EL James and Cardiff Bus Station: The semiotics of the banal.
A beauteous event took place online this evening, one that exemplifies contemporary digital culture and also Brit culture. EL James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, the reviled yet best-selling series of erotic novels, held a Q&A session on Twitter. Authors are supposed to use social media, yes? What could go wrong?
I suppose it could have been worse, she could have picked Reddit or 4chan but then it would have been hard not to see what was coming. No doubt a lot of Twitter users read and enjoyed Fifty Shades but while that delivers some pleasure to the consumer, what delivers even more pleasure is feeling that Twitter, like 4chan, like Anonymous, is a powerful collective consciousness that outranks individual celebrities even if one secretly likes their books.
That is, Twitter decided not to co-operate. During her Q&A session, which did not go as well as was hoped, James was bombarded with hundreds of questions that she patently was not going to answer. Semiotic analysis of the Twitter feed around #AskELJames shows that these unwanted messages fell into three groups.
(1) Messages criticising James’s writing.
(2) Messages expressing concern and outrage that the novel appears to endorse stalking and abuse. These were perhaps the majority of the unwanted tweets.
(3) Silliness and mockery. Questions which ironised the situation of a celebrity interview, ironised James’s status as a celebrity and which made a small art form out of pretending to misunderstand the type of questions they were supposed to be asking. As a semiologist, I notice the small linguistic details of people’s talk so these comments were the ones I got the most value out of.
My favourite questions in response to #AskELJames this evening:
Are you embarrassed? I’m embarrassed.
I thought this was beautiful. It pretends to misunderstand the nature of the Q&A session with great delicacy. Disingenuously, the writer of this comment gives a display of speaking to James in an innocent and direct way, as natural as a child, contradicting the expected Q&A format in which fans do not speak intimately with or say critical things to the famous individual who is granting their time.
This rhetorical gesture, this pretence of innocence, rams home the strength and truth of the embarrassment – the cause for the embarrassment is so plain that even someone with the innocence of a child can see it and only that person will speak out about it. It is a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes that we see contained within this concise and economical remark. I am regularly impressed by the ability of consumers to accomplish these kinds of linguistic manoeuvres, apparently without thinking about it.
Giving your answer through the medium of dance, what are your favourite 3 hip hop albums?
This is great as well. It’s funny on so many levels. The one I personally enjoy the most is the built-in assumption that every living person can cite their three favourite hip-hop albums. You are a non-person and have failed at life and indeed are unimaginable as a human being if you cannot do this. This is before we get to the mental image of James dancing in a way that would enable the audience to know which album is which.
what do you think of the proposed plans for Cardiff’s new bus station?
This one, in my view, is tonight’s winner. What we observe here is a neat set of three semiotic signs: the proposed plans; Cardiff; a bus station. These items are beautifully chosen and their meaning is greater collectively than individually. They are semiotic signs of the banal. It is Pythonesque, indeed the Pythons made fun of bus travel in exactly this way. Ten years later, Rik Mayall, in character as the indomitable Kevin Turvey, dedicated several minutes of his documentaries to the small details of bus travel in Redditch, in the West Midlands. British readers can perhaps see how Redditch has things in common, semiotically, with Cardiff. They are places you have heard of but which are overlooked. They are not perceived as exciting. They are places where there are municipal buildings and it rains a lot and people stand in bus shelters. What’s more, the bus station in this comment is merely proposed. It’s not even a reality. So what’s being accomplished here, rhetorically, is that James is being positioned as someone who could conceivably take an interest in things as little and unglamorous as this. Things so little and unglamorous that nobody as famous and generally super as James no doubt thinks herself to be could possibly know about them – yet the question exists and so it implies that James’s take on the situation may be the one that is mistaken.
The reduction of things which seem momentarily important to the small and the absurd is perhaps one of the best qualities of the internet. Certainly, it was an hour in which Twitter rejoiced in its own ability to feel and grow large by making something else small. I also think that Brits in particular have a well-developed sense of the absurd, and there’s always something absurd about situations in which celebrities hold court.
Let’s have some conclusions for branding and marketing.
(1) Think before using social media to stage these kinds of events. You want to be sure that the sense of self-importance of the community you are about to address does not significantly outrank the importance they are willing to allot to the person addressing them. In other words, choose your platforms carefully. Of course Twitter wasn’t going to play nicely.
(2) Consumers have a keen sense of the absurd. Brand owners should capitalise on this. Brands which have successfully made an engaging message out of absurdity: the Go Compare meerkats; Vodafone’s spoof of the Royal Wedding. This kind of silliness is a powerful tool and brands can choose to use it. It might be better to get there first than to take one’s own brand too seriously and let consumers be the first to see the absurdity of what is going on.
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