It's one thing getting dragged on the internet. It's another when you're getting dragged on behalf of someone else. This is what happened to me, last week, in what must surely be the strangest day and a half I’ve spent online.
It started innocuously enough: I’d seen a lot of timeline chatter on the glut of notable surnames in the media class – your Giles Corens, your Flora Gills, your Bella “Rusbridger” Mackies – and remembered a mate of mine once suggested I was the son of Tim Martin, founder and chairman of British pub chain JD Wetherspoon.
So, if for nothing other than livening up a Thursday afternoon in September, I decided to say that I, Clive Martin, was Tim Martin’s son and sent out the following tweet.
The response began as expected among the followers of my then-locked account. A few favourites, a few lol’s, a couple of knowing replies saying, “Don’t worry mate, you’ve worked bloody hard to get here”. As I thought, most people “got” the joke in the context of media nepotism and celebrity spawn.
But then a different kind of response started to creep in; one which seemed to take my initial tweet as a deadly serious background reveal. Always in the market for a bit of timeline chaos, I replied to a few of these tweets, doubling down on the joke with a ridiculous and hysterical allegation of office bullying, which I hoped would render the joke unbelievable to all but a very few suckers.
But instead of confirming everything as a stupid routine, my response sent people into overdrive. Realising that I was on the precipice of a bizarre proxy-dragging, I decided to roll with the punches and take the tweet public, unlocking my account and making the tweet retweetable. Which is when it shifted from a funny bit into a full-blown social media scandal.
Within minutes my mentions were a vidiprinter of bile, rage and discourse-as-a-deadly-weapon. I had been marked for internet death by people with red roses in their handles and struggle in their hearts, condemned by usernames like “leftist_agenda”, “heterosexual culture” and “Dr Honest Academic” – all furiously taking Tim Martin’s fake son to task for the crimes of his father and the ignorance of his comments.
I was told to educate myself, to examine my privilege, to take a long hard look at myself. I was informed of structural inequality, inherited wealth, tax avoidance, Brexit, COVID-19 – the whole gamut of Johnson-era dread. There were GIFs, Photoshop mock-ups, rage comics, petty insults, personal attacks, “do you get free pints” jokes, a misinformed defence from MeToo’d journo Rupert Myers and at least one interview inquiry from a major publication, all of whom believed my dad was actually Tim Martin. It was as if the entire scope of early 21st century unease was laid out in my mentions – a quite incredible sight to behold.
The extreme seriousness that some people were engaging in started to bring up a few feelings of guilt that I didn’t count on. It’s one thing calling Tim Martin’s son a wanker on the internet, but another to lay out your entire life story in the context of the British class system to a load of semi-anonymous AVIs on a social media site. I found that people were going in deep not just on me, or Tim Martin and his fake son, but on themselves. In what seemed to be wild personal history lessons, people were laying out their entire lives up until that point: the school they went to, the house they grew up in, their parents’ jobs, their parents’ parent’s jobs, to try and make a point.
Of course, presenting such raw feelings over something as frivolous and unreliable as a tweet is not a normal thing to do. But these are strange times and people like Tim Martin are hugely contentious figures in this country (for context: he told his bar staff employees to get jobs in supermarkets during the early days of the pandemic). So it's only natural that some dickhead claiming to be his son on Twitter might get it in the neck. Combine that with the very real prospect that his offspring could be working as a content mule and the joke becomes a perfect storm of ill-feeling.
The reaction to my tweet didn't exactly leave me thrilled about where we're all going on that berserk message board.
I was aware of the grim believability that I could, in fact, be Tim Martin's son, but I tried to load it with enough hints, ridiculous language and retweets of people who clearly were “in” on the joke that I expected it to stay in not-quite-real territory. I hoped the idea of a media-savvy heir to a beer fortune flipping out about being called “curry club” and “guest ale” might be slightly too ludicrous to believe. But the furied, instantaneous nature of Twitter and the scramble for another Hetty Douglas moment meant this had no chance of happening.
There was always going to be a few suckers, but what I didn’t account for was people with profiles, people who've written books, people with followers and accountability, people who really should know better (including some who very much know who I am) trying to put my head on a pole. Some, I can only assume, wanted me to be a millionaire’s son more than they wanted to think about it properly.
A lot of people were quite gracious when they found out the joke, but others accused me of “looking for attention” and implying that people should have known who I was – as if pretending to be Tim Martin’s son was all some big ego trip as opposed to a silly joke that borders on self-sabotage.
The most depressing and unhelpful part came when I suggested afterwards that the response I'd had might not be the best advert for Twitter. A surprising number of people took umbrage with this, becoming strangely protective of those who'd fallen for the joke (most of whom took it in good humour), and more worryingly, defensive of the habit of social media scalpings themselves.
Like a fallen picture frame that reveals a safe with something terrible in it, I had unintentionally revealed some not-so-healthy instinct on righteous Twitter; a thirst for the pile-on, however unaccountable or useless they might be.
I can understand the sensitivities though. “Cancel culture” is an obsession of the establishment media right now and conversations about creative freedom are often loaded with boomer rhetoric and genuine bigotry.
However, I think it’s also quite dishonest and deluded to suggest that the practice of jumping on people like this is healthy or helpful anymore. At best it’s a bad habit and it reveals a real predictability at the heart of the response; the same digs, quotes, memes, even jokes repeated over and over again in the vague hope that they might land.
The idea that any of these Good Place GIFs, Chomsky quotes or cuntbombs might make the blindest difference to the firstborn of a fearsome pub baron is perhaps the biggest joke of all. In my experience, people like “Tim Martin’s son” tend to be absolutely bulletproof to this sort of thing – endowed with incredible confidence and assurance from the day they could spell their own surname. All you need to do is take a look at Flora Gill’s continued output to understand this.
In fact, I’d suggest that, had this incident been real, it would have spawned a monster. A war with the online left wouldn’t have affected the cocky child of a budget booze magnate, but it would have been the perfect launchpad for a media career. Such a character would be solid gold content fodder for all the usual suspects; The Jeremy Vine Show, Question Time, Nick Ferrari At Breakfast, some god awful podcast with Ed Balls – and all before you could say “Lawrence Fox”.
It’s tempting to see social media confrontations as a kind of rough street justice in a society that won’t right its wrongs – and they actually can be when charges are serious. But more than ever, they’re also fuel for the fire. Realistically, your best chance of stopping “Clive Martin, broadsheet columnist and son of Tim” is probably to ignore him.