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Hell is real and it is Facebook Marketplace

Facebook (then ‘TheFacebook’) was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg as a way of connecting fellow Harvard students in an online social network. It was an extension of his earlier FaceMash project (in 2003) which allowed students to rate each other on a ‘hot or not basis’.

The site has gone through many changes over the years, being a place to store your photos, chat with friends, arrange events, and distribute fake news. It is also a place where you can buy and sell raw meat.

‘Marketplace’ is a Facebook feature that’s a mashup of Craigslist, eBay, and the dodgy guy flogging DVDs in the pub car park. It’s very much a ‘nobody ever asked for this, Mark’ feature. And I hate it to bits.

Let me explain why.

1 – Nobody goes to Facebook to buy things

At least not from other people. I mean, sure, I’ve bought plenty of products off the back of compelling Facebook ads. And as someone who works in social media marketing, I know full well how important Facebook advertising can be.

But Marketplace isn’t a media platform. It’s not a space like the news feed where people go to consume content. I check my news feed if I’m bored (sorry Mark, nobody is checking it for NEWS lol), and savvy marketers know how to blend advertising with entertainment for some lucrative targeted advertorial.

Never have I ever tapped the Facebook app because I am interested in buying an entire pig carcass.

Or on the off chance I might be able to buy £80 worth of Costa beans from Basildon.

Sites like Amazon and eBay exist. Sure, Amazon has its problems with fake reviews and products, and eBay can be a bit of a nightmare for dispute resolution. But on the whole, they’re pretty good. And importantly, I go there with the intent of buying goods.

Annoyingly, Facebook included Marketplace as a top-level menu item in the app for a while. This meant it was as important as the News Feed, your notifications, and your profile. This meant I accidentally tapped into it all the time. Worse still, I somehow ended up with some kind of red notification dot on it that I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of. I’ve since been able to dismiss it, but I hated this for a long time.

2 – The buying and selling experience is horrible

Despite everything I’ve said, I’ve sold a few things through Facebook Marketplace. There’ve been times where I’ve been moving house and needed to shift some stuff, fast. Amazon and eBay are great for selling, but sometimes you can’t be arsed to pack stuff up and lug it to a post office. And Freecycle is cool, but it’s less helpful for items that are worth something.

Here’s what happens when you try to sell something on Facebook Marketplace:

  1. You list the item – this isn’t too bad! You take a few photos, write a description, price, etc. It’s a decent experience.
  2. People start to message you about it, pretty quickly – people can message you to express their interest in the item. Already, this isn’t great, as messages come to your Messenger inbox. And you might get quite a few. Not the end of the world, sure, but 75% of folks are seemingly go from very interested to not at all keen.
    “Hi, is this still available?” someone will ask, 30 seconds after listing. “Yes!” I’ll reply, “Are you interested?”. NO RESPONSE EVER. Did they die? We’ll never know.
  3. The lowball offers start coming in – this is where things start to get rough. You list something for £100 and you’ll get a message offering you £5. No joke, it’s not even haggling, it’s just offensive. Try to haggle and you’ll either get abuse or ghosted. Bear in mind this can be happening five times at once simultaneously.
  4. You eventually find someone offering a reasonable price – great! Now you have to give this complete stranger your home address (or somewhere to meet) and a time. Oh dear.
  5. Your life is now in a stranger’s hand. I mean, the safety element alone is bananas. But also, you’re beholden to someone who inevitably doesn’t own a single piece of timekeeping equipment. They’ll not show up, be late, or endlessly rearrange. But hey, that £30 for your 3-year-old copy of Mario Tennis Super Aces will make it all worth it, right?

Here is a genuine exchange I had when trying to sell an old Nintendo Wii U when I upgraded to a Nintendo Switch.

I listed it for £100, which was a very decent price at the time for a used Wii U. This person messaged me and boom there’s the lowball. 60% of the asking price.

I agreed to £60, which they immediately changed to £50 because they had to catch a cab. Strange, and not how bargaining works. It’s also not how buying things works, either. I don’t get to deduct the cost of my travel to Sainsbury’s off my Sainsbury’s shop. But hey, I’m a reasonable person and just looking to clear out an old console.

They asked if it fully worked, and honestly, I should have just said yes. I didn’t want to be accused later of lying if it didn’t work or fall foul of some trading standards sanction so I hedged my bets with a “should do”. As we’ll see, this causes many problems to follow.

They’ve asked why the console has a white screen. That’s because I had turned it on (actually to show it working). And they also suddenly want to change the deal and not take the controllers. That’s a bit of a dealbreaker because the whole reason for the listing was to get rid of everything.

At this point my anxiety is sky-high. I feel like I’m dealing with an irrational individual who is forcing me into a position I don’t want to take. I’m regretting ever listing the Wii U in the first place, and especially regretting giving this person my home address.

They also just drop the price to £40 for the lols. I tell them the offer is off.

They start persistently hounding me about this, pressuring me with “we already booked the cab”. And I’m thinking that I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to meet this person face-to-face. Not knowing what else to do, I block them on Messenger and pray they don’t show up at my doorstep.

And this is a fairly typical selling experience. My primary emotions were fear, anxiety, and panic. Great going, Mark!

3 – Every Facebook Marketplace listing is somehow the worst listing

I don’t want this to turn into a list of ‘terrible things on Facebook Marketplace’. But let’s do that anyway for a bit.

How about a 5-generation old iPhone with a completely unusable screen that’s locked to not-your-network, for £27? You also have to go to Bromley to get it.

Some ‘super rare Shrek’ amulets for £400? I have no idea what they do, but they are 100% cursed.

Speaking of cursed, here’s an ugly bloody doll. Allow me to quote the full description: “Exceptionally vile doll, about the size of your average barbie but far uglier and more poorly dressed. I believe this doll is to be cursed from personal experience. She comes with one free loo roll.

A weird thing happened with the wardrobe. I lost the key and had to drill through the lock to open it. And the key was hanging inside the wardrobe on the hook. Adopt at your peril.” But hey, it’s free!

Or how about just an entire six million pound house? That you bought off Facebook?

My point is that doesn’t seem to be any kind of filter for quality. No guarantees of safety or anything. Facebook is frankly forgoing its obligation to protect its users, both with the products it allows people to sell and during the buying experience. It’s why we see tragedies like people being beaten to death while exchanging goods.

Stick to eBay, yeah?

The worst coronavirus products for sale on Amazon

Global pandemics tend to make people act a little… strange. In particular, our sense of what is and isn’t appropriate to own tends to go out the window a little bit. With stores reporting shortages of toilet paper globally, it’s fair to say that our response to the looming threat of coronavirus hasn’t been quite proportional.

Nowhere can this madness be more keenly observed than on the electronic shelves of Amazon. I’ve taken a cursory look at some of the products on offer, and let me tell you: I’m doing a massive chef’s kiss here at them. Except without my hand actually touching my lips. Because, y’know, corona. Let’s begin!

