Pin It

What viral moments showed us about how power is changing in 2018

The old power structures of British politics, music, and TV are being broken down by online moments of collective action and radical community

What goes viral tells us more than we might like about ourselves. This year, we saw old representatives of power and parliamentary politics coming up against the force of pop culture, as institutions tried (and failed) to adapt to the speed of today’s cultural conversation. Amid the noise of the online humiliation of racists and rickety prime ministerial dance moves, this year more than ever we witnessed seemingly immovable seats of power quivering, as the old world put up a fight against the new one.

Back in May, the flippancy with which a white girl leaned into saying the N-word to a stadium of Kendrick Lamar fans showed us something about the ease with which hateful language escapes certain tongues. But it was perhaps ‘Permit Patty’ in June, ‘BBQ Becky’ in May, and ‘Cornerstore Caroline’ in October who summed up how power and entitlement really work in our society. The women in question respectively each reported a young black child for selling lemonade without a permit, a black family for gathering at a barbecue, and a child for allegedly harassing her in a shop (spoiler alert: she was lying). These women represent something very Trump era: the idea that whiteness is a both a fragile and powerful thing. It’s fragile enough that it feels entitled to justice for an imagined grope, and yet powerful enough for white people to believe they have authority to monitor young ‘unsavoury characters’ not abiding by their rulebook of American values.

These women have, of course, always existed – but collective action has changed for a generation who seek justice in ways the police can’t always satisfy. Today, social media gives us the power to prove, visually, that racism is a problem. If you’d been labouring under the misconception that your country was equal because you’ve never seen racism first hand – what now?

Just who has the power to make a country feel like home was challenged in British politics, as we were rocked by the Windrush scandal. In the midst of stories of deportation and administrative quagmires, Tottenham MP David Lammy made a famously impassioned speech back in April where he noted a “national day of shame” targeted at the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. “When I stood in the chamber of the House of Commons waiting to ask the Home Secretary a question, I was thinking of my parents,” he tells me. “I was thinking about how much my mother had given to this country, as a nurse and a care assistant, as a mother, and how little she had asked for in return. I was thinking about all those who came to help Britain in its hour of need – and now we're being treated like invaders in their own land.”

Lammy’s speech went viral, not because he lifted a mace, or danced to Abba, but because it was a rare moment of compassion. For Lammy, it was a personal issue; it was a black man talking about his blackness, through policy. It was the sort of battle that is often fought behind closed doors for many people of colour in institutions of whiteness, and that it happily went viral says something about shifting political conversations to come. Lammy explains, “It was important to me that Windrush was not glossed over as another bureaucratic mistake, but placed in its true context of Britain’s former Empire and its colonies”. For him, this was a powerful declaration not just against Windrush, but about the rhetoric of colonial nostalgia that led us into the Brexit vote in the first place.

“Collective action has changed for a generation who seek justice in ways the police can’t always satisfy”

At the time of writing, Danny Dyer’s artful description of Brexit as a “mad riddle” (and David Cameron as a twat) is still the sharpest commentary on UK politics we’ve had in 2018. Another was the resounding cry of “I’m a communist, you idiot!”, which rang out on the unlikely platform of daytime TV show Good Morning Britain. Back in July, writer and activist Ash Sarkar finally snapped at Piers Morgan’s goading on GMB after discussing the Stop Trump demonstration debate, in turn illustrating just how political debate has became more binary than ever.

“I went in thinking it was going to be a straightforward interview, talking about the Stop Trump demonstration,” Ash tells me over the phone. “I think (Morgan) wanted to really hammer home this idea of me being a hypocrite. I just lost my temper, and I thought I’d messed up, but it got shared a lot. People were stopping me in (the street in) New York about it.” She goes on, “I think there’s been a deliberate editorial decision at places like GMB and Sky News to lean heavily towards culture wars. What they want is preferably, a young, brown ‘woke’ millennial to come on and go through ‘identity politics greatest hits’ and create a viral moment out of it.” If institutions are frantically trying to artificially create “viral” moments, what we’ve seen in 2018 is that it’s only when outsiders disrupt this space with real passion that viral moments actually occur.

