First, they ditched the music. Now, the Wetherspoon pub chain has decided to leave the world of social media, closing its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts in a move that has – of course – gone viral online.
The firm’s boss, Tim Martin, says the decision was made in response to reports about the use of social media to troll MPs and others. He also suggests that closing the accounts will not affect his business “whatsoever” – although one wonders how the decision will change the business for those staff who are presumably employed to run them.
There is an obvious irony in Martin worrying about people haranguing public figures when he himself takes every opportunity to have a pop at anyone who opposes Brexit. Martin, one of the few high-profile business figures to back Britain’s EU withdrawal, even used a Wetherspoon trading update to accuse other business leaders and the media of spreading “misinformation” about the effects of Brexit on the economy.
However, putting aside the question of Brexit – and passing by the fact that Martin bears an uncanny resemblance to CBeebies’ favourite Mr Tumble – is this move really so surprising?
As my colleague James Moore has already written, a lot of the feedback companies get via social media is negative. Why invite it if you don’t have to?
Even beyond the business considerations, Martin’s apparent angst with the amount of time people spend on Twitter et al hardly seems unreasonable. There are few things more annoying than going to a pub and watching everyone around you compulsively checking their phones for the latest social media buzz.
Indeed, arguably Martin hasn’t gone far enough. What he should be doing is not only closing the Wetherspoon accounts but making it a new rule in his pubs that customers aren’t allowed to post to social media for the duration of their drinking session. When you’re coughing up less than three quid for a pint, not tweeting inanities for a couple of hours is surely a small price to pay.
Remarkably, there are now almost 1,000 branches of the Wetherspoon chain around Britain, if you include its Lloyds No 1 bars and hotels (Mags Thomson from Livingston, who should get out less, made it her mission to visit the lot). Just think how many subsequently regretted tweets and Facebook posts wouldn’t exist if frequenters of those outlets had to put away their mobiles.
Still, when it comes to getting in a tiz about Wetherspoon, its social media policy and the boss’s views on Brexit are relatively small beer.
In the period since Tim Martin founded JD Wetherspoon, Britain has lost more than 20,000 pubs if you look at net closures. It is true to say here are myriad reasons for the decline – and some might even say that fewer pubs selling people less booze is a cause for celebration.
There are also, if you’re going to get into it, bigger beasts tham Wetherspoon in the pub trade causing arguably bigger problems.
“Pubcos” have become notorious for making it nigh on impossible for pub landlords to turn a decent profit; and for selling pubs to residential developers when they supposedly become unsustainable. And the big breweries are regularly accused of being unimaginative in the way they operate their pubs.
Nevertheless, Wetherspoon has gained for itself a special place in the heart of critics who despair at the long, sad waning of the great British pub.
Yes, the chain promotes real ale made by independent brewers and, yes, it has revitalised some remarkable buildings around the UK, notably theatres and cinemas.
And yet, and yet. Aggressive pricing and forceful marketing have made life difficult for competitors, especially independents. And while the company says it tends not to open branches in the kind of (largely rural) places where other pubs are closing, that is overly simplistic as a defence.
What’s more, despite attempts to make their outlets unique, what Wetherspoons has achieved is a kind ubiquitous soullessness that, far from appealing to any sense of community, actually creates the kind of “citizen of nowhere” that Theresa May once contended was a product of globalisation.
Tim Martin established his chain in the hope of recreating the idealised vision of a pub described by George Orwell in The Moon Under the Water. It is a vision which, in Martin’s hands, has proved highly profitable yet fundamentally alien to romantic notions of what a “local” ought to be.
Ditching social media feels like yet another attempt to appeal to nostalgia that will, as Martin says, make little difference to the business – which is all profit and no soul.