Qty 50 iPROTECT Antibacterial Retractable Pen Effective Against 99.9% Of All Harmful Bacteria Kills MRSA E-coli C-diff Bacteriacidal Plastic Body Anti-bacterial Agent Within The Plastic Reduces Risk of Spreading Germs And Infection is useful not just for the medical or pharmaceutical profession but can assist with infection control in everyone’s place of work or play and home .See Shop For Discount On 5 , 10 , 100 , 1000

Yes! That’s right! Everyone’s favourite product: Qty 50 iPROTECT Antibacterial Retractable Pen Effective Against 99.9% Of All Harmful Bacteria Kills MRSA E-coli C-diff Bacteriacidal Plastic Body Anti-bacterial Agent Within The Plastic Reduces Risk of Spreading Germs And Infection is useful not just for the medical or pharmaceutical profession but can assist with infection control in everyone’s place of work or play and home .See Shop For Discount On 5 , 10 , 100 , 1000

It’s a pen… that stops disease? I don’t know how exactly, but I’m not a scientist. Why aren’t all pens made out of this? Anyway, if you can’t afford the £18 price tag, I guess you could just use gloves instead.

Is it any good? Well, let’s consult this one-star review:

Straight outta Wuhan – back off T-Shirt

A pretty offensive t-shirt, nice! The “back off” doesn’t add much.

This shirt is £17.50, available in men’s and women’s sizes, and also comes in white! Please please please don’t buy this.

F-JAS Hand Sanitiser & Moisturiser (30ml alien)

Is this made of aliens? Or for aliens? Or for when you’ve come into contact with aliens?

Why is every piece of information written in a different font? Why does it even mention aliens at all? What is this product.

WHY CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK: THE EFFECT OF THIS DEADLY DISEASE AND WHY THE WORLD MUST FIGHT TO ERADICATE IT. WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW TO SAFE GUIDE YOURSELF FIRST BEFORE WHO CAN ATTACK IT

Why coronavirus outbreak? Why coronavirus outbreak? Why coronavirus outbreak?

Can’t wait to read this book and “safe guide myself before who can attack it.”

Thanks, Tammy!

Feline Infectious Peritonitis and Coronavirus: Everything a cat lover needs to know

So apparently peritonitis is some kind of inflammation of the inner lining or your abdomen (where your organs live!). I’m not sure what that has to do with coronavirus, or cats, but I’m glad that I – a cat lover – have everything I need to know. Thanks, Diane!

Virus Protection Mask Stock Photo English Bulldog Puppy Relaxing On Black Leather Sofa 227838037 Anti-Dust Mask for Virus Protection and Personal Health

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about whether face masks are effective or not. I can’t say whether having a dog on one makes a difference or not. But it can’t hurt, right?

Horace Horrise and the Carinavirus

Where to start with this? Horace Horrise seems to be some kind of Horrible Henry rip-off, described as the “UK’s funniest, liveliest, and naughtiest young person”. I mean… huge if true.

Also, coronavirus is spelled wrong.

I survived Coronavirus 2020 -Funny Science Microbiology Gift Tank Top, journal,notebook gift with (110 wite lined pages)

Now this I love. A tank top that’s also a journal with 110 “wite” lined pages.

I’ll hold off buying it for now though, as I haven’t “survived” yet. But I’ll definitely be wearing this tank top / journal once everything’s blown over.

Don’t Sneeze On Me, Thanks. Coronavirus awareness white Pullover Hoodie

Lol.

What a 2017 Heinz campaign can tell us about the cultural zeitgeist at the time

“Beanz meanz Heinz” has been an advertising slogan for Heinz Baked Beans since 1967. It’s a classic, simple motto from advertising days of yore where not everything had to be a pun or fake cutesy copy on a smoothie.

And in 2017, Heinz launched a campaign to celebrate 50 years of this slogan. It was a great, simple campaign – a website that let you add a custom name to a can to order for yourself.

Sure, it was a bit of a rip-off of Coca-Cola’s ‘share a coke’ campaign from 2013. But it’s fun, harmless, and a source of that oh-so-valuable user-generated content that’s all the rage in marketing right now. (As a marketer myself I can promise you, it can massively outperform original owned content).

But these things typically go wrong. Lest we forget another 2017 campaign, where Walkers invited fans to send in a selfie of themselves for Gary Lineker to hold up, for a chance to win football tickets. As the BBC reported: “within hours… their crisp-eater-in-chief Gary Lineker has been pictured clutching photos of Fred West and Harold Shipman in online videos on Twitter.

In short, the general public are not to be trusted. But Heinz are no fools! For their name-on-a-can campaign, they compiled a do-not-allow list of various names that they wouldn’t let you put on a can. Smart stuff, Heinz!

And by taking a look at the code running the (now inactive) site, we can get a fascinating glimpse of what those savvy marketers wanted to avoid. And more than that, the list is a reflection of where we were at in 2017. What were our biggest fears as a society? Let’s take a look, shall we?

The full list is 3,367 terms strong. All the usual curses are in there, along with some… interesting variants. We have both asshat and assclown for instance – I guess they couldn’t get wildcard characters to work properly.

But there’s also a bunch of seemingly innocuous stuff in there: children, internet, kiss. Not quite sure what they were trying to avoid but sure.

Next up we have the ‘this would be embarrassing’ category. These are things that would look bad for Heinz to have printed on a can about themselves. In the list, we find sugar, salt, & obesity. This is fair enough, I suppose but probably overkill. Heinz Baked Beans aren’t regarded as a life-giving superfood, but there’s one of the food industry’s lesser ills – right? Oh well, can’t blame them for being paranoid.

It’s at this point I wonder how exactly this list was made. I’ve had to implement blocklists before on moderated sites and it’s a gruelling task, sitting down and thinking up slurs. It’s much easier to just import a list someone else has written, which is probably what they’ve done for the bulk of this. But it’s the ones they’ve added in extra that I find fascinating. What didn’t Heinz want us to know about offshore or Scotland? What didn’t they want us to know?

The really interesting stuff comes in the ones they’ve added because of sensitive events. In the list we find:

  • Grenfell
  • Finsbury (this campaign was just 4 months after the 2017 Mosque attack)
  • Weinstein
  • Bataclan
  • WhiteNat
  • EgyptAir (from the hostage incident)
  • GamerGat
  • LeeRigby

And that’s just a small sample.

So, what does this list tell us about the state of things in 2017? Can we put together a picture of what society looked like then? Well, it’s clear things are in a bit of a state of disarray. There’s a genuine panic about things (the existence of this alone proves there). There’s fear about violence, particularly of an insurgent nature (lonewolf is in there). White nationalism is rising, in the crucible of Gamergate, and domestic terrorism is becoming a real threat with events happening in the ground in the UK and Europe.

What’s not in the list, though? There’s no mention of Brexit. Theresa May comes out unscathed. There’s not a whisper of Trump, Putin, or Merkel. So presumably Heinz were ok with a can saying BEANS MEINZ FARAGE. Or maybe they just didn’t think of it.

Do we live in a more politicised time, just three years later? I feel these things would all be added today, along with newer concerns like ‘Epstein’ and ‘Andrew.’

It seems unlikely that Heinz, or any sensible brand, would run this kind of campaign again today, so maybe we’ll never know. But I’m still glad we have this weird, paranoid slice of 2017 as a record of our shared unconscious.

Read the full list here.

What can we learn from LinkedIn influencer Oleg Vishnepolsky?

Let’s get this out of the way: I hate LinkedIn. It exists in this weird interzone of social media – ostensibly for ‘professionals’ yet sharing the feature set of a ‘friends and family’-style social network.

I mean, I’m not stupid. I get the point of it. For better or worse, ‘networking’ is part of any industry. I’m just more likely to do that through actually working with people, or following interesting folks on Twitter. The idea of coldly ‘connecting’ with someone on LinkedIn does nothing for me, and I get almost no value from it.

