Eight days after Britain’s famous annual Boat Race, the Oxford-Cambridge final of the BBC2 quiz show University Challenge took place amid a surge of media and social media interest – particularly centred around Wolfson College Cambridge’s Canadian team captain, Eric Monkman, a highly talented contestant of rare facial expressions and vocal intonations.
As the BBC’s Steven McIntosh observed: “The invention of social media has given the programme a new lease of life and helped many contestants develop their own cult following.”
Earlier this year, the BBC reported that “#Monkman was the number one trend on Twitter”. The Daily Star announced that “#Monkmania was running rampant.” The Sun said that Eric Monkman had “set social media ablaze with his razor-sharp quizzing prowess”. The Mirror declared that his ability to pre-empt Jeremy Paxman’s questions had “sent Twitter into meltdown”.
The Huffington Post, meanwhile, described Eric Monkman as a “legend”, but noted that the series final had been characterised by “Monkman’s stressed state, with the Canadian student repeatedly buzzing in early with incorrect answers”. And while he remains the show’s surprise star, Monkman did sadly play a part in his team’s downfall.
It was 11 minutes into the final that Monkman started to flounder, losing five points for buzzing in too early. Again buzzing in hastily on the next question – relating to where the Iron Crown of Lombardy was housed – things went from bad to worse: “It’s housed in Italy somewhere … Sorry. It’s what they used to crown the King of Italy.” Question master Jeremy Paxman was scathing in his response: “I’m afraid that is a completely useless answer.”
Eight minutes later, Monkman offered as a four-letter abbreviation for the boundary that separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle “the Milojevic Discontinuity” (meaning, of course, the “Mohorovičić Discontinuity”). Paxman was dismissive in his curt “no”. The answer was, in fact, “Moho” but by this point Monkman had lost his own mojo.
Three minutes later, Monkman breached that age-old superstition by saying “Macbeth”. His answer was correct, but his team got the next three questions wrong.
Spock meets Princess Diana
Part Spock, part Icarus, the Princess Diana of University Challenge, Eric Monkman, was the victim not of hubris but of the pressure heaped upon him by heightened expectations and unsought celebrity. Win or lose, though, the series finale was clearly The Monkman Show.
All eyes were on him and under that enormous stress he delivered: not by winning but much more valuably by being (as Paxman described his team at the end of the show) “entertaining” – and indeed very highly so. This was why, as the BBC reported: “Despite his team’s loss, some took to Twitter to describe the 29-year-old as the ‘people’s champion’.”
Monkman was the true star of the series, and its true hero. Joey Goldman, the victorious captain of the Balliol team, had shown himself unaware that it was Dr Seuss who in 1950 had coined the term “nerd”. One likes to think that would have been one that Monkman, as self-aware as he was self-conscious, would have known.
Two years ago, I was quoted by the Daily Star tweeting in celebration of Ted Loveday’s victory in University Challenge. I had previously also tweeted to compare that particular student quiz show star with the then Labour Leader Ed Miliband.
Like Monkman, Gonville and Caius’s Ted Loveday had taken his team almost single-handedly to a grand final. Like Miliband and Monkman, Loveday was a one-off, a uniquely chic geek. And like Miliband and Monkman, he was also therefore one in a neatly packaged sequence of familiar commodities.
The news industry is, after all, as commercial and risk-averse as Hollywood. There are no new stories, only the sequels and reboots: stories that the press know they can sell, stories tried in earlier incarnations and beta-tested in the crucible of social media. Monkmania was, as such, an extension of Milifandom by another name – though it seems unlikely that Monkman will be appearing on Channel 4’s The Last Leg (as Miliband did last Friday) posing for glamour photoshoots and dropping the “F” bomb.
One might like to imagine that, echoing shadowy events currently unfolding in the latest series of Homeland, the Russell Group of elite universities could fund a secret organisation which deploys social media sock-puppetry to manipulate press attention and promote public interest in the trending topics of their student successes in TV game shows; but I fear the truth is rather more mundane.
People tweet about things that appeal to the mass media (very often things already media-related) and, because media professionals tend to be tuned in to Twitter, those online trends generate news coverage which itself promotes social media reposts and associated chatter – which then prompts further media interest.
This circle is neither particularly vicious nor virtuous. It is a kind of meme in the sense in which Richard Dawkins originally intended the term in 1976’s The Selfish Gene: the product not of intelligent design but of an evolutionary process which promotes the survival and proliferation of those memes best suited to their media environments.
Presenting the trophy to the series’ 2017 winners, Stephen Hawking observed that “it is not clear whether intelligence has any long term survival value … bacteria multiply and flourish without it”.
He might as easily have been talking about the virality of social media, a spiral of contagion which is as unintelligent as it is indiscriminate: one which, for example, has also in the last few days underpinned the widespread dissemination of the image of Saffiyah Khan standing up to a group of English Defence League bullies This is not fake news concocted and promulgated by a dark conspiracy of ultra-reactionary interests; it is something beyond our control, sometimes divisive, sometimes inspiring, sometimes banal.
We may note, however, that mimetic success in any specific medium does not necessarily reflect the breadth of popular opinion. Unlike the rather more egalitarian Facebook, Twitter boasts something of a demographic bias towards the educated middle classes; thus Nick Anstead and others have warned against the lazy press approach which sees Twitter as a short-cut to public opinion.
Monkmania may therefore not have been a real cultural phenomenon sweeping British society like a tidal wave; but, in the increasingly virtual present in which the evolving complicity between old and new media forms threatens to eclipse outdated notions of truth and fact, it may be about as real as it gets.