(This is the text of a five minute talk I gave at the Market Research Society’s Research 2009 conference, on 24/3/09. I was allowed 1 slide, and naturally selected a large scale reproduction of the cover of Prog 93 (see below))

Who is the Mighty Tharg? He’s the alien editor of 2000AD, the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic for the last 32 years. And when it comes to social media, quite simply he taught me all I know.

The brand values of Tharg and his comic can be summed up in a single phrase: thrill power. For our purposes it can be simply defined as “that which is almost unbearably exciting to a 10 year old boy”. Everything in the world of thrill-power is turned up to 11, like this legendary cover from the man-versus-dinosaur series Flesh II, which I consider to be the most exciting artwork of the 20th Century.


You might think that this cover has little to offer the researcher – this would be to overlook its allegorical content. It’s actually a powerful metaphor – the researcher drowning in a sea of user generated content, beset by the giant scorpions of procurement.

But in all seriousness, the notion of thrill-power was part of a jargon that created a personality cult around Tharg and a brand cult around his comic. From a social media perspective, this personality cult is what I’m interested in. Not the comic he created but Tharg himself.

Tharg was one of a whole line of fictional editors in 80s comics – the Eagle had a cartoon eagle, Scream had a malevolent computer, others had fake superheroes or hooded demons in charge. Tharg outlived them all and part of the reason why is that he was not always friendly or helpful to his readers – he was arrogant, and would often react with mock bombast and outrage to their requests, promising to send them a “Rigelian hotshot” as punishment for their temerity in addressing him. He was prone to hyperbole and boasting, and his audience loved it.

The issue of fictional brand projections has recently surfaced in social media – specifically on Twitter, where a number of controversial incidences of fake, or in-character accounts have blurred the line between brands, individuals, the official and the unofficial.

Advertising executives, for instance, took on the personae of characters from Mad Men, twittering as “Don Draper”, “Betty Draper” et al. The TV company behind the show shut them down, then let them reinstate the accounts on discovering how popular they had come. Fake celebrities also abound on the service.

The rail company Southwest Trains has been the victim of a marvellous fake Twitter account in the “persona” of a malicious incompetent constantly laughing at customer misfortune and “rail fail”. This is the projective technique as culture jamming.

Some companies have started gingerly moving into this space themselves. Burger King, for instance, has set up a Twitter account under the name The King, to answer customer service queries “in character”. (EDIT: Oops, no they didn’t. The King was, like the Mad Men account, an affectionate fake. But this doesn’t actually change my argument – given that people reacted to him as if genuine.)

This kind of activity has ruffled some feathers on Twitter, where an early adopter orthodoxy has taken hold. The way to use the service, we’re told again and again, is to be transparent, open, and tied to real people and a real identity. The model is shoe company Zappos, whose CEO has over 275,000 Twitter followers. He’s a great example of someone who’s using Twitter in a friendly, open manner and gaining a business benefit. He’s a superb advert for transparency. But is it the only way?

Some bloggers were opposed to The King because he was a fiction rather than being tie-able to a BK employee. Others, though, took a different tack, complaining he wasn’t fictional ENOUGH. His character isn’t especially compelling, or even particularly nailed down – he switched from medieval style thee and thou to colloquial Americanisms, presumably depending on who was at the controls. You wouldn’t get Tharg making that mistake.

Transparency is a social media watchword. The enormous success of Facebook is at least partly down to the way it successfully creates a mirror for our offline networks, and one way it does this is by suggesting its users stick to their real name. Twitter appears to work in a similar way.

But think back ten years ago and one of the big claims for the web was its ability to erase bodily identity – to allow its users to play with identity, create and flick between personae online. This is a powerful force – frightening for many – and as the web has become mainstream it’s become marginalised. The “real” rather than the performative aspects of web identity have been stressed. My opinion is that you ignore this side of the web at your peril – it may have been repressed, but it hasn’t gone away.

But instead of ignoring it, why not use it? The social media lesson of the Mighty Tharg is that transparency and open-ness can play second fiddle to a dynamic and consistent personality, which can create a shared fiction that turns fans into devotees. Thirty two years on, I believe in Tharg more than I believe in most of the real people I tweet with. Authenticity is terrific, but sometimes entertainment is more powerful.