For me, LinkedIn is mostly a distraction

People add me EVERY DAY, and 99% of the time they fall into three categories:

  1. Marketers trying to sell me some tool I don’t want or need
  2. Other people in my industry who want to meet up for a coffee chat
  3. People I actually work with

The colleagues I don’t mind so much, happy to have them on board. And sure, maybe three years down the line I’ll need to contact some mutual connection. But the marketers are just annoying – I’m happy with my tooling! If I wasn’t, I’d be looking for some? Woe betides anyone who is subscribing to new products and services off the back of a LinkedIn connection. And the coffee chats are fine, it’s good to meet and talk with fellow folks – but it’s usually me giving them advice and just parroting the same topics. So I’ve had to revert to a less involved “here’s my work email, just send me your questions” approach.

Enter the influencers

What I’m not using LinkedIn for is the personal brand-building stuff. I’m not trying to post content on there for other people to like – I’m strictly a passive user. But there’s an interesting breed of people on the site who are active content publishers. Chief among them: Oleg Vishnepolsky.

Oleg is a LinkedIn rock star. He’s posting pretty much every single day, and everything he posts gets tens of thousands of likes. For example, here are the last few days:

Like, wtf? It’s pretty much the most extremely bottom-of-the-barrel content you could possibly imagine. Empty epithets with all the depth of a “live laugh love” embroidered pillow. Yet people lap up this supposed received wisdom.

Worse than these mere bagatelles are the STORIES he posts. Stories of employees doing extraordinary things, bosses that have made some incredible display of compassion, an inspirational interviewee who changed the world.

It’s weird, right? And people lap this up! The comments below it are always like “totally agree”, “yes so true!”. I can’t even tell what’s going on here – is it some weird echo chamber? A cult of personality situation? A sheep mentality? I just can’t see how people find this kind of content at all meaningful or engaging.

Who is this guy?

And Oleg himself is a bit of a mystery. His profile says that he’s the Global CTO for both DailyMail online and Metro.co.uk. That seems like a pretty big job! If I had that job, I’m not sure I’d have time to be posting made-up stories on LinkedIn several times a day. I’m also not sure what I’d get out of doing that if I did. (Unless it’s all ironic?). That said, both those websites are horrible to use so maybe he’s just not working very hard at his job?

Weirdly, I could only find one clip of the man actually speaking anywhere online. It’s this weird clip of him starting into not-the camera.

What can we learn from this video? Erm, to be kind and trust people. Wow, such insight!

I thought CTOs did things like speaking at tech conferences. I’m sure lots of people would love to hear about the technical infrastructure of DailyMail Online (surely one of the most visited sites in the UK, if not world). But does he ever post about CDNs, DDoS mitigation, or DNS resolution? Nah. Oleg knows to give the people what they want: pictures of Denzel Washington with quotes on them.

It’s no surprise that some people don’t even think that Oleg is a real person. People have written conspiracy theories on the guy ranging from him being a creation of LinkedIn, to an actual alien. (Frankly, I’m convinced).

But is there anything we can learn from Oleg?

No.


ps. Follow @CrapOnLinkedIn for daily examples of the worst the site has to offer.

Let's all enjoy some terrible 'The Mask' cosplays

The world is burning. But at least we have this.

Quick bit of context, I suppose. The Mask is a 1994 ‘fantasy crime’ comedy film starring Jim Carrey. Carrey plays Stanley Ipkis, a down-on-his-luck bank worker, whose life is turned around when he discovers a mask. When wearing said mask, Ipkis is possessed by the Norse god of mischief, Loki, and hilarity ensues.

The Mask occupies a weird bit of cultural headspace for me, being at the centre of a complex Venn diagram. It’s a 90s Jim Carrey vehicle like Ace Ventura or Dumb & Dumber (both ’94) – but it’s not that funny. It’s actually kinda dark and violent. So it also kinda feels like a superhero movie in the style of its contemporary Tim Burton Batman movies (Returns was 92). But it’s less grounded because of the magical elements. So it’s also kinda a fantasy/sci-fi movie, like a Men in Black.

I guess a good comparison is with the original Ghostbusters movie. That’s a comedy, sure. It has funny actors, funny lines, and jokes. But it’s also dark, scary and follows a pretty coherent plot. You could take out the jokes and it would still work.

The same could be said of the original graphic novels of The Mask. I haven’t read these, but from what I can gather they weren’t really comedic, and had more of a ‘dark horror’ feel.

You can sort of that sense in the film too, with most of the movie taking place at night and a whole bunch of ‘adult’ jokes. But then there’s a big stupid Cuban dance number and The Mask swallows a bomb that makes his stomach all big so lol it’s a comedy now.

Anyway, given that the film is about a character who wears a mask, it should be very very easy to dress up as him – right?! Wrong.

Let’s get started.

What an incredibly strong start. I don’t know whether it’s meant to look like The Mask’s face is melting off here, but I really hope it is. There’s no light behind those eyes.

This one isn’t so bad, and the hammer is a nice touch. I imagine carrying that thing around a convention centre would have got tiresome after about two minutes though. And at least’s he’s smiling. Kinda.

WELL I MAY NOT BE A FANCY BIG-SHOT CITY MASK. BUT I PUT IT TO THIS HERE JURY THAT MY CLIENT IS INNO-CENT OF ALL THE CHARGES LAID HERE TODAY.

US CITY MASK FOLK ARE SIMPLE PEOPLE WITH SIMPLE LIVES. WE LIKE TO APPRECIATE THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE. CORN WAFFLES AND SWEET APPLE CIDER. YESSIR.

My headcanon for this one is that he’s about to board an international flight but misplaced his luggage, so the only thing he has to travel in is his mask costume. I know that’s not what’s happening here, but IMAGINE IF IT WAS.

Imagine, you’re settling down in your plane seat, ready for the long trans-Atlantic flight to NYC. You’ve got a late Friday flight because you want the weekend to rest up before your meeting on Monday. You look around: no babies. Good. You flick through the in-flight entertainment system: huh, they’ve got Uncut Gems on there – already? That’s quick! The seat next to you is still empty. Maybe you’ll have the whole row to yourself! Maybe you can stretch out and get a nap. You don’t usually sleep on planes but perhaps if-

Oh no. Oh god no. There’s a figure standing over the seat. He checks his boarding pass, he looks up at the row numbers, he looks down at you. Through the black silicon eye sockets you get a glimpse of the pupils beyond. An eternity of time passes in an instant as your retinas perfectly eclipse one another.

He tries to place his oversized novelty hammer in the overhead locker. But it won’t fit. He sits down in the seat next to you. Why won’t he take off the yellow tuxedo? You haven’t said a word to each other.

The passenger safety notice rings through the cabin. “Please keep your seatbelts fastened until the seatbelt sign has been turned off. And passengers are reminded that this is a non-smoking flight”.

The figure looks up. He turns to you. Deep sorrow pours out of him. “s-s-s-smoking!” he whispers.

Yeah, imagine if THAT happened!

This one looks exactly like Donald Trump. I know you agree with me, but I can’t tell you why it is. The mouth, maybe? The tiny hands?

If you told me this was ‘hide the pain Harold’ (the stock photography meme man we all know and love), I would 100% believe you.

This is actually a very good Mask cosplay though. It’s beyond movie-quality, because they’ve added extra detail. “I want to cosplay as The Mask, but specifically as an older, more shrivelled-up version for some reason. Just wrinkles everywhere.”

