How one social media post about a custard cream went viral - and changed my life

It all started with an Instagram post appearing to show that when an M&S biscuit from their “extremely chocolatey” range was dipped in a hot drink, the chocolate melted off to reveal a custard cream underneath

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The Independent Online

As of this week, to the general public, I’m known for one thing: a biscuit grievance. There are better things to be known for. And there are certainly worse. But more interesting than the actual content of the biscuit story, I think, is the story behind the story – the story of how a social media post intended to be seen by a few friends can quickly erupt into something much, much bigger.

It was while doing work experience at the South Wales Argus that I met and connected with a woman who now works as a journalist for the Metro. It was this woman who gave the biscuit story legs. I was just the face of it. 

Six days after I posted the biscuit picture to Instagram and Facebook – where, incidentally, it gathered only handful of “likes” and comments – this figure from the past contacted me, via Facebook. She’d seen the post and asked whether I’d mind if she used the picture for a story. I agreed. She then interviewed me on Facebook messenger, published the story, and the rest is soon-to-be-forgotten history.      

What I didn’t expect was for the story to spread so far, so quickly. The trouble was that I’d dramatised the answers I’d given my interviewer for comedic effect. I think that the spirit and tone of these responses was captured quite nicely in the original Metro post, with one person commenting that it resembled an article by spoof the news outlet the Daily Mash.

However, once the story started being republished by more and more media outlets, I quickly realised that, more often than not, I was being characterised not as the light-hearted trickster I’d sought to be, but as a petty, easily-offended consumer, who’d made it his mission to get justice for a perceived outrage.

I can see why. Such a character is intrinsically humorous. Much more humorous than a social media smart-aleck. And it was clear that this was the character the media wanted to portray. Of those organisations which did ask for a direct quote before publishing their version of the story – of which I’m glad to say the Independent was one – many opted to republish the original quotes I’d given to the Metro in a new context rather than the more recent and more underwhelming ones I’d given them directly.

The MailOnline even edited out a quote they originally published which read, “I thought that [the biscuit] was just about interesting enough to take a photo of and post to my Instagram feed which is quite sparsely populated and has very few followers”, with the more dramatic: “‘I was on my own when it happened. I did tell people later but they didn’t really think it was that interesting – I was surprised at that to be honest.”

Now I’m not claiming to be a victim. After all, this was just a silly biscuit story. And I did say all of those things (even if it is surreal to see the contents of a Facebook messenger conversation being quoted by a fair number of national media outlets).

But what I will say is that I believe I have now had an insider’s view of how, in the black and white world of social media and 24/7 news, where all participating media distributors are constantly on the lookout for the next trending story, there is little room for nuance, and often emotions are portrayed only as extremes.

For me, luckily, no real damage has been done – thankfully Peter Marshall is a common enough name that no biscuit-related posts are displayed when used as a Google search term, and reading some of the nastier the comments from “trolls” went down well at the pub.

However, when it comes to some of the more serious trending stories, especially those which have the potential to cause a greater level of human damage and distress, I’ll certainly be browsing Twitter with a more sceptical eye in future.