And that’s just great for finding bananas ideas. Here’s some I’ve dug up in the past –

But these aren’t real petitions. They’re directed at nobody in particular, or at least, no democratic entities. Let’s have a look at what people are actually petitioning their government for.

Sadly, the UK Parliament Petitions website is no longer accepting submissions because the recently general election screwed things up for everyone. But there’s still some gold to be mined from their archives.

There’s a lot of this kinda stuff –

But thankfully for every one of those, there’s one of these –

907 people signed that one. 907! The Government was not obliged to respond and so it has closed.

There’s something absolutely mad about letting people have their say about things. I know that’s literally an argument about democracy, but just look at this…

Like what. There’s a good argument to be made about making the HoL more accountable (though I think a fully-elected Upper Chamber would be a disaster, cf. my Year 13 Politics Coursework). But I don’t think any constitutional expert has ever, ever, ever considered the possibility of a ‘House of Heroes.’

The petition itself goes on to explain what this would mean. “The new House of Heroes will consist of 100 members, who will be known as ‘My Honourable Hero’. Of these 100, 33 will be “Everyday heroes”, 33 from the Armed Forces and Emergency Services, and 33 Heroic National Treasures, plus 1 speaker to moderate

So, instead of a body filled with specialist industry experts free to scrutinise upcoming legislation without the pressures of fixed-term service, the proposal is to let this job be done by ‘Everyday Heroes.’ I can’t quite determine what this would involve, but presumably it’s something like nurses, soldiers, firemen. The ‘are lads and ladies‘ that ‘should be paid footballers wages‘ you often read about.

I dunno if it’s a good idea to be honest. But hey, democracy is all about debating ideas. 100 people thought this was a good idea. But it too got closed.

This one was almost certainly a joke. But I like that someone in government still had to look at it, read it, reject it, and write a response. What a good use of everyone’s time.

What a disgrace.

I like ones like this, where it’s not that the idea is deliberately stupid, but rather betrays an absolute misunderstanding of the system. It’s not ‘get enough votes and this will definitely happen.’ It still has to be debated by Parliament and all that stuff.

But just imagine. Theresa May logs onto her Government Petitions account to check out the day’s business. The ‘Deport Theresa May’ petitions has reached x number of votes. “Well,” she says, “I guess that’s that then” and proceeds to start packing her bags.

I think that’s enough for you to get the idea. Yes, petitions can be a good way of making your voice heard on a particular issue that falls outside the general scope of an election (or even a referendum). But in opening up the door for everyone to have their say on every topic, you invite chaos. Not everyone understands how governments work, and how policies are implemented. The system won’t work if it has to bow to the whim of every individual.

And I really, really don’t want us to bring back the death penalty after Brexit.

What’s the deal with so-called industry experts?

You’ve seen them at conferences. They’ve tried to add you on LinkedIn. They’ve got a new book out about how digital marketing will change the world. They are: the industry expert thought leader blah blah blah. They are the worst.

The industry expert is a white, bald, middle-aged dude with glasses. There are no exceptions to this rule.

They don’t actually work anywhere themselves, but they somehow know everything about every company in their industry. They obtain all their information via psychic osmosis as they hibernate in their thought-pods.

They are about forty years too old to understand social media, but they’ll tell you how Snapchat is the new big thing. (They’ve been saying this for about five years now). They’ve got about 600 followers on Twitter, but they talk about ‘growth hacks’. And all they ever tweet is boring articles nobody will ever read.

They bounce from marketing conference to marketing conference, presenting the same deck, fielding the same questions, sitting on the same panels. This is their full-time life. Their talk is called something like ‘‘Building a winning Content Strategy – and why it’ll be the most important thing you do this year!’‘ and it’s full of absolute non-insights.

“Listen to your customers!” – wow. Never thought to do that before.
“Your users are on social, so you should be too!” – much wisdom.
“Check out this ad everyone’s already seen a hundred times.”
“Zappos!”

Stop encouraging them. They post absolute garbage and people who don’t know any better just lap it up.

The snake oil salesmen of yore have evolved. They used to sell affliction-curing tonics that didn’t do anything, now they’re getting paid shedloads to tell you how to do something that nobody understands. Don’t attend their workshops. Don’t buy their books. Don’t follow them on social networks. Just don’t engage with them at all.