This is, in fact, NOT cosplay of a Christmas version of The Mask – as I believed from briefly glancing at the Google Images thumbnail. It is in fact, cosplay of The Grinch, which is a whole other blog post in itself. HOWEVER, if we define our category as “people dressed up as a green character portrayed by Jim Carrey between the years 1994 and 2000” then it absolutely fits.

An extremely liberal reading of this would also allow you to sneak in cosplay of Jim Carrey as The Riddler in Batman Forever. Dude just loved dressing up in green in the 90s.

I like it when people go the effort of actually painting their faces instead of wearing a mask. I’m also getting lederhosen vibes from this, which is an interesting take.

Two Carreys for the price of one! And the timestamp claims this was taken in 2006 lol. It’s a half-decent Ventura. Only God can judge The Mask here.

This one still counts! It’s a rare pic of Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz with their stunt doubles from the movie! (What, you thought Jim Carrey swallowed that bomb HIMSELF?). I think stunt doubling is a kind of cosplay right, and I really really like the double’s costume.

And I love that he’s the only one not showing any signs of remotely enjoying himself. He should be having the time of his life, but no – the man is a professional and takes his work seriously. This is just another gig for this seasoned vet. And when the workday is done, it’s back home to his family. What a trooper.

I really like these candid ‘out and about’ shots. The vibes I’m getting for this one are “The Mask coming out of the County Magistrate’s Court after an unsuccessful appeal against a £50 speeding fine. The judge also ordered to the defendant to perform 30 hours of community service work, with the condition that he keep his Mask outfit on at all times as an additional form of humiliation”.

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

OK THANKS BYE

"Didn't Happen" Twitter in a world of fake news

Every Christmas, something special happens on Twitter. No, not the annual ‘man called John Lewis replies to tweets about the John Lewis Christmas ad’. Nor the tedious ‘is Die Hard a Christmas movie?’ discourse. I’m talking about the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards, aka DHOTYA.

This online competition is run by Twitter handle @_dhotya, an account that joined the site in January 2017. The purpose of the account is to highlight made-up stories by other people on Twitter and call them out for their fabrications.

A typical example might involve a mum or dad on Twitter sharing an anecdote about their child, who happens to express wisdom beyond its years, usually with some socially progressive angle (kids asking particularly astute questions about Trump for instance). Or it might be a made-up tale about heroism in a shop, where the author tackled some injustice. And then everyone in the shop applauded. Or it might just be Olly Murs telling his followers about a non-existent shooting in a John Lewis.

There’s a great deal of catharsis to be had in calling out these behaviours. It’s satisfying to identify something as fake, and there’s a sense of internet justice when people get called out for their untruths. Twitter operates as a meritocracy, with the ‘best’ content rising to the top. People who try to game the system through inauthentic tweets specifically crafted to ‘win’ feel like cheaters, and exposing them as such looks like a valid way of restoring the natural order.

And yet, there’s something sinister about the DHOTYA. Some have accused it of encouraging public shaming and dog-piling behaviours. And more specifically, with a large number of the stories it shares coming from women, there’s a worry that all the apparent fun and games are simply masking toxic misogyny. So, are these worries concerned? And is DHOTYA a hero, or villain? Let’s decide.

Everyone agrees: fake news is a real problem

We’ve increasingly seen politicians willing to simply tell barefaced lies to win elections. And nobody’s been able to quite say how much influence the made-up stories your aunt is sharing on Facebook are having. Fake news is more or less commonplace online.

Just last month, the Conservative Party rebranded its Press account as ‘Fact Check UK’ during a party leader debate. They only ended up getting a slap on the wrist from Twitter, but the outrage on Twitter at the time was phenomenal. This was actual fake news in the truest sense, happening in real-time. The Conservative Party Press Twitter account is not a fact-checking organisation and it had no right to do so. You could say that it knowingly and deliberately misled the public during the debate – especially as RTs from the account into your timeline didn’t include any indication of the source.

So with lying Tories, Trump being Trump, and Russia employing a literal troll army to flood the internet with lies, what’s our defence? The answer, so far, has been to try and call it out.

Calling out fake news

To be fair to the social media platforms, they’re getting better at this. Facebook will now tell you in a post when it contains claims that have been refuted by independent fact-checkers. And Instagram has joined the party too, apparently having just started to hide images that it thinks have been photoshopped.

And then there’s Snopes. Once the ‘Urban Legends Reference Pages’, Snopes has grown from being a ‘does the Mothman exist’ site to an increasingly important combatant in the fight against online fake news. It now describes itself as ‘the internet’s definitive #factchecking resource’ and does a great job of calling out mistruths on both ‘sides’ of the argument.

What makes Snopes different from the ‘Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards’ account then? They appear to operate the same function – calling out lies on the internet. But they feel different, don’t they? And it’s probably down to who they’re targeting.

Does DHOTYA have a problem with toxicity?

Vice has done an excellent analysis of the people targeted by DHOTYA. Their finding?

The single highest demographic accused of lying by the account is ordinary, non-famous young women, at 115 of 257 victims – 44.8 percent of all people accused. This is over double the amount of ordinary young men called out, at 57.

And taking into account that 93% of the account’s followers are male, the picture doesn’t look good. The story looks like ‘young men not believing or respecting young women’ and has echoes of the same toxic masculinity that means police don’t take reports from women as seriously as men. The same culture of disbelief that stops victims of sexual assault from coming forward.

There are other clues too. The annual competition runs in a league format that uses the same language and structure as a football league. The account has a standing arrangement with Betvictor for a betting market around the contest. The language and culture of football banter is prevalent, and we all know how that ends And the behaviour of the people who follow the account is concerning.

Look underneath almost any anecdote posted by someone on the internet, and you’ll see people tagging @_dhotya. There’s relish and zeal in tag-snitching someone to the account’s attention, and clearly, a lot of it isn’t good-natured. In I-D’s analysis of DHOTYA, they noted a tendency of the account and its followers to focus on socially progressive, predominantly left-wing liberal issues. Content like this:

So the narrative is against DHOTYA

That this is toxic online behaviour of the same flavour as 4chan trolls and right-wing misogynists. Although it’s clearly a greyer area than that. I’m sure a lot of people follow the account just for the schadenfreude of watching someone get called out for trying to pull a fast one. And the account’s owner has always defended it, saying that it picks the accounts to highlight without prejudice.

But then, when the account is run as a competition, open for anyone to vote on, the consequence that account has go beyond just the intentions of its author. If right-wing trolls (or just meanies in general) hijack the votes then that’s bad. And the author should take some responsibility for that as the platform-provider.

At the same time though, the claims that the account isn’t prejudiced are at least somewhat credible. It regularly calls out men too – with Vice’s analysis showing 112 men targeted, vs. 145 women. And DHOTYA regularly ‘punches up’, taking on the rich and vain – people who are fair targets for a bit of ridicule.

And more broadly, there are stories that we absolutely should be calling out when we see them. The worrying trend of anti-vaccination stems from absolute fake news linking it to autism, and it is correct to confront anyone who chooses to claim otherwise.

Twitter, and truth in comedy

I want my dream vision of Twitter to be a reality. I want it to be a content meritocracy where people are trying their hardest to educate and entertain others. Twitter at its best is the weird celebrating the wonderful, and vice-versa. But the fact is, there are bad agents on there, trying to game the system. (From Vice, again: ‘The Sad World of Adults Pretending to Be Kids for Retweets’).

Is that a bad thing? Who does it hurt if I make up a story about my son spouting Marxist ideology? Or claiming to have seen an ironic sign at a polling station? That’s fine, right?

