Ten Years Ago, Ed Balls Tweeted ‘Ed Balls.’ How Is It Still Funny?
LONDON — Ten years ago on Wednesday, a politician who was a significant figure in British politics but hardly an international star followed an aide’s suggestion: He loaded the Twitter app on his BlackBerry and searched for his own name to see what people were saying about him.
Except he didn’t search for his name. He accidentally tweeted it instead.
What might have been a routine, deeply forgettable gaffe instead became an annual event of remembrance, still being celebrated a decade later in an ocean-spanning meme nearly unrivaled in its longevity, because that politician’s name happened to appeal to the most childish of impulses.
“I didn’t really particularly clock it as a big deal at the time,” Ed Balls, then a member of Parliament and among the top leaders of the opposition Labour Party, said in a recent interview.
But Twitter erupted, and then erupted again on the first anniversary. Then again on the second anniversary, and third, and so on until today, a full decade later.
Each year, on “Ed Balls Day,” Twitter users — mostly in Britain, but some worldwide — pay tribute anew to the tweet’s unintentional comic genius, an eight-character masterpiece seen by many to encapsulate the best of the site’s humor. Brevity is the soul of wit. It allowed people to laugh at someone else’s mild misfortune. It juxtaposed a quite serious politician with a relatable clunker. And, while wholesome at its core, it had a pure schoolyard appeal.
“When I was 12, I might have been appalled for my name to be part of a joke, but by the time I was 45 I was well beyond that,” Mr. Balls said. “If my name was Ed Smith it wouldn’t have been the same amusement in there.”
The former politician, who lost his seat in 2015, said he never found the meme to be meanspirited. On the first anniversary in 2012, aware that many Twitter users were resurfacing his tweet, he retweeted himself while in the stands at an Arsenal soccer match.
Each year after that he has played along, including posting a photo of a cake decorated as his tweet on the fifth anniversary.
But he said it was important to not engage too much with the meme — it’s not his to control.
“If I were to be offended or to be proud, that would ruin the joke, wouldn’t it?” he said. “There’s nothing I can do but smile to myself and think it’s a funny old world.”
As memes go, it has had a remarkable life span. Other top memes from 2011 included jokes and fads that didn’t last nearly as long: Nyan Cat, planking, Hipster Ariel and Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Anyone would be forgiven if they hadn’t thought about them in years, if they were known at all.
And yet, Ed Balls, the meme, survived. It’s resurrected every time someone makes a similar mistake, which happens often.
“It’s still going,” said Phoenix Andrews, a writer in London who is writing a book about politics fandom. “People still retweet it outside of Ed Balls Day. I keep an eye on it. It happens all the time.”
Unlike some other memes, it doesn’t require deep internet fluency or awareness of cultural references to understand. Mr. Balls came off as “like everyone’s embarrassing dad, and that’s fine,” Mx. Andrews said.
Still. Ten years?
In internet years, that’s an eternity. To some, the joke is now a retro-joke, with part of its appeal resting in its oldness, like a vintage T-shirt. But to others, it’s just as fresh as the day it emerged from Mr. Balls’s BlackBerry.
Marie Le Conte, a journalist in London, was originally on board. The first anniversary was even funnier than the day of the original tweet, as it became clear it would have staying power and continue to be noted each year, she said.
At the time, Mr. Balls was seen as a political heavyweight bruiser, and the tweet did not square with his public image. People always love when a politician makes a technological mistake. “Also, to be blunt, his name is Balls,” she said.
But in her view, the joke lost steam after a few years, and she years ago muted the #EdBallsDay hashtag. (It never helps when brands get involved.)
“There was a big split between people that said: ‘OK, we’ve done that, it was quite funny, I mean, two or three anniversaries, whatever, we can move on now,’” Ms. Le Conte said. “And the people who are like: ‘No, we will never move on, for as long as we live we will celebrate Ed Balls Day.’”
Perhaps the closest analog in American politics was covfefe, an apparent typo tweeted mysteriously by President Donald Trump in 2017. It remains an occasional joke of the online left, but there’s no Covfefe Day.
Mr. Balls, who was the shadow chancellor of the Exchequer from 2011 to 2015, said he didn’t believe the tweet changed the trajectory of his career, but he has enjoyed a lighter public image since being voted out in 2015. He has been a contestant on the BBC shows “Strictly Come Dancing” and “Celebrity Best Home Cook,” winning the latter.
Playfully noting that he is right up there with Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and St. George in having days named after him — “to be fair, they made rather more substantive contributions” — he said he would be fine if this were the last year his day were celebrated. But if people continue to enjoy it, they can have at it, he said.
“Whichever country in the world you come from, whether you’re Labour or Conservative in Britain, whether you’re young or old, you can smile at it and laugh at my name,” Mr. Balls said.
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