Handforth Parish Council and What It’s Like To Go Viral

The video I uploaded of the infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting last week currently has over 3 million views. It’s been covered by media broadcasters worldwide including The Guardian, CNN, and more, spawning hundreds of memes, TV and radio appearances for those featured in it, and countless other late-ripple side effects like reaction videos and musical reimaginings of the events, including one from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In case you’re not aware, the video itself is an edit of a recording of a Zoom meeting from Handforth Parish Council. The sort of meeting boring enough that people would usually go out of their way to avoid it. However, in this video, things were a bit different. It was filled with drama, conflict, an alleged coup, all intertwined with the sorts of communication frustrations that many people can relate to in these days of lockdown. It was the perfect storm and as is often with real-life situations, a lot funnier than many scripted comedies can ever hope to be.

I first came across the video in a thread titled “Great Things Posted On Social Media” on the Drowned In Sound message boards. The person who posted it there later explained that he’d seen the post originally on the UK Politics Subreddit, but it had been removed by moderators for breaking their posting rules. I was put off by the 1 hour 20 minute runtime, but the comment made me curious to take a look at least. A few minutes in and I realised that it was so funny that other people needed to know about this. Realising that no matter how good it was most people wouldn’t be able to see past the long run time, I decided to edit it down to the best bits in order to make it more palatable. I also gave it an ugly WordArt cover to match the awfulness of the comedy within. While I was busy doing the video editing, there was some low-key buzz starting to build around the original video, with retweeted by Reece Shearsmith of The League Of Gentleman fame retweeting about it. I carried on with the time consuming and soul-destroying process of editing thinking it’d be funny to share this with my friends. Once I was done, I realised that I’d put far more time and effort into it than I’d planned to, so decided to go a step further and spam the internet with it to see if it got any attention.

I uploaded it to YouTube (with no ads, it’s not my video after all), and posted it to Reddit, then searched for existing Tweets that referenced it, replying with my edit. After doing all of that, I got back to my day job and forgot about it. A few hours later I decided to have a quick look to see if there were any more tweets that referenced it, out of curiosity. I saw that a lot more people had picked up on it, with the video getting a lot more plays than from just my close friends. I also noticed other people tweeting about it too, with one particular tweet containing an even shorter video edit getting a lot of attention. I had hoped that it would have a bit of popularity amongst some people into weird comedy and very-British-things, but never began to expect how popular it would end up.

A few hours later that evening I browsed Twitter & YouTube repeatedly as the video got more and more views, finding the reactions fascinating and hilarious. I felt inspired to actually some time looking into the history of it all, reading up about who these people were, how this meeting was shared and how this shitstorm had come together in the first place. All the meanwhile, the original video was getting shared in more and more places. Eventually, the notifications got too much and I made the decision to ignore them because there was just too much to keep track of.

The next day, the popularity skyrocketed, and suddenly I was getting emails from CNN and The Guardian asking for comment and LadBible asking to represent me and arrange a profit share on any future licensing opportunities which may come up. It all seemed crazy and I started to feel very uneasy at the huge attention it was getting. I replied to each message being as painstakingly honest as I could be, not wanting to get the smallest detail of the timeline wrong and later get accused of being a liar. I was feeling paranoid despite having done nothing wrong, I had never had so much attention on me before and it was an incredibly unnerving feeling. The Guardian journalist who emailed me mentioned that “I know that various Handforthers were trying to get it go viral for weeks but your video seems to have done it.”. I didn’t want to be misquoted or leave anything out in every journalist email that I replied to. I didn’t even want to give opinions, just facts, in case I accidentally showed my approval of someone in a Milkshake Duck situation. I was happy to tell the journalists of HotBeefTrauma, the username of the user who originally posted it, hoping to be responsible for the mainstream media posting the name HotBeefTrauma. Alas, they did not.