Follow me instead. I know all the real secrets anyway.

What’s the deal with…. Rasta Imposta fancy dress costumes?

I hate fancy dress.

Well, I like ‘fancy’ dress. I like black tie. I love cummberbunds, academic bands, braces, gowns, and all that. But I hate fancy dress. Stuff like this –

That is apparently a ‘Rasta Banana’. Yes, a banana that is also a Rastafarian… somehow. Obviously, this particular fancy dress costume is especially problematic. It features cultural appropriation of Rastafarianism for a start, tying it into an offensive stereotype with the dreadlocks, insinuating that the banana is ‘high’ (because Rastas are always high right), and there’s some weird link going on between Jamaica and the banana trade. It’s also horribly garish.

It looks like it’d be the most impractical outfit in the entire world too. There’s no pockets, I’m not sure how you see out of it, and you couldn’t really wear any other clothes with it. The fellow donning it here has gone barefoot, for instance.

Imagine going to a party wearing this. The hour or so you spend getting ready, before finally climbing into this thing. Then having to get to the party, which means wearing this thing OUTSIDE, exposed to the general public on a bus or train. And then at the party, having to mingle with everyone else, who have all just gone for some stick-on ears or a wacky t-shirt. You’re somehow both the centre of attention, and also the one person people least want to interact with. It taking forever to go to the toilet, unable to eat or drink anything for the entire time. Then a few hours later you leave, the excitement of the evening long behind you, repeating the whole thing in reverse – before finally ‘peeling’ yourself out of the costume, at which point the irony of that moment will be lost on you.

It costs £32 and has been described in one 3-star Amazon review as “Expensive for what it is… not very practical as a fancy dress costume“.

And this is just the start of a whole unbearable world of fancy dress. And it seems to mostly come from one specific supplier: Rasta Imposta. I don’t know much about the company or anything. But the name suggests that they started off making exclusively Rastafarian-themed items, such as this very sad looking Rasta dog –

On their website, they have all kinds of horrible costumes, like this one –

– but it’s their presence on Amazon that amazes me the most. They basically own fancy dress online. If you’ve ever looked for some fancy dress (why? who are you? what are you doing reading my blog?) you’ve probably come across them. They have over 1,000 products on Amazon UK right now.

SO LET’S LOOK AT SOME OF THEM.

We begin with the Rasta Imposta Lava Lamp costume. WOW-EE. From what I can tell, you’re basically just wearing a big, uncomfortable plastic facade of a lava lamp, but I’ll be if it doesn’t look realistic! You’re sure to be the life and soul of any lava lamp themed party! At least for the first 15 seconds before everyone immediately hates you.

Also, the feature list on this item is pretty funny:

Yeah, the seller has used bullet points instead of writing a normal sentence for some reason. One of the bullet points is just a random number that means nothing to anyone. And they’ve also misspelt lava lamp as “lave lamp.” WOW-EE. Next!

Unlike the lava lamp one, this Tetris Game Tunic claims to actually be interactive. Which is great, because it’s £13 cheaper. Reading the reviews, it seems it’s not actually an electronic wearable version of Tetris, but rather a set of Tetris pieces that stick to the tunic with velcro. Which is great for parties of course, as it means that anything you walk past will end up sticking to you as well. Oh, and we’ve just got to look at the feature list again for this one:

I am so reassured that “It is Brand new.” I wouldn’t want to be buying a used one of these things. Oh, and it’s 4666. THANK GOD.

In case it’s not obvious, I’m going through these sorted by the lowest customer review score.

If you ever needed a perfect example of cultural appropriation I think ‘white dude wearing the Mexican flag as a party costume’ would be it. Just what the hell.

Oh, I think this is an actual album and not a costume. Hard to tell though.

SO NO-ONE TOLD YOU LIFE WAS GONNA BE THIS WAY
YOUR JOB’S A JOKE YOU’RE BROKE YOUR LOVE LIFE’S DOA

The ones that are just a hat are very interesting to me. Look at how huge and annoying this would be. No way would that fit through any normal size door. You’d have to be constantly taking it off and on all night. Also, I guess the rest of your clothes would be normal. So what’s the outfit theme exactly? “Man with enormous chilli pepper on his head”? Yeah, that party classic.