Yes! Most entertainment is fiction. Go and watch any stand-up comedian and you’ll hear stories from that’ll be at least enhanced, if not outright fabricated. This, in particular, used to bother me and I even ran my own Twitter account for a while pretending to ‘not get’ people’s fake jokes.

But now… I kind of get it? I’ve done stand-up myself, and done my share of comedy writing. The truth isn’t always that funny; it’s usually quite boring. And when we come to tell each other stories, objective truth is always lost as we prioritise what’s meaningful in communication.

So why not just let people enjoy things? Because we’re also all natural critics! We form judgements on everything and it’s natural to be kind of a hater sometimes. We might also want to ask the question of whether anything should ever be beyond criticism (but that’s a question for another blog post I think).

For now let’s just say that enjoying things is fine, and not enjoying them is fine too.

In conclusion: DHOTYA = mostly harmless?

I’m choosing to still follow the account. Although we live in an age of vanishing nuance, I think it’s possible to follow an account and enjoy some of the content while regarding it as problematic. (Whereas I don’t follow, say, Glinner or Gervais).

Social media isn’t just a big part of my personal life, it’s also my job. And part of that has been creating social media guidelines for my workplace. These exist not just to protect the company from its employees (we trust them, don’t worry) but to highlight to folks the dangers of participating in the online social media space. I point people towards Jon Ronson’s TED talk ‘How one tweet can ruin your life’ – taken from his excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – as a source of case studies about the worst that can happen.

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. And although the book doesn’t cover this topic specifically, I think it goes to the heart of the matter nicely. That real people are affected by pile-ons on Twitter, and mob justice isn’t fair.

Let’s run the argument…

  1. We value truth.
  2. We value justice.
  3. Some people do not share all our values.
  4. We’re willing to concede (1) for entertainment.  ((I see you sharing The Daily Mash on Facebook)
  5. People on Twitter exploit (4) for their own ‘gain’.
  6. Because of (1) and (2), it follows that we call out (5) when we see it.
  7. (1), (2), and (6) are not inherently contradictory
  8. But (6) goes awry because of the influence of (3).
    [As an aside at this point, (8) vs (2) explains the backlash we see against (6).]
  9. We can call out (8) while still participating in (6).

And so I think that’s the answer. We know that the online world is becoming increasingly fake. Politicians lie, influencers sell us manufactured lies, and people on Twitter make up stories for likes. Calling it out is our best, and only, defence. 

And we can do so while being decent human beings. The DHOTYA account and its followers sometimes fail here, so let’s call them out too. Seeking the truth doesn’t justify misogyny let’s just be just as hard on that too.

Virgin Media support sent me the weirdest email ever

So if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen that I’m having a bit of a row with Virgin Media at the moment. It’s separate to the row I had with them back in 2017 about something else, but it covers much of the same ground.

Long story short, I’m moving flat next month and I’d like to bring Virgin with me. The tool to check if I can do that doesn’t seem to be working, so I’ve been some after some clarity about exactly what the deal is.

My first point of call was to contact the “moving team” who would apparently do a manual check on my behalf. What I got in response is one of the strangest customer service emails I’ve ever received, and definitely something I think deserves a thorough examination. Because that’s where I’m at with my life.

(And maybe we can take away some wider lessons about the importance of clarity in customer service comms while we do it).

HERE’S THE EMAIL

The email from Virgin Media support

I’ve blurred out the name because I don’t want to blame the agent here. Although if this agent isn’t constantly screaming “WHY DO WE DO THINGS THIS WAY, WHY OH GOD WHY” then frankly I’m a little concerned. But no, this clearly stems from broken processes and systems. No good system should let this happen.

Let’s start at the top then! What makes a good subject line?

  • Something that makes me want to read the email
  • Something that gives an indication of where the email is from
  • Perhaps a summary of the topic

Basically getting right to it. A good subject line here might be “Sorry, we can’t come with you for your move!” or “It doesn’t look like you can get Virgin Media just yet”.

Instead, Virgin Media have gone with an email that has apparently been forwarded twice already. And is all in capital letters. And tells me nothing about what the email says (can I get VM or not?)

It also uses the word “SERVICIABILITY” which is:

  • The least friendly word they could have picked
  • Not a word

Did they mean serviceability? Why say that anyway? Even “availability” would be better – I know what that word means. And it’s a word.

We then have 8 line breaks. I don’t know why. To leave me in suspense? What email tool could they be using for this?

Note: this came from an individual’s Virgin Media address too, so it’s possible they just did this all themselves. But this seems like a pretty standard email to send out. Surely they can have templates. At the very least templates that don’t begin with 8 line breaks.

We then get “Hi,” in tiny blue font. No name or anything. Just hi. Then another 7 line breaks. We’re 16 lines in and I don’t know anything.

The email then continues in a completely different font and colour. I kind of liked the blue! But mixing it up is fine too, I suppose. Keeps it interesting.

“Sorry, your home isn’t in a Virgin Media area”. There’s the subject line! Buried like thirty lines deep.

(Note that they’ve said “We checked your post code” twice now. In two different ways. I don’t know why).

Next up: “Here’s the good news” followed by “Hang tight – we’re redirecting you!”. No clue what’s happening at this point in the email. The use of headers is a bit bewildering. At least they’ve tried to use some kind of structure, but it’s just made everything super confusing. But what follows is even worse.

An entire sentence is repeated. “You can still get a great broadband, TV and phone package” – just there… twice! Once mentioning USwitch (last mention of USwitch in the entire email, by the way) and once without. The “button” that apparently leads to USwitch is nowhere to be seen, and the email instantly veers to talking about Simplifydigital instead.

A highlight in the next bit is “click the link below” where “link below” is in blue, but not a link. It’s like they’ve seen links before in other places and know they’re usually blue. But they don’t know how to actually make links so they’ve just added one underneath instead. Baffling.

Another 10 line breaks and we get the sign-off (not in the screenshot).

Wow. Needless to say this email left me very confused. I wasn’t even sure it was legit. I tried asking Virgin Media and they didn’t seem sure, especially since they’re obsessed with telling me that they (the internet company Virgin Media) “don’t use email“).

It’s not just disappointing, it’s shockingly bad. And it makes such a poor customer experience. I have no confidence in the answer I got, I definitely don’t feel like I’m cared about as a customer, and it really damages the brand.

What could the email look like instead?

Well, firstly I’d have it properly branded. Coming from an “help@virginmedia.com” email address or something. And using a consistent font size and colour. It could look like this:

Sorry, your home isn’t in a Virgin Media area

Hi Richard,

Thanks for asking us to check if you can get Virgin Media at your new place.

We’re sorry to say that we haven’t connected your new address to our network just yet. We’d absolutely love to soon though, and we’re connecting new homes as quickly as we can.

We’ll be sorry to lose you though. You can visit our friends at USwitch here to see which other companies have got you covered instead.

When we get to your area, we’ll drop you another email to let you know. We’ll even throw in a £50 welcome back bonus if you come back.

Until then, thanks again for our time together. It’s been great having you with us.

Love,

Team Virgin

So yeah basically something like that. Maybe with some more line breaks in it.

checking in on my own mental health – 2019

A year ago I wrote this. It’s kind of an inventory of all the things in my life that have an effect on my mental health, and an interesting snapshot of where I was at twelve months ago. I found it helpful to write at the time, almost as a form of therapy in itself – just laying everything out there and saying “this is what it is”.

So a year on, I want to do it again. This week is once more Mental Health Awareness Week, which our government in their infinite wisdom have marked by turning on a green light.

