by J. W. Wood
Before the contract came through, Ken McKenzie’s life was the same as it ever was: pretending to read Schopenhauer and Swedenborg, drinking tea, and wondering when his money would run out. Also, he loved scrolling through social media on his phone: lately, Ken’s self-image as a poet-philosopher vagabond was being eroded by his addiction to “SoMe”, as hipsters called it.
It didn’t matter who was posting: Ken loved social media almost as much as he loved being on disability without being disabled. Take this tweet by Ken’s pal Donald Crawford, part-time Business Communications tutor at some MBA factory in South-West England: “Absolutely disgusted. Forty-seven years old, MSc in psychology, PhD in Creative Writing. No pension, no savings. I’d have been better as a plumber #nointellectualsallowed.”
This was nonsense. Don inherited his mother’s holiday home in France twenty years ago. He’d also enjoyed a succession of pensionable interim lecturing jobs. His best move, though, was to impregnate a student from a wealthy family. The family set them up in a comfortable three-bedroomed semi with a cleaner and everything. Happy days – though you wouldn’t know it from Don’s Twitter feed.
Saturday afternoons would find Ken outside a pub, a pint before him and cigarette in the ashtray as he pimped the free WiFi, developing his tweeter’s thumb. This post from Paul, an estate agent mate, made Ken want to pull out a metaphorical cat o’ nine tails: “Just sold to clients who couldn’t be happier. Then steak and red wine with my darlings #bliss #family.”
The truth? Paul dreamed of being a radio presenter and considered estate agency an affront to his talent. Paul’s wife was about to leave him, she was so sick of him whining about his dreams.
Not long after that, Ken cracked. It was a tweet from some folk band that set him off.
Weissweg, the band in question, played mid-week gigs in pubs. You know: audiences applauding tune-ups, gnatspiss beer and sour white wine. But their breathless tweeting suggested they thought they were Beyoncé: “Delighted to announce our first-ever #nationaltour in support of our #newsingle, The Wyld Rose Is Sown. weisswegtheband.com”
Their website revealed this “national tour” consisted of three local pubs that hosted the aforementioned mid-week amateur nights. Ken piled in:
@Weisswegtheband no’ bad mate. Three local boozers. Is @Coldplay or @CalvinHarrisofficial supporting? See ya doon the dole! X
Weissweg banned him. But being banned just encouraged Ken to greater things.
After he’d been banned by the band, as it were, Ken began bursting bubbles in earnest. The more he trashed people, the worse (or better) things got. His follower numbers rose – modestly at first, from 48 bots and trolls to a whopping 247 curated, winnowed-out followers.
He started with an easy target: politicians. But bubble-bursting them was an overcrowded market. Newspaper comment sections also proved good sport since they were echo-chambers for students, the terminally angry, and the retired / bored. But Ken wanted juicier prey. People who might actually care if he exposed their vanity.
He didn’t have to look far: middle-managers boasting of fake he-man exploits on the weekends; stressed female executives asserting earth-mother status via photos of cranberry-apricot muffins; has-been sportsmen claiming fellowship with today’s stars. He went after the lot and spared none. For all he got blocked, he picked up more followers. His 247 followers soon swelled to 3,223. A week later, he was up to 6,391 thanks to a few more spats.
A month later Ken was measuring his followers in five figures, his numbers popping like a firecracker on coke. Then he got a phone call.
Ken feared it was the police wanting him for a benefits scam that ended a year ago when he realised the presumed-dead target of his identity theft operation was still alive. But it wasn’t the police. Instead it was one Ayesha Kirschbaum, who said she worked for the “Social Media Alliance” in California.
She had a proposal for Ken – and wanted to “hop on a Zoom call” to discuss it.
The next day, Ken found himself outside a pub before opening time. This last happened when he’d collapsed in a beer garden the summer before to be woken by the rising sun, stale beer on his tongue and a burned-out cigarette in his fingers.
He needed to steal the pub WiFi for his Zoom call. He booted up his ancient computer, a process that took so long Ken wanted to boot its pixelated arse. Minutes later, Ken found himself peering into a home office on the other side of the world. A youngish woman with a dark ponytail stared out of his cracked laptop screen. She wore a red roll-neck sweater and a chunky necklace. In the top right corner, he saw two equally youngish men sporting glasses, white shirts and dark pastel ties.
“Ken? Ken McKenzie?”
“Yup, ’tis I! Ayesha? What can I do you for?” Ken wanted a smoke. But it took him four attempts to get his laptop lid to stay open before he could roll up.
“Ken? You still there?”
“Aye man! Still here,” Ken shouted, hands deftly flicking together a rollie.
“Cool! OK, so I am Ayesha, and this is Mike and Neil. We represent the Social Media Alliance—”
“Are ye’s calling to take me down?”
“Oh no, not at all!” Ayesha protested.
Ken looked across the pub garden, its discarded glasses and assorted rubbish. The morning sun struggled to cut the chill Scottish air.
“My colleague Mike Nesbitt has a proposal to put to you. Over to you, Mike!”