Then the articles started to arrive, the ones documenting as much as possible about the turn of events to explain what this was and why it was of interest. In each one, I saw varying degrees of accuracy as the difficulty of pinpointing the exact cause of it’s popularity went from speculation to outright fabrication. It was a rush to be first, to get something out there and worry about the details later. Surprisingly, many seemed as focused on how the video got popular as they were on the subject of the video itself. Perhaps it was because it was easier to contact people with online profiles than the people in the video, most of whom, it was later discovered, didn’t even have Facebook accounts. Everyone was going mad trying to get their own unique angle or information on it all, to be the ones who found something or said something that captured the zeitgeist of it all.

I received messages from people I hadn’t talked to for years, some from people that I barely knew, and saw engagements on Facebook from names I’d almost forgotten about. My family shared the excitement, with my brother giving me constant updates on the stats for days afterwards and listing the places that it was being talked about. I was having the same conversation again and again with people about how I’d found it, the person I was talking to being inevitably disappointed each time as they discovered the dull origin story.

As more stories emerged, a narrative that two teenagers discovered the video emerged, with the commentary originally suggesting that they found it from a “YouTube deep-dive”. I messaged one of them, hoping to get more videos of this kind, but later discovered that this wasn’t actually true. They later admitted that they’d just seen it linked elsewhere. Despite this, the media machine latched onto them, hailing them as the ones who brought this to people’s attention. There was wild speculation about the origins, people latching onto it all, internet detectives everywhere digging into the history of everyone involved, including these two teenagers. I had a look at their Twitter profiles and saw stressed out sounding tweets about creepy DMs, and trying to put the record straight on what was being reported about them. I messaged them saying that I hoped they were doing OK under the circumstances, and I received a reply of solidarity from both. I was getting very uncomfortable at the amount of attention even vicariously being put upon this, so I can’t imagine how they were suddenly finding it. Other videos I’d shared online about totally unrelated things suddenly had their view count inflated. I received a couple of thousand subscribers on YouTube, making me wonder what the hell they expected my channel to be. It’s amazing how paranoid you can become when you feel the eyes of strangers looking into everything about you whether it’s happening or not.

I decided to ignore the noise and focus on editing down one of the next videos, since it seemed like the natural next step to take. In the meantime, the two teenagers were appearing on multiple programs on British TV and radio, even meeting Jackie Weaver herself (well, over Zoom). There were multiple videos to choose from, one recorded by someone filming a laptop screen, barely visible and audible, one (after the event) longer and incredibly dull without the provocative characters and one funny one from the same day. I decided to edit the one from the same day and then move on to one of the others later.

At one point my brother pointed out that my video had ads now, asking if I’d changed my mind. I checked what had happened and it seemed that ITV’s show Lorraine had made a copyright claim against the video. I appealed the claim and a day or so later it was revoked. I’d heard about this sort of thing happening on YouTube, but it didn’t really make much difference to me, since my video was running ad-free anyway. Still… cheeky bastards.

Over time, as the memes and reactions kept going on and on, I began to experience an accelerated boredom at it all, having this intensive exposure to every reference, again and again. Also, I had other things going on in my life at this time which were distracting me from it all and starting to make me resent the hullabaloo. While all of this was happening, I was not in a good place mentally and finding the energy of having to engage with it and appear upbeat and energised harder and harder. It was all anyone wanted to talk about, but it was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Some friends sent some snarky comments saying things like “ignoring us now you’re famous, huh?” but I left the messages unread, feeling like the effort of explaining it all was too much and I’d get round to it when I had the energy.

After publishing the second best-of, the joke was pretty much over. Multiple other YouTubers had been creating their own best-ofs, the jokes had reached the point where boomers were creating their own versions of it, and the final nail in the coffin came with Lawyer Cat, the bigger, and shorter US remake. In a way, it was a relief, knowing that I wouldn’t have to spend my evenings editing these tedious videos anymore, but it was an experience like nothing I’ve had before, and likely will never have again.

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