Which brings me to the first thing to talk about…

Brexit, and general cultural uncertainty

What the hell is going on in the world? Like, seriously: what’s happening?

It feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual catch-22. Impossible situations, political stalemates, the absolute certainty that nothing we can do will ever change anything.

We’re hurtling towards a climate rebellion, but the biggest issue of the day is how many ovens you should have in your house. (The answer is one, of course. Who has FOUR ovens?)

Sure, these are things that are mostly disconnected from our lives. But it’s a backdrop. And if the big things are so uncertain, what are we meant to do? And will there even be a planet left in 10 years time?

No to mention the last season of Game of Thrones being a complete and utter disappointment. A decade of our lives wasted.

We may not feel it, but we’re experiencing existential trauma on a daily basis. No wonder I’m so tired.

Health

I’m well! Well enough, at least. I get the odd cough and cold, but typically I’m not in a bad state.

I’ve started experiencing a couple of mysterious symptoms recently though. Like perpetual jaw ache, and weird, dry rashes on my hands. But I don’t think I’m sick, I think I’m stressed out. I sleep and eat ok, so I don’t know for sure.

I also worry about my weight. It’s been steadily going up since the start of last year. I’m still not overweight by any stretch, but I keep catching myself in mirrors, or see pics of myself and not liking it. Especially around my face, like the cheeks and chin. And my stomach is getting bigger – I’m literally balancing my laptop on it now to write this. A stomach should never be able to be fulfil the function of a lap.

But at least my arms haven’t fallen off.

Living situation

I’m in the same flat I was a year ago, which is great. I love where I live and I love the place we’ve got.

Unfortunately one of my housemates is moving out soon, which means either moving to a new place (not ideal), or finding a new person to move in (even less ideal, if they’re a randomer). That’s throwing some more stress onto my plate of course. Moving to London was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and I’d rather not have to go through any of it again. Even though it would be easier now that I’m ‘here’ already.

But I like my housemates. And I like my housemates’ friends and partners. So all good.

Work

I’m at the same place I was last year. Which is good! I like it there. The people are nice, and it’s an exciting place to be.

Is it a relaxing job? Not always no. And I’m not the best at enforcing my own work/life balance sometimes. I stay late too often, not even getting much done when I do. It’s almost like tearing myself away is giving up somehow. I dunno – room for improvement here.

And there’s been stressful times, especially in the last few months. My job involves trying to keep an impossibly-large number of people happy. And ‘caring too much about keeping everyone happy’ might just be my single greatest character flaw. So when I can’t do it, or don’t manage it, that really upsets me. Especially when a lot of it cascades at once, and you just feel like a bit of a failure.

Hopefully I’ll grow more secure and confident with time” I wrote last year. Have I? In some ways, yes! I take a more active role in things than I did before. But I’m not a natural leader, stepping up to things doesn’t come naturally to me. That said, I’d set myself goals around things like public speaking that I never thought would be possible, so never say never.

Love

I’m currently with someone I really like and is making me happy. We just spent about two weeks straight together, which was very nice.

They’re into board games and movies and games and comedy, which is all I could ever ask for. So even when I’m not feeling my best, I have someone to support me. Which means a lot.

Family

The fam seem cool I guess.

I’m a bit worried about my aunt. She’s gone from ‘annoying aunt’ status to ‘ok actually not well now’, which has been hard. It makes spending time with her difficult and sometimes resentful. I don’t think I had a very happy Christmas in 2018, partly because of this (but also because I drank so much beer it cramped my legs up and I couldn’t walk).

Other family stuff is fine, or I simply don’t think or talk about it.

Social Life

This was my big deal last year. Parties and being social and the associated fear and anxiety. Does this still happen? Yes. But is it a major problem in my life? Not as much.

In the end, the CBT did help overall. And I also just grew into my own skin a bit. I think I’ll always be a bit of an outsider. Mainstream stuff usually doesn’t bother me to much (except Game of Thrones, where I STAN AN ICON… sorry I don’t know what that means either). But also I’m quiet, I take time to warm to people. And too much people-stimulation simply tires me out. I like to get away and just be by myself sometimes. And that’s cool.

If anything, I’ve gone quite far the other way. There’s been stretches of weeks where every night there’s been “a thing”. Like maybe a work social followed by a film the next night, then dinner with uni friends the next night, then comedy the night after that, and a work event the next day. In isolation these things are fine, but I do struggle when it piles up. Even if each thing is something I want to do and have, in fact, chosen to do. I do find myself simply tired of stuff, the very things I moved to London to do more of.

Creativity

I feel better when I’m being creative. That can be messing around on Photoshop, writing stupid stuff on the blog, or trying to tweet something so mad that even I wouldn’t retweet it.

And I’ve found a great outlet for it this year through stand-up comedy. I did a course for five weeks at the start of the year, culminating in a showcase for at my favourite comedy pub: The Bill Murray.

That was really fun. I’m seven real gigs in so far, and I’m trying to keep it up. It’s a tiring hobby though – late nights in far-off pubs. And you have to bring someone with you, who’ll patiently sit though two hours of people-that-aren’t-you to listen to your same five minutes they’ve heard before. Anyone that attends comedy gigs as a ‘bringer’ for their friends is a saint in my eyes.

It’s a lazy trope, but it’s true: that stand-up is kinda like a form of therapy. A confession to strangers about your deepest flaws, worries, and fears. I talk about my anxiety in my stand-up, about the things I’m scared of. “I don’t like feeling like I’m under suspicion – it’s why I’ve never won a game of Cluedo in my life” quips on-stage Cook, someone who genuinely pretends to be bad at walking when behind someone at night, in order to seem less threatening.

So yeah, comedy is good and telling jokes is great for your mental health. More comedians than you think struggle with this stuff (and everyone thinks every comedian is secretly depressed, so there you go). Come see me sometime!

I’m also working on an exciting podcast project. It’s about friendship and mental health, but that’s all I’ll say about it for now…

Mental Health

Am I good? I don’t know.

Ostensibly, yes. I’m not on medication right now. And I’m not in therapy.

But I don’t feel good. My phq-9 score hovers around 13, marking ‘moderate depression’ and I strongly identify with the “feeling bad about yourself” and “little interest or pleasure in doing things” parts.

I’ll still feel quite down a lot of the time. But I’ll more commonly just feel kind of blank. Like spaced out, and not feeling anything. Like a numbness after being over-stimulated. I think it’s probably coming from the work stress.

I have a worrying amount of symptoms from the ‘signs of burnout’ list I just googled. Which seems bad. But I think that word sums up how I’m feeling now. A mix of tired and disinterested. I’m bad at taking time away from work, so often I’m just operating in a near-constant daze.

I think I need to take time for myself more. To properly sit and think about what I care about right now, and what I’m doing for me. But it’s hard to do that when so much is happening ALL THE TIME.

Like my phone notifications are the worst. There’s been so many times I’ve been thinking about something when a notification comes in, then another, and another. Your train of thought is constantly interrupted, with things that all demand your immediate attention. Too many WhatsApp groups or people bothering me for stuff. I just want everyone to leave me alone sometimes. But also I don’t want that. Not really.

Am I feeling anxious? Of course. Anxiety practically defines me, and I’ll never beat it. I can just learn to live with it.

But I’m ok

I’m happy enough most days. I really can’t complain about my situation when so many have it so worse off. And I recognise my privileged position – that at least some of my worries are borne from the lack of not having to worry about so many other things. I have my health, and some wealth, and work, and all manner of advantages.

