Web of rage

PUBLISHED: 13:00 14 November 2017

Prue Leith

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The internet does not distinguish between good and bad. If we want to survive it, we might have to, says NATHANIEL TAPLEY

The world is broken. Every news bulletin honks a clattering avalanche of unbelievable bellendery into our homes. Society just sits there, panting like a red setter enthralled by its own farts, in the full knowledge that those farts were endowed with their fascinating scent by the tumours growing in its colon. The asteroid cannot come too soon.

To truly understand the godawful spunk-shambles the world has become you need know only two words. Two syllables. The state of the world can be fully explained by simply saying: Prue Leith.

Is it unfair to see a temporally-confused flour-botherer as symptomatic of all that is sick and mangled in Britain today? No. No, it very much is not.

Prue Leith tweeted the name of the winner of the Great British Bake Off too soon. As a result, social media was talking about Bake Off all day, Bake Off was the front page story in national newspapers the next morning, and Bake Off was suddenly a story again.

Only a cynic would suggest that this has all the hallmarks of a viral marketing strategy. Only a hard-hearted person with a soul calcified by years of misuse could possibly believe that this was anything other than an honest mistake. Only a lonely giant whose sole pleasure is sitting in his walled garden throttling birds to silence their twee songs, or hurling children over a fence when they trespass to come and give him gifts, could possibly think there was anything less-than-bonafide in Leith’s claim to have been confused by being in a different time zone. One in which it was tomorrow.

Only a cynic would. So I won’t.

But I will point out that even if it was an honest mistake it proved the fundamental rule of the internet: that broken things work better than good ones.

Last year, a four-minute video for the ‘Vibe’ development in Dalston was widely shared on social media because it looked so dreadful. And so nothing-like-Dalston. It was so bad it made the papers. Everyone stopped to laugh and point.

And thus far more people became aware of the Vibe development in Dalston than ever would have if they had had a half-competent video. The marketing company can point at that execrable film, the one that made people so angry and bewildered they had to show it to their friends and cackle, and say: “Look. Look at the views. You wanted a video that lots of people would watch. Lots and lots and lots watched. Look at this article in the Evening Standard. You can’t buy that sort of publicity unless you phone the Telegraph. Job very much done.”

The internet doesn’t distinguish between good clicks and bad clicks.

In the dim and distant past, there was a site called UsVsTh3m. It specialised in distracting internet games, surprisingly insightful quizzes, articles about popular culture, and literally anything you might feel the need to share with a work colleague you might want to impress.
When I wrote for UsVsTh3m, we were very aware of the power of the pedant-click. Any article with a glaring error in would suddenly start to do better than you’d expected.

Gristle-faced pedants with spittle-flecked keyboards would share what we’d done with everyone they knew to show off how much cleverer they were than
us.

We started making deliberately broken articles that would be funny to people who got the joke, and would rely on rage-sharing for those who didn’t. I wrote “Twelve reasons why Scotland should stay in the UK”. All of the reasons were about Ireland. And there were only eleven of them.

The internet doesn’t distinguish between good clicks and bad clicks.

The Daily Mail realised this very early on. From the time they saw the traffic they got on that Jan Moir article about Stephen Gately in 2009, back when Twitter was a place where people went to find out how Stephen Fry’s visit to the optometrist went, rather than a neverending howl of digital rage.

As soon as media companies realised that they could fulfil their business plans by driving clicks whether or not what they were doing was good or bad, it was only a matter of time before they realised that bad was usually cheaper.

There is no such thing as a measure of quality, only a measure of how much attention something gets.
Katie Hopkins is discovering that the hard way, as she plods each painful step down the road from entertaining contrarian to a coin-operated, dinner party Goebbels of diminishing returns. Eva Yawn.

She’s learning the hard way that the internet won’t pay attention to the same thing twice. It may well watch a video titled ‘Naked Man Stamping On Starfish’ over one called ‘Long-Term Social Causes Of Working Class Political Disaffection (With Added Nuance)’, but it’s unlikely to watch it twice. It’s taken Katie little over two years to go from chuckling with Phillip Schofield on a sofa about the funny names poor people give their children to actively calling for a race war every other day.

The internet doesn’t distinguish between good clicks and bad clicks.

Which is why the news that Russia-linked organisations tried to set up two competing marches (‘Stop the Islamicization of Texas’ vs ‘Save Islamic Knowledge’) on the same day shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The FSB realised very early on that the internet didn’t distinguish between worthwhile clicks and rage clicks, between clicks of approval and clicks of disgust. All that mattered was that you were controlling the conversation where people were clicking. And that people were wielding their clicks as their online weapon: signing that petition,
retweeting that incisive barb, sharing that meme.

In his book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev describes how the FSB set up opposition groups to the government, just so that it was in control of the opposition groups to the government. Online, that strategy is much more powerful.

In a world where there’s a diversity of opinion, full of nuance and texture, it’s difficult to control a digital conversation. However, in a polarised world, in a world where you either want to stop the Islamicisation of Texas or save Islamic knowledge, you only need to run two events to manage the conversation of almost everyone.

The very mechanism that allows businesses to monetise the internet, by measuring attention, is that which will ensure that it always rewards what is broken over what is fixed, what is loud over what is nuanced, what is hurtful over what is thoughtful.

The internet doesn’t distinguish between good clicks and bad clicks. If we want to survive, we might have to,

Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, The Revolution Will Be Televised, the News Quiz, Tonightly, Gigglebiz and Dick & Dom amongst other things

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