I know saying ‘you were dressed provocatively so it’s your own fault’ is victim-blaming, BUT if you wear this thing, you deserve to be beaten up.

One from the ‘I voted Leave’ starter kit.

HAHA WHAT. How is this a costume. How would you even get the second glove on once you’ve got the first one on? How would you even be able to do anything that requires the use of digital manipulation (such as all things), with your damn bastard massive Mickey Mouse hands??? WHAT IS THIS.

I sorted by price to find this one. It’s the most expensive on Amazon atm. And I think it speaks for itself.

“Sorry kids, I know you wanted an Xbox for Christmas. Please, Sally, stop crying. I know all the other kids got the new Peppa Pig DVD, but your mommy and daddy had to cut back costs this year. We spent all our money on a Christmas Tree costume. Yes, we only wore it once and we’ve already thrown it away, but we got some really good selfies at the Christmas party. Actually, we think you’re being a bit selfish about this. It’s not all about you, you know.”

Ok, I think this is my limit. Dressing up as the BREAST CANCER PINK RIBBON is a little more than I can handle. I mean, if the proceeds were going to charity, that’d actually be pretty cool. But from what I can tell, Mr Imposta is just pocketing all the money for himself. So yeah, co-opting the imagery of a charitable cause tips this company from poor taste to outright immorality.

And yeah, I’m deliberately finding ridiculous examples to prove my point about how all fancy dress costumes are bad. And sure, my hatred of costumes stems mostly from my own social anxiety and inability to lose myself in the spirit of a party.

But what do we really get out of tacky dress-up? A few lols? I think we’re better than that.

Also, Rasta Imposta don’t even do a Shrek costume so how am I supposed to support them in any way?

Spuds MacKenzie is the coolest dog in the history of advertising

Usually for a blog like this I’d attempt to tie it into some current event. But for Spuds MacKenzie, there’s no need. He’s just the coolest dog ever. Not sure who Spuds MacKenzie is? BEHOLD, SPUDS:

Don’t let the caption fool you. Spuds MacKenzie isn’t actually a Dean of Partyology. And I’m pretty sure he’s not actually pouring that beer.

No, Spuds MacKenzie was the mascot for Bud Light in the 1980s. And it was totally awesome. Just… LOOK AT HIM!

I don’t have all too much info on the history of Spuds MacKenzie. But I do want to meditate on what exactly is happening here.

For some reason, the marketing people at Bud Light in the 80s decided they needed a mascot for their horrible beer. And what better way to appeal to the masses than with a cool dog with a rad attitude? Yup, they literally just did a Poochie.

Imagine pitching this today. “We need to get more young people drinking our beer. How about a dog that wears sunglasses? Everyone loves dogs!”. It doesn’t quite make any sense, but it sort of works. I couldn’t find any footage of him actually drinking any beer, but I did find this .gif of him doing a sweet ski jump.

Look how cool that is! So much better than Jean Claude van Damme doing the splits or whatever he’s doing in those Coors Light ads right now.

At the height of Spuds’ popularity, you could even buy merchandise of him. Sort of like a precursor of the Compare the Market meerkat tat you get now. Here I am in my younger days modelling such a tee:

“The original party animal.” He sure was.

If that phrase sounds familiar, it might be because Futurama ripped off the character wholesale for their ‘Slurms Mackenzie’ character. RIP

Apparently there was some controversy when it was uncovered that the original Spuds dog was in fact female. But I’d just argue that would actually make Spuds an early figure in the awareness of social progressiveness in advertising. So good for her.

More worrying was that people thought the dog particularly appealed to children. And that children loving a beer-drinking dog probably wasn’t the best idea. So Spuds was retired. Although he made a reappearance in the 2017 Super Bowl literally as a ghost mutt. This kind of implies he died, which is sort of morbid. But it’s cool to see him back in action.

LOL at the idea of you showing up late to a house party with a crate of Bud Light and people actually being happy to see you.

Anyway, that’s it really. Spuds MacKenzie represents a better time. A time when a dog could advertise beer on TV and everyone thought it was cool. Crack open a cold one and toast Spuds, wherever he is now.

The State of Greetings Cards

Why are all greetings cards so terrible?

