Sometimes, the internet is just the worst. To use the hyperbolese that is common in internet culture, especially in the arch, self-satisfied, Buzzfeeding world of meme-makers and tweeters’n’shakers for whom everything is either ‘literally the worst thing that ever happened’ or ‘everything you need in your life right now’, the internet is the absolute pits sometimes.
Take the victory of Boaty McBoatface in the poll to find a name for a new polar research ship. This literally makes me want to eat my computer so that I never have to look at anything on the internet ever again. In fact, if I were compiling a list of 23 Things That Literally Make Me Want To Eat My Computer So That I Never Have To Look At Anything On The Internet Ever Again — a list someone has surely already compiled — the voting for Boaty McBoatface would be No1.
Boaty McBoatface. Just say it to yourself, out loud, and tell me it doesn’t remind you of those sad saps you went to sixth-form college with who thought that being able to act out whole episodes of Filthy, Rich & Catflap meant they were funny when in fact it meant they deserved all that bullying they were getting. And yet this fantastically unfunny moniker — I know! It’s meant to be unfunny! Because nothing is serious anymore! — has topped the public-opinion poll launched by the Natural Environment Research Council to name a new ship. A ship that will do some really important research into climate and ocean stuff in Antarctica, but which will now forever be known as the boat that people tried to have christened Boaty McBoatface, because what does science count for in comparison with the need of overgrown adolescents to have a giggle? Top bantz. Zero f*cks were given. All the p*ss has been taken. IT’S THE BEST THING EVER. The internet wins. Tweet the crap out of it. Yay.
The Boaty McBoatface phenomenon sums up how blah and meh and grating internet culture has become. Get this: there were 124,109 votes for calling the ship RRS Boaty McBoatface, which was four times the number for the second-place name: RRS Poppy-Mai, named after a 16-month-old girl with incurable cancer. I mean, Jesus. That would be No 2 on my list of 23 Things That Literally Make Me Want To Eat My Computer So That I Never Have To Look At Anything On The Internet Ever Again: the fact that excitable Twits and social-media gigglers would prefer the ship to have a stupid name in order that it might provide them with endless mirth — their mirth habit is pretty serious — than to see it named after a girl who won’t be alive much longer. That really is the absolute worst.
But more fundamentally — trigger warning: there’s no irony in this sentence; it’s serious — the Boaty McBoatface thing speaks to the rise of a new po-mo generation that has absolutely no sense of history or depth or meaning. The problem here isn’t public opinion; I’m a huge fan of public opinion and think we need to take democracy rather more seriously than we do. No, the problem is the shallow, sneery culture taking hold in certain sections of the internet, cultivated by influential members of the Twitterati and fawned over by way too much of the media, who now love nothing more than writing news stories based on some spat Stephen Fry had or a YouTube video about periods that Caitlin Moran shared with a crying emoji.
This new generation is incapable of taking anything seriously. Sincerity, pride, candour — whether in politics or research or culture — are alien emotions to these flippant, camp purveyors of 140-character gags and 90-second videos of some comedian ‘ABSOLUTELY DEMOLISHING DONALD TRUMP’ (vids must never be longer than 90 seconds). For them, history is Wham! and at a real push the Summer of Love, and national pride is just a big fat joke, or something dangerous that only big fat blokes who like Nigel Farage dabble with. So they see that a boat, representing British endeavour and prestige, is due to set off for a far-flung, freezing part of the globe, and they don’t think ‘That’s interesting, that’s worthwhile, go forth and discover stuff, Britain!’ — they think, ‘How can we make this into a hoot that will trend on Twitter for a week before we completely forget about it and move on to mocking something else?’
Jo Johnson, science minister, has now signalled that the boat won’t be named Boaty McBoatface. And of course he’s being called a killjoy. Because taking things seriously is a real downer these days. If he wants to have his 15 milliseconds of fame — the attention span of the new generation — he should tweet ‘Boaty McBoatface it is!’ That would even help him to trend. And who doesn’t want to trend? Trending for a day or two is far more exciting than exploration and discovery and history and, you know, actually caring about stuff.