10 things I’ve learned about the end of the world

The always-brilliant Leila Johnston (of Hackers, and Storywarp, and about a billion other things!) put on an afternoon of talks about the apocalypse yesterday. A variety of speakers talked about all sorts of things, from zombie contingency plans to the likelihood of space viruses and how to avoid eternal damnation in the final reckoning. Here are some of the things I picked up:

1. In the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, if you’re lucky enough to survive, stay the fuck indoors (and don’t flush the toilet).

2. Women’s Institute co-ordinators and Scout leaders have all the skills needed to rebuild society, post-apocalypse.

3. Some Puritans believed the devil visited them through their shoes.

4. Aliens probably wouldn’t be able to catch the common cold, even if they did somehow a) exist and b) land on Earth.

5. Zombie movies borrow an awful lot of imagery from photographs of concentration camps. (And I kind of wish I didn’t know this, because it’s horrifying.)

6. Super volcanoes are scary, but flood basalts are even scarier.

7. 37% of all projected zombiphobic violence will take place in the home.

8. You can use stakes on zombies as well as vampires, but with zombies you’ll have to aim for the brain, via the eyes. And they’ll probably bite you while you’re trying.

9. Using rhyming couplets or hieroglyphics damages your credibility as a prophet of the apocalypse.

10. No-one really cares what the Mayans believed.

There’s going to be another instalment of The Event this coming Sunday, although I think it’s sold out already. Probably worth checking, though.

Zoo’s “production error” is nothing of the sort

I’ve worked at magazines. I know how many layers of editorial copy needs to pass through before it gets onto a printed page. So when something like Danny Dyer’s advice column in Zoo appears in print, it’s not by accident.

For anyone who’s not seen it yet (and for future reference!) here’s the text of the column:

Ask Danny

I’m 23, not a bad-looking bloke with a decent job, but I broke up with my missus a few months ago and can’t get over her. She seems to be doing fine. Any advice?
Alex, Manchester

You’ve got nothing to worry about, son. I’d suggest going out on the rampage with the boys, getting on the booze and smashing anything that moves. Then when some bird falls for you, you can turn the tables and break her heart. Of course, the other option is to cut your ex’s face, and then no one will want her…

(See it here.)

The first part is gross enough, with Dyer suggesting Alex goes out ‘smashing anything that moves’ and deliberately sets out to break some poor girl’s heart in some bizarre, misguided retaliation against his ex, but then he goes on to suggest that he cuts his ex’s face to disfigure her.

Let’s put one argument to bed right here and now: this is not a joke. There’s nothing funny about it. It might not have been meant seriously, and I’m sure neither Dyer nor Zoo actually want their readers to actually do what they suggested. But that doesn’t excuse printing it. It’s vile.

As outrage erupted on Twitter, Zoo was forced to respond. A Bauer spokeswoman told the Guardian:

“Due to an extremely regrettable production error, an inappropriate and indefensible response to a letter has appeared in this week’s issue. Zoo editor, Tom Etherington, apologises unreservedly for any offence the response may have caused and has launched an internal enquiry to ensure lessons are learnt.

Zoo and Danny Dyer condemn any violence against women. A donation will be made to Women’s Aid.”

It’s a good start — the donation to Women’s Aid is a particularly nice touch — but I call bullshit. A “production error”? What, the words magically appeared on the page all by themselves? No, they didn’t. Someone (almost certainly not Dyer) wrote them, and someone else (almost certainly several someone elses) signed off on them. That response was deemed acceptable to appear in that magazine by several members of its staff, and I’m afraid Etherington, as editor, ultimately has to take responsibility for it.

And then there’s this, from another issue of Zoo:

Ask Danny

I’ve been seeing a new bird. She likes a laugh and a good bevy and she’s great in bed – but she’s got stubbly legs and doesn’t keep her munt trim either. Any advice?
John, Glasgow

I’m quite a fan of the furry muff, but if it’s running down the thighs, you’ve got to get rid of that bird lively. It all depends on the face. If that’s ropey, just give her the elbow. And maybe set light to the muff hair. That stuff goes up quick, like a thatched roof.

(See it here.)

This isn’t a one-off. This kind of repulsive misogyny is what Danny Dyer puts his name to, and Zoo publishes, and over 100,000 people buy, every week. I hope that the attention this column is currently receiving will lead to something actually happening. People need to realise that this is not okay. Zoo has had to apologise already — now let’s see if anything changes.

Update: Zoo has dropped Danny Dyer’s column, and there’s an internal investigation going on. Hmmmm.

On social media and accountability

I’ve been thinking a lot about business use of social media lately, and the recent Twitter fiasco over Paperchase and plagiarism has brought everything into a particularly clear focus. Social media has made consumers expect more from businesses; specifically, it’s made us expect everyone to be accountable for their actions.

Social media is all about conversations: conversations going on in comment fields, over blogs, over Facebook profiles, or over Twitter. (Twitter is really more like one enormous, slow chat room than it is a blogging network; it’s about expressing ideas immediately and succinctly, about conversing in real-time or thereabouts.) But conversations go both ways, and that’s what’s difficult for a lot of companies to take on board.

It would be easy to see social media as a way to access your customers directly and get your messages out quickly and widely, and to expect to be able to foster goodwill just by existing in the social media space. And that can work. But in order to successfully use social media as a promotional tool, you need to have your house in order. You need a strong product, and enthusiastic people who believe in it. Hoping that social media will somehow make up for a lacklustre product, or expecting to be able to create a positive buzz without believing in your message yourself, will end badly. Social media won’t work miracles. And if you’re going to open yourself up to the social media arena, you need to be prepared for people to criticise you. That criticism is a lot easier to deal with when you’re confident that you’re doing good work, as long as you’re humble enough to admit it when you’ve made a mistake.

The thing with Paperchase was that they initially dealt with the accusation of plagiarism badly, by trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away. If they’d listened to Hidden Eloise when she first approached them about the copied image, assured her that they were investigating it, and then actually investigated and done something about it, the story wouldn’t have blown up on Twitter. But they didn’t. And then Neil Gaiman got involved, and suddenly there were thousands of people demanding that Paperchase answer to them.

The final sentence of the public statement they issued said it all, really. “It is worrying that such an allegation can create such reaction and again, Paperchase apologises for any ill-feeling caused.” It is worrying that such an allegation can create such a reaction: it means these allegations have to be taken seriously, even when there’s no legal clout behind them. Well, it might be worrying for businesses; for everyone else, it’s great. It means there’s a way to hold businesses accountable, a way to publicly ask them to live up to the standards we expect of them.

I guess I should amend my earlier statement, and say that to really make a success out of using social media, you need a strong product, enthusiastic people who believe in it, and the ability to listen to your customers, admit mistakes and make changes where necessary. Social media isn’t just about PR; if you’re going to talk to your customers, you need to be prepared to listen to them, and actually do something about what they’re saying.

In many cases, it might just seem easier for businesses to stay out of social media entirely. It requires time and investment, and getting involved opens up the possibility of making large and highly public mistakes, like the recent Vodafone blunder. The problem, though, is that more and more people are joining up to social media sites, and staying out of them entirely means you risk letting the conversation go on without you. Paperchase decided they couldn’t let that happen, but it took a PR crisis to get them there.

We’re starting to expect more, from everyone. Is that scary? Maybe it should be.