I had to buy a card the other day, and it was a depressing experience. There’s something about that industry that brings out the worst in creative design. I mean, just look at the state of some of these:

Could this maybe be meant ironically? Is the demand for irony sufficient to justify the mass production of this card?
Absolute state of this.

 

Burn this sick planet.

Here are some more, from Twitter.

So what’s the deal? Why are these always the ugliest, unfunniest, worst possible things that could exist? I’m not entirely sure.

I guess it’s something to do with having to appeal to absolutely everyone. “Happy Birthday! Your nuanced opinions on neoliberalism inspire me!” would be a niche card – though I would buy it – while “Happy Birthday! You like beer!” applies to pretty much anyone with a mouth. So I guess they’re just going for lowest-common-denominator trash?

Speaking of, there’s a weird theme of alcohol in greetings cards. The male-intended cards feature beer, while the female-intended ones feature wine, G&Ts, or cocktails. There’s a lot more to unpack there (OMG CLINTONS CARDS IS THE PATRIARCHY), but my beef is more to do with how horribly unoriginal it all is.

And then there’s just loads of toilet humour. Flatuence, crude sexual innuendo, endless pictures of old naked people for some reason. When did we stoop so low?

WHO IS BUYING THIS FOR PEOPLE THEY LIKE

It’s gotten real bad, folks. So bad that Scribbler has had to put up signs in their shops basically warning people how bad their cards are.

Maybe I’m just out of touch? Maybe all these cards are actually really funny. Maybe it’s not the brexit-voting, Mrs Browns Boys-watching, James Corden-liking, mouth-breathing masses that have it wrong. Maybe it’s just me.

Sometimes I do genuinely think that. But then I saw that this is currently the 4th top-selling card on nobleworkscards.com (don’t worry, the top 3 are also terrible).

WHAT THE HELL IS THIS. WHAT IS EVEN THE JOKE HERE? IS IT THAT WOMEN ARE BAD AT MATHS? OR THAT WOMEN ARE LAZY? OR THAT STRIPPERS ARE STUPID? OR SOME OTHER TERRIBLE OPINION ON WOMEN’S LIVES? WHAT IN ACTUAL HELL.

WHO IS BUYING THIS. WHO ARE THEY GIVING IT TO. WHAT IS THE EXPECTED RESPONSE TO RECEIVING THIS GREETINGS CARD. IS IT MEANT TO INCITE LAUGHTER. SURELY IT’S NOT IRONIC. I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

WHAT DOES THIS EVEN HAVE TO DO WITH BIRTHDAYS. WHY WAS THIS MADE. WHY IS THIS FOR SALE. WHY DOES THIS EXIST.

WHY CAN NOTHING GOOD AND PURE EXIST IN THE WORLD. WHY IS EVERYTHING SO TERRIBLE.

Please, someone help me.

Hot Take: That thing you like is actually bad!

You know that thing you like? You know that thing that everyone thinks is good? I’ve got some bad news.

It’s actually bad.

Yes, that’s right. That thing you like is bad.

Maybe you think it’s funny. Or cute. Or in any way worthwhile. Maybe you derive some fleeting enjoyment from its existence. But you shouldn’t. It’s bad. And you should feel bad for not thinking it’s bad in the first place.

You see, I’m the one who sees things correctly. I know what’s good and what’s bad. And so I can see that the thing you like isn’t a thing that people should actually like.

I’m there in the comments. I’m telling you that cute animal is actually in distress. I’m telling you that you’re racist. I’m getting offended on everyone’s behalf.

I know all the ways in which things are problematic. Or could be construed as problematic. Or that I could deliberately misconstrue in order to portray as problematic. And if you’ve got a problem with that, you’re part of the problem too.

Oh, and that other thing you think is good? That’s bad too.

Everything good is actually bad. I’m sorry, but you really should have known better.

Oh, you disagree with me? I’m afraid you’re just a troll. Thinking things are good is bad. Defending good things is trolling. Only I am not trolling. Only I have the true overview of things. And I’m telling you that you’re wrong.

Next time you think something is good, just ask yourself “what if it was actually bad?” And then you will know the truth.

Then you will have the hot takes as I do.

What’s the deal with online stock videos?

Let’s just cut right to the chase: watch this.

