Bookmark it – like most, I’ve found it’s the best way to locate a video you saw online if you want to watch it again; I didn’t take my own advice with one I caught a few months back on Twitter, so I shall have to recount it solely from memory. Anyway, in said video somebody was discussing the difference in content between the Chinese version of TikTok (Douyin) and its more familiar Western equivalent, pointing out how the former bombards its young audience with videos of young people engaging in what one might call ‘heroic’ pursuits, i.e. achieving something that looks impressive on camera and evidently took months (or years) of hard work and training to realise. These are generally athletic enterprises, but a particularly prodigious musician could figure too, for example – essentially anything that has an aspirational feel to it and presents the viewer with positive images of their own demographic. Naturally, this can be regarded as rather traditional Communist propaganda rebranded for the online age; but the comparisons with the images of themselves that Western subscribers to TikTok receive were interesting – as is the fact both versions are Chinese-owned.
The TikTok more familiar in this corner of the globe routinely serves up images of idiocy and stupidity, full of infantile pranks and silly stunts – and outdoing the previous holder of the most viral video means upping the tomfoolery ante just that little bit further each time. In the pre-TikTok era, a quaint old-fashioned vehicle known as ‘a television show’ sufficed when it came to this kind of thing, most memorably a US import called ‘Jackass’. This series ran on MTV from 2000 to 2002 and sometimes staged stunts of such breathtaking ridiculousness that it did admittedly contain a few genuinely funny moments; but the joke did wear thin rather quickly. Unlike mainstream British shows fronted by Noel Edmonds or Jeremy Beadle in the 80s and 90s – which targeted unsuspecting members of the public who’d been set-up by family and friends – ‘Jackass’ reserved its often painfully dangerous idiotic acts for the hosts of the series; they could go where no prankster had gone before because they were mostly doing it to themselves.
In the wake of the popularity of ‘Jackass’, the rapid improvements in mobile phone technology enabled copycat stunts inspired by the series to be staged and shared; as the World Wide Web began to take shape and its usage became more widespread throughout the noughties, these DIY ‘Jackass’ videos received wider exposure and made the viewer realise they too could grab their fifteen minutes if they could only do something even more stupid than the video all their friends were watching. However, a darker turn was taken with the advent of so-called ‘happy slapping’; this was a mercifully brief fad in which idiots with cameras on their mobiles rejected the self-inflicted violence of ‘Jackass’ and instead turned themselves into psychotic Jeremy Beadles, physically assaulting innocent members of the public for cheap – not to say dubious – laughs, and then posting the end results online. Of course, the more maliciously stupid took this further and committed GBH in their desperate desire for the tawdriest kind of fame, so dim that they didn’t seem aware that by capturing their crime on camera they were making the job of the police a hell of a lot easier.
These activities were ripe for satire when satire still had a platform on television – mocked in the likes of ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Nathan Barley’ as well as parodied by Charlie Brooker when he invented moronic imaginary TV shows mirroring the parallel idiocy gathering pace in reality television, such as ‘Sick on a Widow’. Charity then got in on the act, taking the basics of the craze and attempting to render it harmless fun – remember the inane ‘ice bucket challenge’, whereby celebrities and politicians poured a bucket of ice-cold water over themselves on camera to raise money for a noble cause? Less harmless was the development of the death-defying ‘selfie’, which in many cases didn’t actually defy death at all as numerous numpties posed precariously on cliff edges or skyscraper ledges without any safety nets. Unfortunately, this remains bafflingly popular and stories of reckless fools who didn’t live to enjoy their ‘fame’ are still fairly commonplace. If one were to compare these with the stunning physical artistry of Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who famously engaged in a high-wire walk between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre in 1974, the chasm is as wide as the distance from one twin tower to the other; indeed, Petit’s achievement, something he couldn’t have attempted without years and years of honing his craft, is closer to the kind of achievement celebrated on Douyin than the instant (and often posthumous) fame of the artless and talentless encouraged to seek the quick route to recognition without putting the hours in on TikTok.
The aforementioned ‘Nathan Barley’ was a 2005 collaboration between Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris that tapped into what one might call ‘the Jackass generation’ as they infiltrated the London media world; one of mainstream TV’s last acts of satirical savagery, ‘Nathan Barley’ exaggerated (though not much) the arrested development of these kidulthood bell-ends and their utter absence of self-awareness when it came to just how stupid they were. What seemed to be amusingly spoofing a group of fresh archetypes pretty much unknown beyond the North Circular Road 20 years ago, however, gradually revealed itself as a prophetic observation of the shape of things to come, alas. The proud dumbness of media idiots at the turn of the century slowly turned out to be a view of the future – or the present as we know it, where acting stupid or simply being stupid is a badge of honour. The ‘Dumb Britain’ segment of Private Eye, which reproduces mind-bogglingly thick answers to questions on daytime quiz-shows, is either testament to this pride or a damning indictment of our educational system over the past couple of decades.
Bar the annual final fling for the ageing David Attenborough, what remains of mainstream TV appears to have surrendered entirely to this mindset. On my increasingly rare forays into the no-man’s land of primetime BBC1 or ITV, I’m struck by how everything now feels like a children’s programme. Hyperactive presenters talking in the kind of overexcited manner once the province of Timmy Mallett and speaking to the audience as though addressing a classroom of special needs kids appears to be the currency of the ‘family show’ these days, whilst the golden years of ‘Grange Hill’ in the early 80s resemble something by Harold Pinter in comparison to contemporary soaps and other pre-watershed melodramas. In an age with instantly accessible archives, we don’t have to mistrust a cheating memory either; watch any of a dozen editions of ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ on YT and it comes across as more grownup than ‘Newsnight’, let alone the early evening bulletins. No wonder anyone with half-a-brain has abandoned the mainstream these days – if the dwindling viewing figures are anything to go by.
We’ve had one day a year dedicated to the fool since at least the 14th or 15th centuries, though its precise origins are inexact; 1 April has undeniably produced some memorable scams over the years, with the one everybody seems to reference being the infamous ‘Panorama’ report on ‘the spaghetti harvest’ in 1957. But 365 days a year dedicated to the fool is probably something no skilled hoaxer ever foresaw. If ByteDance, the company that owns Douyin/TikTok, is selling Western youth the idea that being a fool is cool whilst simultaneously selling Chinese youth an entirely different message, what does that say about the future age when the fools and their oriental equivalents come of age? If recent trends continue, the fools may never come of age at all, and in that case they’ll need some parental guidance; if the only grownups in the room are Chinese, more fool the fool.
© The Editor