Note: Okay, pay attention. This is something I wrote for an old blog in 2011 about something which took place in 2010. As an election is, at the time of writing this, on the horizon, it seems as pertinent a time as any to re-post it.
Few will now be able to recall that in 2010-2011 Twitter was still a relatively minor pursuit, and not the agenda-setting ground zero of news which it is today. Hence the frequent dum-dum explanations of what retweets are and the like.
Twitter is addictive. It offers an immediate audience and, in its brevity, is the perfect medium for short pieces of writing, especially jokes; and in its ephemeralness (not a word, but you know what I mean), its transience, suits jokes about current events. I still draw and still use Twitter to pedal my wares, but I quickly fell into the Twitter trap of telling jokes. Telling them for free, to anyone who’d listen, with no obvious goal in sight beyond the infrequent approval of an increasing number of increasingly disapproving strangers. The following is a brief story about one of these jokes.
A year and a bit ago there were, you may remember, three pre-election leaders’ debate screened live on Sky News, the BBC and ITV respectively. During the opening minutes of the first debate I took to Twitter, wrote ‘This is the worst Kraftwek gig ever #leadersdebate’ (note, as posterity has done, the misspelling of ‘Kraftwerk’), and then clicked ‘tweet’ (Twitter’s version of ‘post’ or ‘send’).
And look. They do look a bit like Kraftwerk (as they will persist in spelling it). I thought this was quite a funny observation. Nothing too special, but worth sharing with my small pool of followers, then numbering around a modest yet thoroughly respectable 700.
Very quickly, it became evident that this observation had hit a nerve. The people of Twitter, it seemed, agreed wholeheartedly that the party leaders did indeed look like Kraftwerk. Their agreement was total and ubiquitous. My replies-feed was instantly choked with retweets (for those happy few uninitiated in the ways of Twitter, replies are any tweets including my username and a ‘retweet’ is when someone else on Twitter re-posts your tweet, crediting you as its original author), then with retweets of those retweets, then retweets of those, and so on. There was a draught coming from the on-screen counter showing the amount of people following as the number climbed higher and higher like a stolen car’s milometer. In all honesty, it was a little daunting.
Straight away, folks started copy and pasting this joke and passing it off as their own. This happens. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it irked me. It was my observation, after all, my phraseology, my joke. I’d seen folks gripe about joke-theft, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it happen on Twitter. I upbraided a few people here and there who I saw posting the joke without crediting me, whilst simultaneously trying to entertain my new-found followers with further, increasingly less-incisive comments about the onscreen debate. Hard work, and ultimately fairly pointless: soon there were way more people copy and pasting the tweet and passing it off as their own than I could humanly deal with. And, again, people were retweeting them, and then they themselves were getting retweeted, and so on. It was like trying to use a toothbrush to staunch a shotgun wound. A massive, leaky, satirical wound.
I stopped telling people off. Retweets are (rather depressingly) a measure of how successful a joke you’ve made has been, the online equivalent of rapturous applause or, as tends to be my experience, one or two people clicking their fingers like appreciative beatniks at an awkward poetry reading. Kraftwek had gained me more retweets than I’m ever liable to have again: somewhere in the 1000’s. I’m aware that, for those who don’t use Twitter, I might as well be bragging about how I slayed an army of goblins a World Of Warcraft, but just take my word for it, 1000’s is lots. I left things as they were and spent a week doing my normal Twitter schtick – jokes no-one gets, observations no-one cares for. Some new followers came, some (quite a few) of the Kraftwek ones drifted away.
Within a week, of course, came the second leaders’ debate. I’m not a huge fan of repeating myself when it comes to any writing (even Twitter) but, given my ownership of this seemingly popular Kraftwek joke was at stake, decided to allow it. I stuck the joke on Twitter again, in the form of a link to the original tweet, self-mockingly imploring people to ‘keep it real’ and remember who their online folk-hero troubadour was. I’m your Daniel Kitson, I told them. Your Bill Hicks. Again, futile. There were even more people ‘Kraftwekking’ this time; they were everywhere, pissing my joke all over the place like comedy diabetics, many before the debate had even begun. One particular gentleman, whose timeline hitherto consisted largely grammatically poor insults directed at well-known homosexuals, tweeted my joke at Charlie Brooker, who duly retweeted it to his mighty army of followers. I got quite annoyed at him (the tweeter, not Brooker) and made an attempt at publicly taking him to task. I was polite and reasonable but no, I accept, it wasn’t the most dignified approach. But dammit that guy was getting kudos for my joke. The sham-LOLs he was suddenly showered with were mine. The ROFL’s h ewas gorging himself on belonged to me.
