The long shadow of Nathan Barley – Shoreditch's well weapon media scene 10 years on

By Stuart Aitken, lead content strategist

February 13, 2015 | 6 min read

Fittingly, Nathan Barley’s 10th birthday was celebrated with a feature on the Guardian website which went viral in seconds, filling up social media threads to become the site’s most read story for much of the day. After all, who needs to know about tax avoidance scandals when we can be reading about a 'self-facilitating media node' who drinks zapaccinos and uses 'desk' as a verb?

Nathan Barley

What Andrew Harrison’s piece very accurately captured is the extent to which Nathan Barley has now become shorthand for a certain breed of media professional – an absurdist everyman of the digital media world.

Anything 'too Shoreditch' is now immediately called out for its similarities to the show to the extent that it’s surely not long until the phrase 'well Nathan' becomes 'a thing'.

I myself was recently (unfairly of course) described as “another Nathan Barley ponce” pedalling “overcooked Brick Lane bean bag garbage” by the heart-warming cultural commentators who frequent the lower echelons of the Guardian’s comments section.

Amusing though it was to be likened to the visionary behind, this rush to immediately label anything that appears 'too east London' is telling of the changes that have happened in the area since the show.

The behavior lampooned in the Rise of the Idiots, the concept that opens episode one, is of course a caricature of what has now become very recognisable behaviour on the streets of Shoreditch. “They sculpt their hair to casual perfection,” intones Dan Ashcroft – the real hero of the show. "They babble into hand-held twit machines about that cool email of the woman being bombed by a wolf."

But what’s remarkable about the show is that it portrays what was essentially a pre-social media world. Twitter wasn’t even an idea until 2006 and Facebook was still a niche interest (especially in the UK) back in 2005. How much would Nathan have loved these platforms? And how did he cope without Google+?

Even more incredibly, this was the pre-YouTube era. In a curious coincidence, the video sharing network which would surely have been Nathan’s virtual home from home launched three days after the first screening of the show.

Viewed in this light, Nathan was a trailblazer in his use of technology. As another example, within the first five minutes of episode one he takes a selfie with Dan Ashcroft to be shared with his online fanbase.

Beyond this, Nathan serves as a reminder of how the media village in east London has evolved.

As the Guardian piece points out, even when the show first aired there was a sense that Nathan and his cronies had been around for a considerable time. However, if Nathan was already established then, he is now ubiquitous. The spread of Barleyism has been staggering to witness. And if the show was set around Shoreditch, its influence has perhaps been felt most strongly in and around Brick Lane.

Some things feel the same around these famous streets. Sandra Esquilant still mans the bar at the Golden Heart. Gilbert and George can still be seen pottering around Fournier Street at lunchtime. The curry houses on the less glamorous end of the street are still hanging on in fear of inevitable rent increases.

But times have changed. Brick Lane is now at times impassable thanks to the street art tour groups, the chuggers and the film crews. And of course the hipsters. Lunch is an odd time as hipster meets suit in the newfangled Spitalfields Market. And always there is the sense of the encroaching city – currently most threatening are proposed developments to Norton Folgate. Much of the life catalogued by Rachel Lichtenstein in her book On Brick Lane has vanished.

This is most definitely an area in flux. But this gives it its vibrancy.

For our part at DigitasLBi we occupy a Brick Lane building that was once a warehouse for the brewing giant Trumans. It was then home to an art supplies warehouse serving a vibrant artistic community. It then became the venue for Gunther von Hagen’s notorious plastination exhibition. It seems very apt that we now inhabit this building as a reflection of the shift in focus of the UK’s cultural and corporate life.

And of course we are not alone. The area is now home to any number of interesting ventures from small startups to well-established creative hubs. And while superficially it is possible to say that modern Shoreditch reeks of Nathan and his like, this masks a more serious intent. The area has of course played a key role in the UK’s digital revolution that has seen technology and digital business grow to make up 12.4 per cent of the UK’s GDP – the highest percentage in the G20. This is no laughing matter.

So where would Nathan be now? He would most likely to working for an agency like Perfect Curve alongside Siobhan Sharpe. And yes, he would probably be working in Brick Lane.


Stuart Aitken is lead content strategist at DigitasLBi. He tweets @stuart_aitken


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