This April, the BBC satirical news show Have I Got News For You (perhaps most notorious for being to Prime Minister Boris Johnson what The Apprentice was to President Donald Trump) broadcast a segment about a controversy between two non-league soccer clubs from south London, Streatham Rovers and Sydenham United, which had recently faced off in the Xtermin8 Rat Poison League. When they saw the team sheets (the lists of players both sides provide before the match), Streatham was furious, because Sydenhham appeared to have, quite willfully, arranged its players so that their surnames read as an acrostic: SRFC ARE SHIT.
In a way, it was hardly surprising that HIGNFY should have picked up on the item: the “SRFC ARE SHIT” team sheet had already gone viral across several soccer forums, as well as being covered by the Daily Star tabloid. It was a light-hearted story, easy to milk for laughs — especially when it became apparent that Streatham’s manager, Taff Goose, had responded to seeing the team sheet by simply nailing it to the dressing room wall, foregoing a team talk on the basis that the insult was motivation enough by itself. The whole incident seemed like something out of a different world, more comic than our own.
Well, in this case the “seeming” was completely accurate — because, unbeknownst to the establishment comedy show, the Streatham Rovers are in fact a completely fictional endeavor. This is something that the HIGNFY people might plausibly have been able to figure out for themselves had they simply looked over the team sheet and read names like “Patrick King-Patrick,” “Jackson Bandana,” and “Wolfgang LaRouge.” Playing in a lurid green-and-purple uniform, currently sponsored by something called the “Internet Research Agency” and featuring their slogan #NeverStopNotGivingUp, the Rovers were started by a man who goes by the name of “Trevor Bastard.”
Over time, Rovers have come to form the central node of an elaborate comic world known as the Trevor Bastard Extended Universe. The TBEU encompasses not only other fictional south London non-league teams — from bitter rivals Dynamo Catford (known for their slogans “Shit on the Streatham” and “Solidarity with ISIS”), to bit players like CSKA Wallington and Edenbridge Bridge FC (check out that completely wild club crest) — but also SRFC’s lawyer, a divorce solicitor named Oliver Laughdugry (a man who hates Brexit so much he had his beloved pet dog put down so that he can fight it full-time, a “tragedy” he attempted to blame on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) and Laughdugry’s friend Simon Hedges, a “Sensible Labour” journalist and online politeness activist.
Streatham figures such as manager Goose and Club committee member Roger Parnsip (bio: “Hope Dynamo Catpiss die in a car crash”) , have their own Twitter accounts, and the universe also draws in other parody accounts such as the Blairite Politics Professor Dr. Robert Zands. This world is known by the acronym “Trevor Bastard Extended Universe” (TBEU), although the pseudonymous authorship is in part collaborative: while Bastard is behind the majority of the accounts, some, like Hedges, are run by other people.
As with many of the best comic universes, the joy of the TBEU is in the details. Soccer fans will know, for instance, that “CSKA Wallington” is a reference to the leading Russian side “CSKA Moscow” — although there the acronym stands for “Central Sports Club of the Army,” whereas in the XTermin8 Rat Poison League it stands for “Croydon and Sutton Kid’s Academy.” Read match announcements closely, and you will see references to the grounds serving things like “Hammerhoid Pilsner” and “Imperial Nostalgia IPA.” At points, the history of SRFC is elaborated — for instance, in 1983, during an away game at Dynamo Catford, a group of Streatham fans “got a bit carried away” and ended up fire-bombing an orphanage.
Live updates tell of Streatham matches being delayed by malfunctioning VR headsets, or the sudden deaths of the chickens the club has spray-painted with its colors, to play in protest instead of human players. Elsewhere in the TBEU, there have been story arcs involving things like a player named Oliver Laughdugry staging his own kidnapping in order to blame it on “Corbynista” thugs, or another named Simon Hedges running for office in his brother Robbie’s old seat of Leechwood South.
But what is perhaps most interesting about the TBEU is its unique mechanics, which rely completely on social media — specifically Twitter. Indeed, the TBEU is perhaps best understood as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk for the social media age. Its graphic design, a sort of maximalist splurging of the aesthetics of non-league soccer clubs, punk gig posters, and anarchist activist groups, will surely one day warrant some sort of retrospective gallery show. Meanwhile, TBEU jokes and events are related across blog posts, spoof podcasts, fake newspaper columns and videos, for instance the club’s long-standing pinned tweet, in which the launch of their new kit is hijacked by a murderous “Sports-Droid”. These disparate elements are all joined together by the social media platform, which is also where the various accounts that populate the TBEU interact.