Mike’s image slid forward. Ken drew hard on his roll-up, blowing smoke into Mike’s preppy physiognomy from seven thousand miles away.
“Hey Ken! Good to meet you!”
Ken waved, smiling at the absurdity of speaking to a bunch of yuppies in sunny California from a nut-bustingly cold Scottish beer garden.
“Awright big man?”
“So Ken, we’ve noticed your recent popularity on Twitter…”
“Aye mate. Popular like Pol Pot, eh? Just seein’ how many fowk I can piss off at once, hen?”
Mike smiled a thin-lipped smile. “Ken, you may know a lot of social media platforms are struggling these days…”
“Struggling? I’m no’ surprised mate. Struggling how? Doon tae their last ten billion?”
Ken blew more smoke at the screen, then tossed his still-burning fag end on the concrete. The sun crept over the chimney tops.
“Social media is in a battle for engagement. That means we need people to start posting more, following more, liking more.”
“Right, mate. But it’s all shite. That’s why I’m trying to take people down, eh?”
“We know. But that’s why you’re popular. You’re the UK’s rising social media star and in the European top ten growers.”
“Naw, mate, eh? Well, there you are. My ma’ll be proud at last!”
Ken spluttered and a little spittle hit his screen. He reached for his tobacco pouch as the third figure slid into view. This guy looked like a carbon copy of Mike Nesbitt, only with more grey hair, a bright yellow tie and different glasses.
“Ken, this is Neil Lafferty. I’m Legal Counsel at the Social Media Foundation. We want to offer you a job.”
“A job as what? Tormenter in chief?”
“More or less, yes. We are prepared to pay you a quarter of a million dollars a year, starting immediately, to continue abusing celebrities, politicians, journalists, and the general public. Within the grounds of certain…legal constraints, of course.”
“Constraints? Like no slander or libel, that sort of thing?”
Neil Lafferty nodded. Mike Nesbitt chimed in.
“Essentially, we want to pay you for being you. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Now it was Ayesha’s turn to pile on the charm. She drew a little closer to her camera and Ken noticed her perfect teeth.
“It’s money for nothing, Ken!”
“Is it now?” Ken readied his next cigarette. He sparked up with his Space Alien Zippo. “I’m a philosopher to trade. And I’ll tell ye this: there’s no such thing as money for nothing. No’ unless you’re me. See, I’ve already got funds.”
Ken chose not to tell them said funds came from his fake disabled status. Alongside a bit of casual glass-collecting in pubs if he was short that week.
“We’re prepared to negotiate,” Ayesha countered. “What’s essential is that you understand what you bring to the table. We want your capacity to re-excite people in social media. That’s what our advertisers are jonesing for.”
She paused, looking to her left as if her colleagues were with her, not sat in spare bedrooms across San Francisco like battery hens blinking and wobbling after being released.
“Look Ken, let’s cut the bullshit. People are getting tired of social and we need to get them back. Who knew, but you’re making it happen. Don’t see this as a job. Just see it as encouragement, that’s all.”
“Hmmmm….” Ken sipped his coffee. “I’ll need to speak to my agent.”
“You have an agent?”
“Naw. But it felt good saying that.”
The three talking heads laughed in that hollow way some people do. Ken sipped his coffee.
“Listen, boys and girls. You get me that contract and I’ll think about it, awright?”
“Sounds good, Ken. Give me your email and I’ll send it right away. If you decide to join us, please print and sign.”
“Sweet. But I cannae afford the post tae America, I’ll tell you that for free.”
They told Ken it was no problem: all expenses would be paid. A courier would come and pick up the contract when he was ready.
That’s how Ken found himself with a contract in front of him in his council flat, the figure of $250,000, plus a signing bonus of $10,000, burning a hole in his mind. Would he sign? Not to do so would be insanity. Riches and salvation, just for being himself.
And yet his models, his Masters, all those Philosophers whose works he opened and pretended to read, would not have approved. Bowing before the corporate beast.
Ken decided he’d have a smoke and think about it. He rolled up and stuck the fag in his mouth. Then he fished out his lighter and flicked at it. The flame flashed up from his Space Alien Zippo, the familiar smell of sparking flint and kerosene filling the air in his tiny kitchen.
He looked down at the contract and around himself at the cramped confines of his flat, the traces of damp on the walls. The couple next door started another row, so loud the football poster above his kitchen table started shaking. He picked up the contract with his free hand, the burning lighter in the other. Then he lit his cigarette. As he inhaled his first draw, he slowly moved the pages of the contract toward the lighter’s bright yellow flame….
J. W. Wood is the author of five books of poems and a novel, all published in the UK, and the satire ‘By Any Other Name’, forthcoming from Terror House Publishing in the US later in 2023. His work has appeared in The Poetry Review, London Magazine, TLS, etc. and has been shortlisted or nominated for several awards, including the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Bridport Prize. A dual citizen of the UK and Canada, he is the recipient of awards from the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council. Visit his website for further information. http://www.jwwoodwriter.com