What you just watched was a stock video. The title of the video is “An old man with hypnotic glasses witnessing the destruction of a world, hiding his face. Close-up shot, red background.” Yes, the last bits are part of the title too, not the description.

The video is eight seconds long. The aspect ratio is 16:9. And you can buy it for £14 in a “426 X 240 @ 25 fps MOV” format.

It is also inexplicable.

Now, we all know that stock imagery is a world of madness. Pop over to /r/wtfstockphotos for an idea. “Blank-faced man deflates and loses his spine”, “Woman licking a cactus”, and “Green alien traveler in white desert lunar landscape reading electronic map on future technology flexible display tablet” are just some of the current highlights. So, WHAT IS THE DEAL?

The business model of stock imagery is fascinating to me. You just take hundreds and hundreds of photos of absolutely anything, in the hope that one day some of them will be useful to someone. You can then make some money from that use.

For instance, “An old man with hypnotic glasses witnessing the destruction of a world, hiding his face. Close-up shot, red background.” appears to be part of a video series of similar clips. These include:

  • An old man with hypnotic glasses, pre-keyed with pure green, looking at the viewer. Close-up shot, red background.
  • An old man with hypnotic glasses, with analogue old CRT TV test card with color bars, full of noise, static, grain, scanlines. He hides his face. Close-up shot, red background.
  • An old man with hypnotic glasses, looking like he’s got bigger funny eyes, hiding his face. Close-up shot, red background.
  • An old man with hypnotic glasses, looking at the viewer. Heavily distorted stylized eyes move into his eyeglasses. Red background.

There’s no indication that the ‘model’ in the clips is also the person who made them. But that is what I choose to believe. And fair play to him, he’s providing a public service. For, as the old saying goes, it’s better to have an eight second clip of an old man with hypnotic glasses, with analogue old CRT TV test card with color bars, full of noise, static, grain, scanlines and not need an eight second clip of an old man with hypnotic glasses, with analogue old CRT TV test card with color bars, full of noise, static, grain, scanlines, than need an eight second clip of an old man with hypnotic glasses, with analogue old CRT TV test card with color bars, full of noise, static, grain, scanlines and not have an eight second clip of an old man with hypnotic glasses, with analogue old CRT TV test card with color bars, full of noise, static, grain, scanlines. 

And there’s the whole SEO thing. The reason the title is so full of words is that it makes it more likely to come up in search results.

But I just don’t think anyone will ever want to use any of these videos. They’re just not very good. And if you really were desperate enough to want one, you’d probably be able to make one yourself for less than they’re asking.

So, what’s the deal with online stock videos? They’re weird, bad, and basically entirely stupid and useless.

What’s the deal with this Nicorette QuickMist ad?

Watch this:

Looks like a great product, huh? A nice little spray you mist into your gob that makes you stop smoking. I’m not doubting the science behind this. I’m sure the science is very good. It’s the maths at the end I don’t get.

Tackle your cravings fast, making you 150% more likely to quit. For good.

150% likely to quit! Wow! So I’m not only 100% GUARANTEED to quit, but I’ll also have an extra 50% of quittiness for free as well? I might as well start smoking now!

But of course, that’s not what it means. It’s not even what it says. It says “150% more likely to quit.” But what does that mean?

More likely than what? There’s no quantifiable unit of quittingness. You can’t up your quitting stats with a magic mist spray. But they’ve got this number from somewhere, which means they must have derived it from something.

The most likely candidate is they had two samples of people trying to quit and used one as a control. Of the group that used the QuickMist product, 150% more people ended up quitting. Great.

No. Not great. You stupid idiot.

I still don’t know what “150% more” means. Let’s work some numbers.

Say both groups were 100 people. In the control group (ie. the willpower alone group), 50 people successfully gave up. So BY MATHS, we can figure out that in the NICORETTE group…

50 * 150% gave up, which = 75. So 25 more people.

BUT WAIT…

50 * 150% isn’t “150% more” is it? That’s 150% of 50. “150% more” sounds like an increase-of 150%.

are you following all this

So what we’d need to do is take the 150% amount and then add that onto the original amount. EASY.

(50 * 150%) + 50 = 125

Fantastic! The QuickMist product is so effective that not only did every single person in the 100-person group quit smoking, but 25 other people also showed up and quit too!

