People like to blame social media for all of the world’s problems, which is convenient and probably quite sensible. It is not too difficult to connect the disquiet we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years with the proliferation of “fake news” on Facebook and Twitter; or to observe that comparing your life with someone else’s on Instagram might make you unhappy.
But there is another, more joyful side to social media, which we would do well to remember. It is, and has been for years, the best open-mic comedy venue on the planet – a place where freaks, weirdos and lots of very funny people get to try out their best material. It’s a busy marketplace and the retweets don’t lie.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying, can we talk more about those lads in tight trousers, please. Or more specifically, what their journey from All Bar One in Birmingham to viral meme to guests on Good Morning Britain tells us about social media and how its grip on society – tighter than a pair of Burton jeans – is actually compromising the one good thing about it: the jokes.
If you have no idea why I keep talking about tight trousers, well done for making it this far, though I fear this may not be the piece you think it is. Let me try and explain. In 2019, four lads, for that is the official term, were out drinking in All Bar One (true story: they went on to Slug & Lettuce) and decided to mark the occasion with a photograph, which was later posted on Instagram. So far, so normal.
However, for a whole host of reasons – did I mention the tight trousers? – people found the picture funny. It seemed to capture so much of what we love/hate about England: the boys, the beers, the tattoos, the Peaky Blinders fashion and generally just, you know, getting on it.
As is the curious way with these things, this single image took on a life of its own on social media, with people posting sharp comments – “Yeah he might have been a bit racist, but defacing a Winston Churchill statue is just too far, mate” – and creating quick-turnaround memes, which riffed off each other and took the joke in every which way imaginable. It went viral, basically.
Fast forward to 2021 and the lads were back on our feeds after someone created an extremely amusing video, which made it look as if they were singing a particular sea shanty, which has also gone viral this month (more on that later). All of a sudden, Jamie, Connor, Kevin and Alex were everywhere again, including – and this is where things start to go awry – Good Morning Britain.
On Monday, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid interviewed them and it was all a bit forced, quite uncomfortable and, crucially, not that funny. What had started as an organic, totally spontaneous internet “moment” suddenly felt laboured. Try explaining the meme to your nan and you’ll find yourself in the same pickle. It’s funny because it is; let’s just leave it at that. In trying to recreate the humour of the internet on a morning news show, the joke died. You can’t bottle the anarchic spirit of social media.
It happens time and time again. If Bernie’s mittens could speak, they’d have been on BBC Breakfast already. Any member of the public who makes an amusing, off-hand comment, which is then shared on social media, is hauled out of bed the following morning to “perform” for the TV cameras. No joke, no “moment”, can be allowed to take its own course. It has to be flogged for all its worth.
In fact, you might remember a teenager called Alex, who was called up onto the stage at Glastonbury in 2019 to perform with the rapper Dave. Extraordinarily, this pale bloke in his bucket hat knew every word and completely outshone Dave. It was hilarious, could never have been scripted, and was shared millions of times on social media, where once again, people used the video as a springboard to make their own jokes.
Soon after Glastonbury – whaddaya know? – Alex turned up on Good Morning Britain. Same result. Poor guy was obviously overwhelmed, probably quite tired from Glastonbury, and not that keen to recreate his performance in a sterile studio. If the moment hadn’t quite passed when he turned up, it certainly had by the time he left.
The latest example, of course, is Nathan Evans, the Scottish postman who has found fame this month after singing a sea shanty on TikTok. Again, what began as an off-the-cuff social media video and was picked up by other social media users in a kind of communal smile has been hijacked by more traditional outlets and had all of its salty spontaneity wrung out of it. The latest is that Evans has signed a record deal with Polydor. At which point you have to ask, is that really where this was meant to end up?
So why does any of this matter? It matters because it illustrates how powerful social media is, not just as a tool for rabble rousing or spreading “fake news”, but as a cultural and social barometer. It is an enormous conversation and, if you’re a television producer, a business person or, yes, a journalist, it is quite handy to know what everyone is talking about. So people look to social media to tell them what is current. But too often they misunderstand how it works. Sharing a video on TikTok of a sea shanty is not the same as buying an album of sea shanties, as I suspect Polydor is about to discover. And making a joke on Twitter about four guys in tight jeans is not the same as tuning into Good Morning Britain to watch those four guys getting picked over by Piers Morgan.
But it also matters because it shows how flat-footed television is when faced with the challenge posed to its dominance by social media, where more of us now go for our news and entertainment. It cannot compete – much as it tries, the script will not allow it – with the speed at which trends appear and disappear. These can be instantaneous and illogical; attempting to unpack them is futile. The formats are not compatible. Moving a joke from social media to television, far from amplifying it, deflates it. So they should stop trying.
The silver lining (or perhaps the saddest thing of all, depending on how you look at it) is that the people making the jokes, creating the memes and starting the next social media trend will have moved onto the next thing long before this week’s breakout star is on the television – and they certainly won’t be watching it. Which makes the entire exercise pretty much pointless.