And things are on the way up, probably. At least, better than twelve months ago.

Let’s just see what happens over the next year. Let’s keep an eye on each other, ok?

Elegiac Stanzas: Literary references in British Sea Power’s early discography

I’m a big fan of the local library
I just read a book
But that’s another story

So declares Yan Wilkinson in Who’s In Control, the first song on British Sea Power’s fourth album, Valhalla Dancehall. And as the very name of that album suggests, British Sea Power are a band more than comfortable with a literary reference. In fact, from just classical mythology alone they’ve drawn upon Zeus, Hercules, and the Trojan War. Listening to British Sea Power, isn’t just listening to music, it’s an education in the arts. Like reading a truly great book, it’s fun on its own, but when you dig into what it’s drawing on, you get something truly meaningful.

One of the reasons I love BSP, and maybe the reason they get a bit overlooked, is that they pick unusual things to sing about. When most bands are singing about love and relationships, BSP have sung about the history of artificial illumination, the smallest church in Sussex, and the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. You know, standard fare. And throughout these explorations, they pepper eclectic references. And if GCSE English taught me anything it’s that lots of references = very good. Or at least, it makes the songs richer than your standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus affair.

Which brings us to this. For years I’ve wondered about collecting the references I’d unearthed. And finally, I’ve actually got round to doing it. I’m focussing on the first album – The Decline of British Sea Power – mostly because I know it best, but also because I think it has the highest density of these references. And I’m grateful to various contributors across the internet for helping me to fill in the blanks on some of this, especially the folks at SongMeanings.net, the Salty Water BSP fan site, and the stark-raving mad bunch on the BSP forum.

TDOBSP is also a masterpiece of an album from start to finish, musically as well as lyrically. It’s broadly about…. remembrance?  At least, that’s my interpretation. As the quote on the front of the album says (from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey): “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead.

The album cover of The Decline of British Sea Power

Angular guitar riffs meet Russian literature

The album opens with forty two seconds of gregorian chanting. Because why not. But after that, the first line – spoken, not sung – is:  “Oh Fyodor you are the most attractive man”. Oh hello, Russian author FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, on this nondescript 2003 indie rock release, what are you doing here? The song is Apologies to Insect Life, and the song supposedly draws inspiration from Dostoyevksy’s Notes from Underground – but I don’t know enough about to get the specific references.

It’s a Pixies-inspired clangy anthem that builds with frenetic energy that spills over to the next song Favours in the Beetroot Fields, supposedly an oblique reference to the dispensation Field Marshall Montgomery gave his troops to seek ‘favours’ while stationed out on the front.

BSP & Betjeman

The title of Favours in the Beetroot Fields partially echoes The Licorice Fields at Pontefract, by former poet laureate John Betjeman. Is it a deliberate reference? Possibly not. But we know it’s at least knocking around in the BSP subconscious from their appearance in the BBC documentary Betjeman & Me, in which they perform a reading of Pontefract and discuss Betjeman’s penchant for larger ladies.

Betjeman’s roots spread throughout BSP’s work, but more in tone than outright content. Betjeman’s playful poking at sensibilities pops up in a lot of BSP lyrics. And I have a strong suspicion that the song Lucky Bicycle (which you’ll be lucky to find anywhere) is a reference to the line from Myfanwy. where the poet writes of how his beloved rides around the city on a bike and he cheekily declares: trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle!

Shakespeare and sci-fi

The fourth song on the album, Something Wicked, is probably the best example of the album’s themes. It compares and contrasts various symbols of nature that have been co-opted by mankind for military purposes (the Oak Leak Cluster as military award, the use of camouflage) concluding that “your works of nature are unnatural”. The title is an almost-too-obvious reference to the witches of Macbeth, who foretell the bloody events to come in their warning to the king-to-be.

Something Wicked features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, with a couple of my favourite lines being:

And the lake was clear as crystal
The best tea I’ve ever had

There’s no such thing as a filler lyrics for BSP, and I choose to believe that these two lines are a reference to The Shining Levels by John Wyatt – a book about a man who ends up living in isolation in the Lake District (the shining levels of the title being the lakes themselves). That BSP apparently almost named their album after the book is also a strong indication. A highlight of the book is when the protagonist adopts an injured baby deer and nurses it to back to health. The same little lost roe deer from No Lucifer from their third album? Probably!

But as well as the Shakespearean allusions, Something Wicked could also be a reference to Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Again, we know that BSP are fans. Their song Georgie Ray off Valhalla Dancehall, is loosely based on Bradbury – as well as George Orwell – and their fifth studio album Machineries of Joy is the namesake of a collection of Bradbury’s short stories.

The idea of British Sea Power being science fiction fans may seem odd, so let’s acknowledge that. So far we’ve brought up mythology, Shakespeare, poets, and nature – none of which suggest an interest in either science or fiction, particularly. But there’s an interesting link here, which gives some more context to other parts of The Decline Of…

Remembering Geoff Goddard & Joe Meek

At university, BSP were friends with a chap named Geoff Goddard. Despite working in the catering department at the University of Reading, Goddard had a celebrated past in the music industry, working with artists like The Tornados and Heinz. Most notably he worked with the producer Joe Meek. Meek’s album I Hear A New World is one of the most incredible (viz. weird) half hours of music you’ll ever listen to, and has been cited by BSP as an influence on their own work. And together, Goddard and Meek created hits like the chart-topping Telstar and Johnny Remember Me. So is it any surprise, then, that the fifth track on TDOBSP is called, simply, Remember Me?

Before moving on, take a moment to appreciate the video BSP made for Remember Me, where they bring to life iconic London statues to belt out the most anthemic track off the record.

The Lonely & Larkin

The seventh song on TDOBSP – The Lonely – might also be the saddest. Hauntingly beautiful, it paints a picture of isolation, of long evenings spent hunched over a keyboard playing music. Just look at how beautiful the chorus is:

I’ll drink all day and play by night
Upon my Casio electric piano
‘Til in the darkness I see lights
But not candelabra
But things from other stars

Oh, did I mention that the song is about the late Geoff Goddard? Yup! It’s a tribute song to the friend-of-the-band, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching. As a portrait of a genuine person by someone who deeply admires and respects them, it’s deeply moving and genuinely poetic.

And there’s a touch of another poet at work here. Compare Philip Larkin’s Aubade:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:

It’s not so much a paraphrasing as an out-and-out reworking of Larkin’s original. But it’s far from plagiarism. BSP use reference as the basis for originality, not as a substitute. And I like the idea that BSP are Larkin fans. There’s something a bit punk about Larkin and the idea of a bunch of angry young men studying his works and then blasting them out on stage seems fitting.

See also “it deepens like a coastal shelf” as Larkin’s description of misery in This Be The Verse. I think Larkin was talking about the shallow portion of a continent that is submerged underwater (thanks Wikipedia), but I can hear it ring in Oh Larsen B, from BSP’s second album, an ode to Yan’s “favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf”. (A song about the collapse of the Larsen-B ice shelf, of course).

Now That’s What I Call World War One Joy Division

We need to talk about Carrion, the 8th song on TDOBSP, and my favourite British Sea Power song of all time. I think it’s about a shipwreck, judging by some of the lyrics and the fact that the British Maritime Museum had some of the lyrics up on a wall for a bit. It name checks Scapa Flow and Rotherhithe, has a bit about the devil in it, and the refrain is about hair pomade. So basically a perfect song.

