Saturday 2 March 2013

Keep Calm, It was Inevitable

I’m a big fan of dark science-fiction or horror stories, where a concept is taken to its furthest logical conclusion – usually unpleasant. It’s why I like series like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, along with the work of writers like Alan Moore and Warren Ellis.

This makes the latest twitterstorm rather fascinating to me. It’s the one about the ‘Keep Calm and Rape A Lot’ t-shirts.

Basically, a company that makes designs for print-on-demand t-shirts has used an algorithm to come up with variations for the “Keep Calm and Carry On” design. There are hundreds of thousands of variations, including a number of ‘and rape…’ ones. Now, the excuse that it was only an algorithm doesn’t quite work (since it doesn’t include any examples of ‘rape him’ or ‘hit him’, but it does include ‘rape her’ and ‘hit her’, suggesting that someone, somewhere looked at these and made choices before they went up), but the tedious attempts to make money from idiots by idiots doesn’t interest me.

What does interest me is that this was inevitable. If you were to create a story about a meme like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, this is pretty much how you would end it. It’s the unpleasant logical conclusion.
It’s unfortunate, because I love the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design. It’s a beautiful design. The font, the colours, the spacing, the size - it’s all particularly pleasing. Add on to that the idea that it was a design to be printed and used for areas damaged during the war, and it says something rather beautiful about Britain and the British. It sums up the blitz spirit and puts it into a stunning piece of graphic design. Add onto that the idea that it was lost as a design until relatively recently, and was unearthed in a second-hand bookshop and it takes on an almost magical quality.

This led to commercialisation and parodies. I don’t need to go into them in depth. We’ve all seen them, whether they’ve been able to take on the basic design and use the spirit to sum up something else British (“Keep Calm, I’m the Doctor”) or whether it was just subverting the idea completely (“Don’t stay calm and freak out!”).  Anything that takes off, or is that well designed and has that simple a message is going to end up being parodied. It’s inevitable.

It began as mildly amusing, and swiftly became tedious.

Keep Calm and Kill Zombies

Keep Calm and Eat Brains

Keep Calm and Exterminate

Keep Calm and Watch X-Factor

Keep Calm and Use the Force

Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake


Tedious, boring and annoying repetition. And the worst thing about it was that it was inevitable. People have this tendency to keep going with jokes, partially because you keep finding people who haven’t heard it before, and you get to be the hilarious person introducing it.

And because it’s in the public domain, this means that anyone can design anything using the basic template. 
In fact, when I googled ‘Keep Calm and…’ in order to verify that it was indeed found in a second-hand bookshop, it auto-completed to ‘Keep calm and carry on maker’.

If the first few times you saw the design were well done, of course people that think they’re funny are going to run the idea into the ground. In the manner of an internet meme, it’s going to end up being used and used and reused until only idiots find it hilarious.

It’s the ‘Garlic Bread’ moment. It’s the ‘I can has cheezburger?’ moment. It’s the planking moment. It’s Gangnam Style. It’s Harlem Shake. It’s something that’s funny for five minutes, and then some people don’t realise that the party is over and it’s time to stop going on about it.

Of course someone was going to automate it. Of course someone was going to either intentionally be offensive or unintentionally avoid quality control to this kind of point.

That’s what memes do. That’s what tedious repetition of them does.

If you’d written this as a story, you’d use the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ meme as representative of something like weapons or drugs. They’d be used as tools or medicine first, before you delved into the other uses people find for them, and it all becomes out of control. Eventually, you’d end with the creator looking and seeing the worst depths that it has been used for, silently weeping over what he has wrought upon this earth.

Keep calm and weep inwardly.


  1. "Keep calm and weep inwardly" - ha! I would actually buy a Tshirt that said that

  2. It's not about that, Rotherbird, it's about yet another instance of trivialising violence against women - automated or otherwise. It's not an isolated case, and I think it's truly tragic that people think it's "inevitable" or that the "furore" is in some way unnecessary/unjustified.

  3. I think that's rather ignoring the context of what I'm saying. I'm talking about memes and the way they end up becoming used in offensive and unpleasant ways. That's what I think is inevitable, not the content of the way they're used.

    Yes, I think the t-shirts are utterly unpleasant and trivialising. I think the people involved have lied about the lack of human interaction with the way they've ended up online. I think that anyone who buys it or sells it is an idiot.

    But I'm not talking about that. That's hardly going under-discussed at the moment. I have nothing to add to that conversation other than my disdain for what they do. But I do have some thoughts on the way memes are used and corrupted, which is what I talked about.