This is what in philosophy we call a reductio ad absurdum. Our conclusion is clearly ridiculous, so we’ve made an error in reasoning somewhere. But where?

Maybe our numbers our wrong. Let’s try a different scenario. Imagine there’s originally only ONE person quitting in the willpower-only control group. In the QuickMist group, ((1*150%)+1) would quit, which is 2.5.

But why wouldn’t they just say “You’re 2.5 times as likely to quit with…” rather than “150% times more?” Sure, 150 is a bigger number than 2.5, but you can also express that as “250%”. Did they maybe think that 250% was too big a number for people to comprehend? Why else wouldn’t they go for the bigger number?

Maybe it’s because they don’t like “as likely”. “As likely” is less powerful sounding than “more likely”, even though it’s preceded by a big ol’ percentage. Why bother trying to give up with this product if you’re still only something-something as likely as someone just trying really hard on their own?

So basically, I think they meant “50% more” but that was too low. They saw that “50% more” = “150% of” and did some slight-of-hand to replace the word “of” with “more.”

In other words, the only thing this product helps you quit is your grasp on the principles of mathematics!!!!

Behold, the magic of marketing.

Katie Hopkins, Hate Bait, and Free Speech

An easy way to get clicks to a website is with something controversial. Content that is sick, offensive, distasteful, or outright horrible is always appealing to certain people. The sick, the maladjusted, the plain ol’ curious. And it’s for this reason that we saw an interesting trend in online journalism recently: the rise of hate-bait.

Hate-bait is a form of trolling. It’s posting deliberately sensational things of a negative nature in order to get clicks. Like if I wrote a blog post saying KILL ALL FAT PEOPLE. I don’t believe fat people should be killed. But people would come and read my blog anyway (reckon I could get away with it?). “How could he think such an awful thing?” they might think. Or perhaps they’d whisper secretly to themselves “I actually do believe this, I’d love to read someone else confirming my beliefs.”

One way to do this without exposing yourself to the backlash of liberal online retribution is to couch your headlines in fuzzy language. As per Betteridge’s law of headlines,  “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” So my headline above might be carefully worded as SHOULD ALL FAT PEOPLE BE KILLED? I don’t have to defend that proposition in the article, I can even dismiss it outright and argue passionately against it. But you’ve put the question out there, you’ve sparked the interest, you’ve got the click.

Another strategy is to write about yourself and your own life, but in such a way that people will be outraged by it. A stronger form of the humble brag, this ‘aggro-brag’ is designed to generate sensation via posturing and feigned ignorance about why your opinions are annoying. Applied to our headline, we might see something like I DON’T LET MY KIDS PLAY WITH FAT CHILDREN BECAUSE I’M A GOOD MOTHER. The best ever example of this is Samantha ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ Brick.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 19.06.57

Do you remember Twitter on the day that ‘the brick’ dropped? It was anarchy. An early example of a Tweetstorm. Basically everyone hated this awful lady for writing about how pretty she thinks she is, and how life is hard for her because of it. (I don’t mean to pick women for my examples, there are also plenty of men who engage in similar hate bait behaviour: Jeremy Clarkson, Piers Morgan, and Rod Liddle have all made careers out of this). I don’t really think Brick was desperately burning to tell her story, that the injustices she’d suffered needed to be told to the world, because that would be insane if true. The only rational explanation (assuming everyone involved is a rational agent…) is that either she or the Mail thought it’d be a good way to generate some page views. It worked.

Katie Hopkins is a journalist who never needed to resort to such tactics. Her realm is that of the unobfuscated hate bait, the purest form where even the headline is wrought with bile and dripping with offence. But who is Katie Hopkins and where did she come from?

I first heard about KH as a contestant on The Apprentice. Remember The Apprentice? I think it’s still on TV, but we all stopped watching it ages ago didn’t we? Katie was on it around the time it was already starting to unceremoniously slide from being a sort-of good business show, to horrible sell-out reality TV garbage, of which Hopkins was undoubtedly a harbinger. What she later did for online journalism, she arguably was a kingpin of for The Apprentice.

She made it through to the final but turned down a place in order to look after her kids, an issue which later caused a bit of a legal fracas between her and Lord Sugar. On her time on the show, she was notable for making controversial remarks about fellow contestants and generally people she didn’t like in society.

