Charlie Brooker: Why Twitter is like Rock Band

"There’s a pressure to have an opinion on every incremental development on everything," he says.

I've interviewed Charlie Brooker for the New Statesman print magazine, but there was a quote of his from the interview that was so righteous, I had to blog it. I asked him whether he was currently using Twitter much less than before because he'd gone off it. 

He said:

I haven’t gone off it entirely. Because I’ve been so busy recently . . . When you don’t use it for a while, your brain calms down. So what I would do is lurk, and see what other people are doing . . . but when your rule is that you won't write anything, it's such a relief, it's like when you really need a piss and you finally have one. It’s like that happens in your brain.

You can see everyone getting very excited about 20 things a day, and you think, “Oh god, I don’t even have to have an opinion about that or even care that it matters”. And you start rather arrogantly looking on and thinking, “Yes, you’re all excited about that, you won't be in three hours' time”. There’s a pressure - if you are actively participating in it - there’s a pressure to have an opinion on every incremental development on everything. And there’s instant scandals and instant laughing stocks or talking points. And I just . . . it started making me feel ill. By which I mean in the head.

You know that feeling you get – you’ll recognise this as a gamer – that feeling when you spend hours playing a game – hours and hours and hours, and then you realise it's really late, it's like 3 or 4 [am] and you’ve got to be up at 8, and . .. you notice daylight breaking and you feel sort of disgusted and hollow, because actually you’ve not really done anything constructive. You’ve saved the world. A world that doesn’t exist.

Yeah, I can feel like I’ve rewired my optic nerve when I finish playing Rock Band.

Yeah, well, Twitter is actually a lot like Rock Band, but instead of coloured bars coming towards you, it's opinions on things. Topics. And there’s a pressure to respond. And then, the minute you stop doing that, you just think "oh, what is that about?" That makes me sound impossibly old. But I am.

Brooker has a new book out, by the way: I Can Make You Hate. It really can, you know. 

Rock Band, like Twitter, makes you press buttons quickly, says Charlie Brooker.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Sam Pepper via YouTube
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The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks  has finally gone too far.

Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but is friends with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with another Sam, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify Colby in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Colby, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Sam's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Colby in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Colby screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Sam stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Colby's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!".

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Miami, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views. You can see why he might not be getting the message. 

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Miami video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.