Getting the low down on popular media
From 'Hollyoaks' to 'Heroes' to M&S advertising, pop culture in all its many guises is celebrated on the Lowculture website. Arwa Haider meets its founder, Paul Lang
Monday 03 December 2007
It seems fitting that Lowculture.co.uk, the cult website which has become required reading for those obsessed with television and pop culture, was conceived during an episode of the ill-fated soap Crossroads in January 2003.
"As I was watching Jane Asher, I thought, 'This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen, but I love it; there must be other people out there who feel the same'," explains Paul Lang, the site's founder. On the Lowculture message boards, which comprise 14 sections from across media, threads are as likely to debate reality series as the M&S advertising campaign (whose stars Lowculture has nicknamed "the M&S harpies") or the literature of Douglas Coupland.
What really sets Lowculture apart is the tone of its messageboards irreverently funny yet lucid, keenly responsive to details such as reality show voting patterns, besides sparking some imaginative asides. The latest of these is LOLyoaks, an appealingly bizarre tribute to Hollyoaks, based on the internet cult phenomenon of LOLcats; fusing stills from the Channel 4 series with absurd captions, they can also be accessed via www.lolyoaks.com.
"We have stayed quite niche," admits Lang. "Lowculture is not going to be to everybody's taste; although it's dealing with the really popular end of culture, like The X Factor, Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, it's doing it in a very offbeat way. And it's not about irony I wanted to celebrate these things for what they are.
"Some entertainment forums such as Digital Spy have gone quite mainstream; when that happens, it dilutes the site's message, because you have to screen out all this 'white noise' from people who should really be private-messaging. All our discussions are quite to the point. There is also a chatroom built into the forum, so visitors can continue dialogue while a programme's on air."
So who exactly is attracted to Lowculture? "It's quite a young bias; I'm 32 and I'm probably one of the oldest people contributing," says Lang. "Most are mid-teens and 20s, up to a few in their 40s. About two-thirds are male." There are currently 921 registered members (although visitors don't have to sign up to view discussions), ranging from media professionals and students to an ex-reality show contestant. Although numerous threads cover international programming (Lowculture was an early champion of sci-fi series Heroes, before its move to terrestrial), there is something resolutely British about this site, and it's not just the co.uk. "We do have readers from around the world, but perhaps it's pretty baffling for anyone outside the UK," agrees Lang. "Television tends to be more local; there's something joyful about the British shows you've watched forever. We'll also look for things that people might miss, and give them reasons why it'll be amazing."
Lowculture also has forums dedicated to print media (threads dissect the merits of publications including Heat, the Daily Mail and Paris Vogue), radio, books, comics and games. A collective passion for pop culture makes this website gel, but there's surely a danger that new visitors might be deterred by such a close-knit forum.
"Everyone who's a member feels quite proprietorial of it, which is a good and a bad thing," says Lang. "Members have this 'karma' points system, so if you like what another poster has written, you 'exalt' them; if not, you 'smite' them. It does mean that 'noisy' new members get a feel for the tone of the discussion, and either leave or choose to stick around.
"Lowculture is mainly recommended through word-of-mouth. I'm not sure how useful Google is in directing people to the site; every single day, we're linked to a search for 'Helen Worth topless' (based on the site's random text-only reference to a paparazzi shot of the Coronation Street actress)."
Lowculture's messageboard has logged 198,147 page impressions this November (including 33,718 first time visitors), with a monthly average of 212,924 in 2007. It has also experienced more prominent spikes related to Big Brother, notably its "Team Aisleyne" housemate campaign last year, which was widely lauded on other websites and reported by the BBC. Lang says: "When I started the site, I was working late shifts as a newspaper designer, and while I keep anything I'm working on quite separate [he is currently art director at the BBC magazine Doctor Who Adventures], that background has given me skills in putting the site together."
The site is strictly low maintenance; simply yet brightly constructed using a ProBoards forum provider and costing 9.99 a month to run, it features minimal advertising. "We could probably make some money out of it with a bit of effort," says Lang. There's one other person, Steve Perkins, who writes the daily updates. ("He works in the programme information section of the BBC, so he's on the ball with what's happening.")
What began as a "rough and ready blog" including on-location Eurovision reports, has taken on a sharper identity as Lang has responded to visitors's feedback. Initially, Lowculture shared with Popjustice, the celebrated site devised by music journalist Peter Robinson. Lang explains: "Everything that wasn't specifically pop music was posted on the Lowculture forum, but it outgrew that and so I fully incorporated messageboards into Lowculture.co.uk in 2004."
Hollyoaks is hot on Lowculture, inspiring a forum of 222 pages, featuring 5,540 posts ("70 per cent of that has been in the last six months"). The strap on the page reads: "What is this? Well, it's basically a load of people talking about Hollyoaks and stuff."
Other television programmes inspire harsher treatment, including a "Cancel EastEnders" thread, although Lang notes that: "Taking a show like EastEnders off the air is the opposite of what our website is about."
"I think the ultimate format would be a forum with commentary," he says. "There have been a few things we've gone over the top in supporting, which has given us a hardcore base. The way these things go, the minute the mainstream forgot Big Brother's Aisleyne, they forgot us as well. Our figures shoot up and settle back down again, but we're always higher than the year before."
Lang is aware that a website driven by the intense, fleeting passions of pop culture is likely to grow in fits and bursts. But he's also confident about its longevity. "I think there is infinite material for Lowculture," he says "There'll always be something on telly, won't there?"
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