RETWEET & FOLLOW TO WIN the new #SRFC 2018/19 home kit, as modelled here by centre forward Geoff Brown & the ZX76 Multi-Function Sports-Droid.— Streatham Rovers Football Club (@StreathamRovers) November 20, 2018
Watch the kit launch event video streamed live from new shorts sponsor Futurecom Europe's top secret testing base in Thornton Heath: pic.twitter.com/tk7E1jijXZ
This interaction is what enables the TBEU to be genuinely participatory — hence why, at times, it is able to leak into normal reality. The HIGNFY episode aside, SRFC recently had a bizarre series of interactions with the London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart, who pledged to help them with a “dog muck issue” outside their ground, before apparently realizing he’d been had. There is also an SRFC supporters team (Streatham Hardline Independent Trust, or S.H.I.T.) who play real-life amateur matches, mostly recent competing for something called the “Aubergine Cup.” According to a 2018 Contemporary Art Practice dissertation submitted to the Royal College of Art by Allan Struthers, which uses the TBEU as one of a number of case studies, the collective, online nature of the comic universe allows it to express a unique form of “ideological critique.”
“The accounts’ collective voice is one that attacks the foibles of dominant capitalist ideological narratives, and specifically, centrist political discourse. It mocks performative appeals to sensible, rational discussion that are often used to denounce socialism without engaging seriously with its theoretical underpinnings... using the variously falsified media personas (such as Simon Hedges) to engage with other users on the Twitter network, the TBEU makes a public display of deceiving those incapable of correctly interpreting the intended political meaning in each interaction.”/x-quote>
At any rate, the TBEU is clearly one of the best and most creative uses of social media yet devised by anyone; its vision and innovation clearly make it an important work of art. It was therefore deeply troubling when recently, around middway through the UK’s terrible and disastrous recent election campaign, Streatham Rovers were one of a number of TBEU accounts suddenly banned from Twitter, along with a bunch of other left-wing shitposters, a clampdown some have speculated was instigated by the official twitter account of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters briefly rebranding itself as “factcheckUK”. Suddenly, anyone who wasn’t using Twitter to voice their own personal and clearly stated, non-ironically distanced opinions about why Martin Scorsese ought to apologize personally to Spiderman or whatever, was placed under suspicion. Rovers were restored relatively quickly, but at the time of this writing a number of the associated accounts remain banned, including Oliver Laughdugry.
The people who run Twitter are notorious for not really understanding the first thing about their platform.
Obviously there are important questions around censorship here (especially given what the outcome of said election means for the British public sphere in general), but for the purposes of this article, I’m more interested in the implications the SRFC ban has for art. The situation between SRFC and Twitter is a manifestly ridiculous one, as if we suddenly discovered that “painting” was owned by a tech company called Paintr or Canvas or something, and they had just banned Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich for trying to divorce expression from objectivity, so now no one can view his iconic painting “Black Square.”
The medium of painting is not something that any individual or corporation can own — so why do we take it for granted that things like social media platforms both are, and will remain, in private hands? The two cases might seem, to a certain blinkered common sense, to be disanalogous. But look at this way: there are some works of art that can only exist on the canvas. If there is art that can only exist on Twitter — and the example of the TBEU shows us that there very definitely is — then social media platforms are to a certain extent like painting. And that’s a problem for how they’re currently regulated.
Often, there are fears that online content will be over-preserved — that you will never be able to escape the imprint of your old self, branded forever on the internet, beyond your control. But in truth, a lot of online content is really very ephemeral. Earlier this year, myspace admitted to losing some 50 million songs by 14 million artists uploaded to the platform — music that may very well have not been preserved anywhere else. Twitter already blew a huge hole in internet culture a few years ago, when it closed down Vine. The situation is obviously going to be far worse when the people responsible for curating a particular medium simply do not understand the content posted on it — and the people who run Twitter are notorious for not really understanding the first thing about their platform (in fairness, no Silicon Valley nerd would ever set out to create the thing that facilitated, well... stuff like the TBEU. Shareholders don’t like it when your product is “weird”).
This is a problem that future artists, and art historians, will have to grapple with. One solution could be to preserve the online content in the form of a traditional artifact like a book — as dril did last year, with his Dril Official “Mr Ten Years” Anniversary Collection. Dril’s book is wonderful, and is certainly effective at preserving his (very important, to both language and literature) tweets. But the tweets do not appear in his book untransformed: in a way, they stand in the same relationship as a photographic reproduction, to the original painting on a canvas. Even if Trevor Bastard was to be banned from Twitter forever, elements of the TBEU would remain in the various audio recordings and videos and blog posts that he has produced for it, as well as various physical objects. But it wouldn’t be the same, the interactive element would still be lost. It would be like if we only had the score for a piece of music but had lost the means to play it, or even to make the instruments needed to perform it.
Ultimately, the possibility that a unique work of public art like the TBEU could at the whim of some tech executive be fundamentally erased forever should stand as yet another reminder that there is almost no justification whatsoever for social media platforms to remain in private hands. These platforms are public goods, and should be treated as such — surely even the most simpering bootlicker would have a tough time claiming their founders need the money. Tech companies should not be allowed to own means of artistic production. Twitter has long been used for public ownings — it’s time to extend that same principle back to the platform itself.