As well as being a piece of poetry in itself, I think Carrion has some interesting war poetry allusions in it. In early live shows, the song was preceded by clips of the classic war film A Matter of Life and Death or the audio of “Returning, we Hear the Larks” by Isaac Rosenberg. There used to be a great clip of this on Youtube but I’m having real trouble finding it – if anyone out there has it I’d be truly thankful!

Returning to the text itself, as it were, the line “Can stone and steel and horse’s heels / Ever explain the way you feel?” seems to me to be a TS Elliot reference. His Triumphal March is an inventory of the instruments of war, beginning with “Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels”. Oh, and there’s those oakleaves again from Something Wicked.

Do you like my historic rock?

Let’s march on to the end of the album then. At just under 14 minutes, Lately is the climax of the album. The lyrics require close interrogation, and a lot of it I can’t place at all. The song breaks down both lyrically and musically to the end, with Yan just screaming variations of the same line:

Do you like my megalithic rock?
Do you like my prehistoric rock?
Do you like my teutonic rock?
Do you like my priapic rock?
Do you like my neolithic rock?
Do you like my sterile rock?
Do you like my megalithic rock?

We’d see this again in the title of their third album – Do You Like Rock Music? But the song begins a lot more sedately:

Lately, you seem like another language
Are you in trouble,
Are you in trouble again?
And you know how they say,
The past, it is a foreign country
How can we go there,
How can we go where we once went?

Very typical BSP; themes of memory and isolation. And of course “the past is a foreign country” is a quote by LP Hartley which in full reads: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But it’s interesting that BSP would explicitly call this out as a reference (“you know how they say…”). Reference itself as a form of remembrance.

I really like this verse too:

Replacing Hercules, with the heroic sounds of Formby
Remove the tunics touch, stood aside from the putsch,
Stood aside from history

There’s the Greek mythology, with the heroic athleticism of Hercules ironically displaced by the saucy northern entertainer George Formby. Then there’s a bit I assume is a Hitler reference with the Putsch.

But BSP could never stand aside from history. They’re too obsessed by it. The ringing from ten minutes of guitar feedback has barely dissipated when the final song of the album begins. A Wooden Horse may be the closest that BSP come on the record to writing a traditional love song. “When wooden horses were in use / I would have built one / And left it for you” sings Yan. But even this sentiment is framed within the context of Greek mythology and history. They just can’t help themselves.


Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Just because BSP have written an album densely packed with literary references, both oblique and obvious, does that alone make it any good? Well, of course not. Other bands have drawn upon history and literature in their music; The Decemberists deserve an honourable mention here for being particular great.

But the way that BSP have done it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen any band do. And it’s not just the scale of it, or the way it’s made me obsessively crawl over every word, and spend hours researching this essay over an entire Easter bank holiday weekend.

What makes the album great is the way that these references reinforce the theme. As we’ve said, this is an album about remembrance, of looking back and appreciating. The album is called ‘The Decline Of…’ for a reason. We look back with fondness at things in the past, but we also displace the old with the new. We reject old myths for the modern, we reject the natural for the mechanical, we forget people and things.

In referencing the obscure and the forgotten, BSP make us remember. Geoff Goddard died in 2000 but he lives on in the music he left behind, and in our remembering him through BSP’s music.

Returning back to the quote that adorns the cover of the album..

We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead

100 ways in which life is like a box of chocolates

Forrest Gump’s mother is quoted as having said that life was like a box of chocolates because “you never know what you’re gonna get.” This is demonstrably false. Chocolate boxes typically come with liner notes detailing exactly which chocolates you’ll be getting. And even if you lose that, or it doesn’t come with one, it’s very unlikely you’ll encounter anything wildly different to the kind of chocolates you’d expect to get in a box of chocolates.
But the simile itself is a promising one. “Life is like a box of chocolates…” It’s just let down by the resolution. We can do better. So, here’s one hundred other ways in which life is like a box of chocolates.
  1. It makes a lovely gift.
  2. It may contain nuts.
  3. Not everyone likes the coffee options.
  4. Old people won’t let go of them.
  5. Melts in the sun.
  6. Sometimes there’s another layer underneath the first one.
  7. More expensive after Brexit.
  8. Really tasty.
  9. Too much can make you sick.
  10. Makes you fat.
  11. Comes in all shapes and sizes.
  12. Superficially different, but all the same on the inside.
  13. We’d be better off without it.
  14. Worth a bit less after Easter.
  15. Bad people don’t like the dark ones.
  16. There’s a lot of wasted packaging.
  17. It’ll make your teeth fall out.
  18. Looks nice with a ribbon on.
  19. I’m always happy to have one.
  20. They are both featured in the film Forrest Gump.
  21. They are both associated with Coronation Street.
  22. Both are in the title of this blog.
  23. They are words in the English language.
  24. They contain both vowels and consonants.
  25. I regret attempting to write a list of things that link them.
  26. No refunds.
  27. People come back from holidays with them.
  28. Philosophers debate their meaning.
  29. High sugar and fat content.
  30. I like them.
  31. Enjoyed all across the world.
  32. You shouldn’t let anyone shame you for having one.
  33. At least hundreds of years old.
  34. Excessive amounts are bad for you.
  35. Gives you spots.
  36. Can eventually make you depressed.
  37. Go great with milk.
  38. Best stored in a cool, dark place.
  39. Found in abundance at airports.
  40. You can find the best in Belgium.
  41. Improves with age.
  42. A common craving.
  43. Most people only get one.
  44. This list is about them.
  45. Historically related to the Aztec Empire.
  46. Very romantic.
  47. Poets write about them.
  48. Can’t think of one for this number.
  49. This is number 49 in a list of things relating them.
  50. The film Amelie is kind of about them. I don’t know though, I haven’t seen it.
  51. Precious.
  52. Beautiful.
  53. Makes people happy.
  54. Can make you feel guilty.
  55. The exterior doesn’t always reflect the interior.
  56. Starts off well-ordered, but ends in chaos.
  57. Runs out eventually.
  58. Ultimately just a bundle of chemicals.
  59. Accept no substitute.
  60. Best shared.
  61. You can really overthink them.
  62. Can seem dark sometimes.
  63. Nothing to be afraid of.
  64. Knows no language or borders.
  65. Filled with fudge.
  66. Just a little bit chewy.
  67. You can’t put a bit back after you’ve taken a bite.
  68. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
  69. Not to be taken too seriously.
  70. Lots of fun.
  71. Surprisingly expensive.
  72. But don’t worry about the cost.
  73. Sad if empty.
  74. Turn it upside down and everything falls out.
  75. Some are bigger than others.
  76. Don’t compare yours to anyone else’s.
  77. A terrible thing to lose.
  78. It’s never too early in the day to enjoy some.
  79. Pairs well with red wine.
  80. At Easter, the village vicar will attempt to link the two in their sermon.
  81. Money can help you acquire more.
  82. People want to know its meaning.
  83. Can take you by surprise.
  84. My guilty pleasure.
  85. Enjoyed all over the world.
  86. The source of countless arguments.
  87. Worth celebrating.
  88. Non-vegan.
  89. Suitable for vegetarians.
  90. Just really nice.
  91. Some people spend their whole lives looking for one.
  92. Non-Recyclable.
  93. Bad for the environment.
  94. Heavily taxed.
  95. A luxury.
  96. The rich have it better.
  97. Dogs shouldn’t eat them.
  98. All too fleeting.
  99. Unlikely to survive above 100 degrees celsius.
  100. Not waterproof.