And it’s these young, insurgent voices that really have the control of the narrative. In an ironic turn of events, Novara Media cashed in on their viral moment, selling t-shirts of Sarkar’s communist slogan. Sarkar laughs, “Until the moment we seize the means of production and redistribute abundance to everyone, then I’ll keep selling t-shirts to give people a job in journalism.”

“The fact is that virality isn’t a science, and when institutions try to contrive moments that ‘the kids’ respond to, they aren’t getting that viral moments are spontaneous, unfiltered, and by their very nature can’t be engineered”

Away from the K-hole of Brexit, joy came from music, and in a post-Wakanda world, we were destined to have a huge year for Afrobeats. We saw celebrities “shaku-ing on the beat as well”, the renaming of Love Island contestant Jack Fowler as Oluwajack, and of course, the song of the year, “Ye”, from Nigeria’s very own Burna Boy. That track created a viral moment in UK music that came courtesy of Osh, who uploaded the instrumental, performed his own remixed version complete with a look to a multiple bedroom cam set-up, and did what Big Shaq and many others had done before him: broke the internet with charm. “I'm a big fan of him, and I liked the vibe of that instrumental,” says Osh. “Initially, I posted it on Instagram and it was getting some love, but not the scale of what happened later. I posted it about 8 o'clock, then I was going bed because I had work in the morning. Someone text me like, ‘Osh, someone just posted it on Twitter and its gone mad!’ Then the numbers went up and up. It got loads of love… and Joe Budden sang it.”

It also made him, for a moment, an easy example of how the old power structure of the music industry has been corrupted by the internet. Depending on how you look at things, this is a positive step towards a more accessible, meritocratic industry; or, it shows that anyone can now make it overnight with anything in 2018, as long as you have clicks; that the music business is now a farce, and A&Rs a scam. Osh did, inevitably, secure a record deal at Columbia records (and 100,000 views in the space of two months), and quit his job doing graduate management.

While Osh is hardly the bogeyman coming to collect the bones of the golden era of the music industry, his quick success does show that something is changing. What viral artists like Osh represent isn’t too far away from Ash Sarkar’s observations – that a growing awareness of what goes viral, and the power of it, is changing our traditional institutions, for better or worse. Now, at the end of 2018, it could be argued that the battles of ‘good taste’, ‘real music’, the political left or true progress have been lost. In politics, and in pop culture (we didn’t even get to Tide pods), a new kind of click-based online hierarchy is emerging where going viral is the ultimate goal.

But something Michelle Obama said recently reminds us it’s not all as bleak as that. While the year opened with the Obama administration being painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, it ended with an IRL Michelle Obama being asked a question in London this month, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while she was promoting her biography, Becoming. How, she implored, do we see our current moment as not sliding backwards? The answer, for Obama, is about respecting the idea that we must make “markers to let people know we are here”; that by gaining ground, we can continue to fight. It was a pointed question aimed at Trump and our political reality, but the question really could be asked of our current cultural moment across the board and the answer is the same – we have not become, we are, as a society, becoming.

It’s a strange re-routing of our assumptions to realise that we are not entitled to history ‘getting better’, or that things don’t automatically continue upwards. In culture, we do lay down markers. This year’s viral moments are markers that show that when we feel out of control, we upload, when we don’t feel heard, we turn the volume up. Institutions may be scrabbling to catch up with the mainstream, but what we really saw this year was a power shift bubbling under the surface. After all, who can forget the glorious viral chants of ‘Savita!’ back in May rippling through Northern Ireland as the eighth amendment was repealed, the viral video of Christine Blasey Ford’s Supreme Court address, or Stormzy under pouring rain as he delivered a searing freestyle against Theresa May at the BRITs? The fact is that virality isn’t a science, and when institutions try to contrive moments that ‘the kids’ respond to, they aren’t getting that viral moments are spontaneous, unfiltered, and by their very nature can’t be engineered. They tell us more about audience than the people in shot. After all, they are a reminder that no matter how claustrophobic the world seems, how closely monitored, how atomised and disconnected, that we will take a moment to look at the same thing at the same time; in small, radical acts of community.