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Memeing Free Public Transit Into Existence: A Chat With Carl Kinsella

Memeing Free Public Transit Into Existence: A Chat With Carl Kinsella

A meme on Irish twitter has offered users a glimpse of a possible future in which a key fixture of Dublin’s public transport system, the Luas, is free.

On August 5, writer Carl Kinsella tweeted “A long-term goal of mine has been to lead a disinformation campaign which claims that the Luas is free until enough people believe it that they have no choice to give in and make the Luas [...] free.”

 

The Luas, operational since 2004, is a tram system connecting Dublin city center to the surrounding districts, with 67 stops across two lines. At the time of publication, the system charges for single or return journeys, with other ticketing options available for regular travel over longer periods.

According to Irish Twitter, however, it’s completely free. Within a few hours of his original tweet, Kinsella’s “long-term goal” had been achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

Mentions of “Luas,” which usually average fewer than 100 a day on the site, topped out on August 7 at 1,833, an increase of almost 2,000 percent. We spoke to Carl Kinsella, the man who started it all, to find out if memes really do have the power to change reality.

What was your aim with your original tweet about the free Luas? Was it just a joke or did you think there was potential for it to go viral in the way it did?

Emphatically a joke. It was just supposed to be like… slightly amusing and maybe get a few hundred Likes, at best. The idea is definitely rooted in a belief that public transport in Dublin is too expensive, but the actual reference to a disinformation campaign was a joke — my own logic being that if you explicitly state that something is a disinformation campaign then it’s not really a disinformation campaign. One RTÉ journalist described it as “a juvenile thought experiment devised by an idiot” and I think if anything that’s probably too generous. 

One RTÉ journalist described it as “a juvenile thought experiment devised by an idiot” and I think if anything that’s probably too generous.

The messed up thing about online is that anything can go viral, either your most ingenious and profound ideas or like… the dumbest thing you’ll ever do or say, and you only have a relatively small measure of control over that. At first, I was sharing responses because they were funny, but I stopped once it really snowballed because it was far too much for me. I think there’s a tipping point where virality becomes extremely unpleasant and probably quite damaging to the human brain. 

Why do you think the free Luas has resonated so much with people? Were you surprised by the response?

Very surprised. I think if you spend a lot of time online, you develop a bit of a sense for what will “do well” or not in terms of engagement and I definitely did not see this one taking off. 

I think COVID boredom probably has a lot to do with it. There’s no way our brains are as healthy as they were 18 months ago. I think we’ve all been laid pretty low and now curling up in a ball, rocking back and forth repeating “The Luas is free” is pretty much how we’re getting by. 

Is there something about the Luas in particular that lends itself to this kind of campaign?

I think Irish people get a kick out of humanizing infrastructural things and I think the idea that the Luas is free imbues the Luas with some additional personality and that’s sort of funny. That and also nobody likes paying for it. 

This might be reading too much into the whole thing but I think Ireland has been faced with a lot of hypocritical governance not just throughout Covid but forever, and I think people just find it funny to be like “Oh yeah? Well the Luas is free now” as if we’ve taken some kind of tiny, stupid revenge.

As the need for greener transit continues to grow, do you think it’ll become more common to demand things like a free Luas, even as a joke?

As far as Irish public services go, the Luas is actually probably one of the better ones. Ireland is a country that, on a national level, is severely lacking in public transport options, and people in rural areas really only have the option of driving. As time goes on it will actually make more sense for the government to make public transport more accessible, both geographically and financially. So I guess the movement should really be that "The Luas is free and also goes everywhere."

Do you think there are any risks that come with (as you put it) “running a disinformation campaign” at this level (ie. one that doesn’t really aim to do any harm, but does run counter to….reality)?

Yeah, like a million. If I’d known it would take off in the way it did I wouldn’t have done it, even though the memes were really funny. 

The first thing I really disliked was some users personalizing commentary about whoever was working social media for the Luas. From early on I asked people not to do that.

Once something goes through the prism of like 50,000 different minds, it obviously warps.

It’s kind of the risk with anything that goes viral, is that you introduce a narrative that thousands of people see, and interpret, and then use in whatever way they like. Once something goes through the prism of like 50,000 different minds, it obviously warps - some people won’t get it, some people will take it way too seriously, some people will make it funnier, and some people will be jerks about it, and it continues to spiral from there.

I think part of the humor comes from the natural frustration people feel with reality, and the catharsis that comes from undermining or denying reality, and I think that’s an avenue that has to be open to everyone who wants to make jokes. But when anything goes viral, I think some people have a hard time seeing it for what it was originally meant to be, because it accumulates all this baggage along the way. Personally, I do think the actual disinformation risks in this specific case would be nullified by people employing some cop-on. It’s sort of like an April Fool’s Day-style of disinformation. 

Do you have a favorite free Luas tweet?

I was pretty happy that Dara Ó Briain got involved and shared a meme about it, but the Free Willy movie poster photoshops were the highlight. 

Ultimately, I think the overwhelming majority of people were in on the joke, enjoyed it, and had a fun day on Twitter, and I am sorry to everyone who hated it.

I also saw somebody say they’d be willing to pay double on the Luas just to piss me off, which is pretty cool.

Finally, do you have any plans for upcoming disinformation campaigns? What would you like to liberate next?

I would like it on record that I think disinformation is bad. My tongue-in-cheek disinformation campaign was to explicitly say “I am going to say the Luas is free, please join me in this endeavor” and people were like “Sure!” I think it’s more akin to mass hysteria if I’m honest. 

That being said, now that you ask, I do feel like I could get somewhere if I started tweeting “Delighted to hear Lucozade is bringing back Lucozade Lemon” until they actually have to bring it back. But I bet there’d be some horrible unforeseen consequences that I’d regret for the rest of my life. 

It would be very cool if this energy could translate into actual demand for better and more cost-efficient public services in Ireland funded by a tax on those who pay less tax than they should. See me tweet that and get about seven retweets, though.

Cover image: Jack Flynn, @hitthatroad on Twitter

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