Then she went away for a while.

I first recall her coming back when she made an appearance on This Morning, moaning about people who give their children silly names.

It was a weird argument to be making, like it’s anybody’s business what anyone else calls their children. Weirder still was Hopkins’ annoyance with parents who name their children after places (eg. Brooklyn Beckham), when Hopkins’ own daughter was named India. In this cavalcade of noise and bluster, thus began her reign of terror.

She then became a bit of a regular angry woman on the circuit, popping up on This Morning, Loose Women, and all over the papers. She did a really weird thing where she got really fat to prove to fat people that it was actually really easy to lose weight and fat people were just lazy. It felt a lot like an Alan Partridge breakdown.

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fat alan

Then she just kinda moved on to regular Twitter trolling. I followed her for a little while, out of that car crash curiosity, but it eventually got a bit too much. At time of writing, her most recent tweet is a conspiracy-style venn diagram accusing the BBC of inventing a story about racial abuse towards a previous GBBO winner in order to drum up attention to the show.

WAKE UP SHEEPLE

Now she has a LBC show where she just broadcasts her opinions out to the world. She’s pretty well suited to talk radio, which is a format basically supported by argument. If everybody agreed, there’d be no show and no listeners. So she’s found a perfect little home for herself.

But what’s her role in society? Her purpose? A gentle court jester, prodding at our fears and securities? I’d imagine that she likes to think so. But I see her more as a professional troll. It’s pretty clear she’s a right-wing Tory in real life, but her career has been made into packaging her views into efficient formats. Hate gets great SEO.

So what should we do with Katie Hopkins? They say don’t feed the trolls, but they also say fight fire with fire. She’s got a platform, and a fervent following of people who support her for saying it ‘as it is.’ She’s a figurehead for the anti-PC brigade, and that alone rules out viewing her as an idle threat.

I’d turn to the greatest work on political freedom ever written: On Liberty, by JS Mill. In this, Mill offers a passionate defence of many forms of liberty – particularly of speech and thought. It’s been a while since I actually read the thing, but I recall the defence of all opinions basically proceeding as follows:

  1. There are three types of views that can be expressed: all true, all false, and a mix of truth and falsity.
  2. True beliefs ought to be allowed as the truth promotes good/utility.
  3. True beliefs should also be questioned, as in questioning them we get a greater sense of them.
  4. False beliefs ought to be allowed in order to allow us the opportunity to see them proved false.
  5. And we’re not so infallible as to always be able to tell the difference between a true and false belief. So we should allow even the beliefs we hold to be true to be held up to new scrutiny.
  6. For beliefs that are a mix of truth and falsity, we should allow them in order that the truth will out.

So basically, you should always allow people to speak their mind – irrespective of whether you agree with them or not. If you do agree with them, great, that’s an opportunity to reaffirm yourself of your beliefs. If you don’t, even better – that’s a chance to change their mind, or have your own beliefs challenged, or together uncover some previously unknown piece of knowledge. So yeah, open debate is great and should be celebrated.

Now, I’m not going to fall into the trap of ANGRY ONLINE MAN and go on some kind of free speech crusade. Liberty has another dimension, the freedom to live without hindrance. Mill himself has a principle of restricting action that does harm (which he doesn’t really apply to speech, which I think is interesting). But what I mean is that we should be free to block people who send us abuse online. If we feel threatened or intimidated by someone, our concern for our own liberty trumps their freedom to speech in some cases (without us becoming all oversensitive and coddled, of course).

I could write a whole blog on this subject and specifically about blocking speakers from coming to talk at universities, but I won’t. I’ll just say that going to uni to learn new things and challenge your beliefs, but preventing those beliefs from being aired when you don’t like them feels somewhat hypocritical.

So, with Hopkins, it seems like the best thing is for her to be able to air her opinions, and for us all to air ours in response. The theatre of public ridicule is the best place for her inaccurate beliefs to be shot down, but also for her to have the opportunity to question some of ours. You don’t have to follow her on Twitter, you can even block her if you like. But trying to stop her from having a voice entirely isn’t the way forward.

ok i promise i won’t have any more opinions about online discourse for a while now. thanks for reading.