Roisin Kiberd

Social Justice Mercenary

She looked down at the space between her thighs. The chair was covered in itchy blue wool, just like the seats on the Tube. Was weight gain already setting in? A sedentary office life, spent staring into screens. Was it really all that different to before?

She didn’t used to care about weight, had made a point of not thinking about it. Back in heady times, played out in scrolling timelines. It had felt radical, though the number of eyes her writing reached then was nothing compared to now. One-girl-riot.tumblr.com, later renamed LadyRageBender. Up all night typing replies, drunk on the glow of the screen in the dark.

She had been hired only two months before, but it felt like a past life. A grubbier, messier one. Coffee gone stale when she was too tired to drink it. A cheap flat with low ceilings. That dismal feeling that the only friends she had left were those wanking over her DMs. But she had loved the extremity of it, the sense of a postgraduate precipice.

The set-up was decent though, she would give them that. Open-plan, with little food stations built into the walls. Everyone liked the granola bars, free from a new client. “FlapJaxxed”, marketed at men, and baked with whey protein isolate. The campaign had bodybuilders in y-fronts, on the sides of London buses. Bulked-up bodies, hairless as was the fashion that year.

AdWeek had declared 2021 ‘the year of the SmartGrain baked good’. Carbs were back in fashion, as long as they were augmented with actionable health benefits. Campaigns for BrainBran and SexRice were already in the pipeline.

She was recruited through social media, right when her Twitter reached the ten thousand mark. They said they were looking for new voices, “socially conscious” and “sassy.” The money was good. She had thought arts degrees were unemployable.

She thought a lot, between the meetings and timesheets, about what had happened to her friends. Those who had something to protest about. One, she knew, was imprisoned. Another had suddenly disappeared. One was rumoured to have been recruited by the Singaporean government, who offered to pay her way through an Ivy League university in return for work as a spy.

The followers didn’t notice when she fell silent. A life lived online, however radical, was easy to compartmentalize and forget.

It was lunch time. She wanted to go to McDonalds down the road because it was usually empty, though she also wondered if buying chips would make her a part of the problem.

She chose the new Spring Season HealthFries, low fat and sprinkled with a proprietary blend of Vitamin C, echinacea and antihistamines. She took out her notebook to try to make sense of the week. Monday: Skype VR with the BrainBran people. Tuesday: copy for a campaign about euthanasia. Wednesday was busier: writing terms and conditions for a fitness app (she was known already in the agency for her marvelously innocuous Terms and Conditions. A past life spent debating with Reddit MRAs about consent had equipped her well).

Then after lunch she would be shown a new campaign for a beauty industry client.

She wrote a lot of copy and a lot of Terms and Conditions, but what she did most was offer approval. Keeping her in the dark till the last minute, they’d send over finished campaigns and ask for her reaction. She’d tell them if the work was socially sensitive, or might trigger outrage online. It earned her the title of “Campaign Arbitrator”: she saw herself as their reality check.

And they got it so wrong, sometimes. They objectified women, made off-colour jokes and senseless blunders. That print ad for calorie-controlled follow-on milk. The campaign where a man’s aerosol deodorant was so seductive he had to fight women off, literally, with a baseball bat. Every day was exhausting and disheartening and strange. She had to explain things, patiently and thoroughly. But they seemed sincere. They wanted to know, so that they could change.

Familiar voices in the next booth.

“I know this works because I’m a digital professional. Who converts. Big time.”
“We can’t prove it will sell. I don’t know who told them to jump on this bandwagon…”
“Ariana Grande is doing it, in her new video.”
“Yes, but Ariana Grande does a lot of things.”
“Suri Cruise..”
“Has she even hit puberty?”
“She’s a hottie. ‘All grown up,’ the Mail said. Look, it doesn’t matter if it’s a trend or not, women are still going to buy it. We just get a good campaign going, make them run scared…”
“What’s the copy again?”
“Let’s see. ‘Hey girls, feminism is the new sexy’ Or we have ‘Men love a feminist’ We’re going to A/B test it. Then, ‘Craving luscious hairy pits but patchy after years of waxing? Grow those babies back, with Talisse for underarms’.

Over the background music, bloated with HungerTech binaural beats, she noticed that her ears were ringing. She had not felt like herself lately. The fries tasted acidic. Were they potato, or one of the new SmartStarches?

“That blogger girl they hired, this one’s going to give her a nervous breakdown.”
She had never thought of herself as a blogger. More as a political activist.
“It’s going to do so well. Jezebel, Buzzfeed… especially if we get ‘called out’, you know? Like somebody famous takes issue with it.”
“Ok look, if that blogger girl.. what’s her name again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ok, if she says it’s offensive, maybe turn it up a bit more, ok? Let’s run with this.”
“Brilliant. ‘Women, think for yourself, grow it back at only £29.99 for a month’s supply.’”

She was beginning to feel ill. She wondered why they weren’t in a proper restaurant that served wine with lunch deals for a tenner, like at Nando’s Plus. Gourmet lad food. They could afford it.
They were creative directors.

The ringing in her ears was stronger now. Still she could hear their voices, the laughter. She had made a huge mistake. She barely noticed as the table rose to meet her head, as she passed out face-down in her chips.

Roisin Kiberd writes about the internet, among other things, for Motherboard, Vice and occasionally others like The Guardian. She has also worked on and off in social media, including a year spent on Twitter as a brand of cheese. This is the first time her fiction has been published.

@RoisinTheMirror & roisinkiberd.tumblr.com