This is what Twitter does to a person. An otherwise well-adjusted and easy-going guy is reduced to foot-stamping and brattishly demanding that the world looks at him. The nature of Twitter (anonymous, easily given to largely imaginary conflict) also meant that, rather than making the pithily hilarious #leadersdebate comments now expected of me, I was instead immediately defending myself of accusations from a number of Twitter users of being variously: bitter, delusional, obsessive and (Twitter’s resident rapier-wit comeback) ‘a cunt’. It was Assault On Precinct Vivmondo. There were, I hasten to add, a number of people – all total strangers – ready to leap to my defence, to whom I remain pathetically grateful. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. Were my actions unreasonable and childish? Was there any way of staking my ownership on a joke in such a public forum? Was it possible hundreds of people had genuinely thought up the same joke in the same exact words at the same time? Was I ‘a cunt’? It was all very disorientating.
Then things got really weird. I saw someone who didn’t use Twitter stick the joke, in a slightly altered after-the-fact form (ie. ‘That was the worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ or similar), on Facebook. Someone told me that they’d heard it repeated, in the same ‘worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ phrasing, during a chat on a Saturday morning cookery show (I rushed to the iPlayer and, after a forty-odd minute thrill-ride of tips on cooking shellfish and whether SodaStreams were making a comeback, confirmed the inclusion of my precious bloody joke). It popped up in the Guardian, on the Telegraph’s website (both crediting me) and a whole bunch of other blogs and sites (where crediting, unsurprisingly, was less rigorously observed). My cousin emailed me to say he’d heard people saying it at work. Someone else, the most unTwitter person imaginable, said they’d received Kraftwek in the form of a text from the second most unTwitter person after the second debate. A few people heard it, in various forms, on various local radio stations. A couple of people heard it pop up on BBC 5Live. Jeremy Clarkson repeated it when he hosted Have I Got News For You.
By the time the third leaders’ debate came round (coincidentally my birthday), Twitter was awash with ‘This is the worst Kraftwerk/Kraftwek gig ever’ tweets. If you did a search for all the word “kraftwerk’, or indeed ‘kraftwek’, as I constantly did, you’d be inundated with ’20 new tweets’ alerts (again, if you’ve never run a search on Twitter, this means a lot of people were repeating it), some citing me as the joke’s author, most not. I still had no idea how to feel. Some people were demanding I kick arse and make my ownership of the joke known to as many people as possible, like some kind of poindexter Vin Diesel, waving his prefect-badge about and confiscating everyone’s satirical catapults. Others said I should leave it and try to retain whatever vestiges of dignity they claimed I still had. A number of people told me ‘you can’t own a joke’, something I very much disputed (still do), resulting in someone labeling me ‘a typical American, always wanting to OWN things’, a remarkable claim given that, whilst the latter is true (I do want to own things), I’m afraid I'm disappointingly and relentlessly British.
In the end my actions flopped about somewhere in between kicking arse and doing nothing like an indecisive fish: I tried to make a few humourous and casually self-deprecating remarks about the joke’s popularity, all marked with a tone of ‘hands off my joke!’ hostility and an abject bewilderment. By the time people had stopped repeating the joke (an alarmingly long time after the election result had been and gone) I figured that, although I’d looked a bit mental, I’d also quite accidentally handled it the right way. No-one likes to come cross as an angry, overly proprietorial loon on Twitter (god forbid on Twitter!), but at the same time, I do think a person has a right to defend what is essentially their written work. It might be a very small number of words, and it might be a joke (a grey-area in public ownership), and it might be on a relatively niche public website (as, unimaginably, Twitter once was), but that’s merely the medium being used and the same rules should still apply to a stupid misspelled joke on stupid Twitter as to any other written work published anywhere else. It was still my joke.
In the end however, I see ‘Kraftwek’ as an exception that proves this particular rule. Sometimes I see people tweeting ‘this is the worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ in relation to something which bares literally no visible or metaphorical relation to any kind of Kraftwerk gig. It’s as though it’s become whatever a cult version of an adage or a popular saying would be: not quite a meme, but not quite nothing at all. A phrase which, for a very select group of people, means: ‘this sucks’.
If this whole thing has taught me anything (and I’m not sure it has), it’s that the phenomenon of people lifting a joke or a comment or a poorly-spelled observation about German electronic music is not by necessity always a terrible crime against author copyright. In this case, it became the property of anyone who cared to use it and, albeit very very briefly and on a nigh-insignificantly small scale, part of the public’s consciousness. And it would take a deeply selfish maker of jokes to not be quietly insanely proud of that.
(Note: This all started when Andrea Mann (AKA jazzchantoozie), asked about online joke-thievery, you can read her excellent article on the matter here).