Social history. Kind of.

The London Olympics are not just a sporting event, or sporting event plus cultural event. They are a moment of great symbolism, a huge investment, in money, taxpayer money at that, and in symbolism. They are a symbol of the UK’s ability to stage such an event, affording the necessary developments in stadia and facilities, infrastructure, organisation. It is a once in a lifetime moment, a moment of political and social historical significance.

So then the identity of the 2012 Olympics was a work of significance, beyond the scope of almost any other project, to appeal to everyone, everywhere. It was never going to succeed.

It was somewhat unfortunate that having won the race to stage the Games the banking system collapsed, with its repercussions still painfully felt. An event that takes such an investment was always going to have to fight a battle of ideology with other worthy recipients of public finances. In a time of austerity the idea (not necessarily true) that money directed to the Olympics was coming from welfare payments, hospitals or street lights being on all night was doubly problematic.

The cost of the Olympics and its value to those not living in London, or not able to get tickets (most of those in London) also made the Olympics unpopular, or people disinterested. Since then a series of PR gaffs, notably stories of its effect on traffic in London and of the draconian rules on branding have not helped promote its cause. Maybe recent coverage of the journey of the Olympic torch around the country is engaging people and generating genuine excitement.

The Identity had a huge reaction. The media were outraged by the alleged cost and design of the logo. Designers discussed it at length in magazines, on blogs and message boards. Non-designers were aghast, and sent their ‘done in ten minutes but better than the official one’ logos to newspapers and the BBC, which amassed eighty four designs.

Versions of the logo deconstructed and rearranged started appearing. Its numbers kind of looked like letters, and ludicrous conspiracies alleging it to be a swastika or spelling ZION viralled the internet, the Iranian government arguing it ‘represents a veiled pro-Israeli conspiracy’. It was redrawn and amended to spell NAZI, CRAP or SHIT, with the 0 swapping handily between the letters H, O, R and A. Further redrawn it spelt RIP-OFF, PARODY, and in another reference to the Zionist conspiracy theories, JEWS.

The widely disseminated view that the logo – as a single object, alone – incurred a fee of £400,000 led to much (jealous, I suspect) opprobrium towards design agency Wolff Olins, causing logo versions as a torn up invoice or in a trash can or toilet. Others lampooned its referencing of youth street-style graphics, even though this emphasis on youth supported the London Organising Committee’s presentation to the IOC. You may not like it, but WO were on-brief.

Someone thought it could be repositioned to look like a map of the British Isles. It was rearranged or added to as people defecating, running, and, inevitably, having sex. The most popular of these was Lisa and Bart Simpson engaged in – to use my favourite media euphemism – a ‘sex act’. This had myriad versions, some appropriately animated, some with helpful colour coding or additions to make its point.

These viral anti-logos were for a while a phenomenon, they defined their moment. They made their point in the same way as the political or protest banners, t-shirts, badges etc you might see at marches or picket lines. They were crude, rude, funny, weird. They express valid and un-valid opinion, often accompanied by hyperbolic language, “appalled”, “outraged” etc. The expression of opinion anonymously, remotely, allowing a use of language far beyond that which would be acceptable in everyday face-to-face behaviour.

The professional news media of course took the public mood to its extremes and posted paparazzi at the offices and homes of Wolff Olins employees, pointlessly published their salaries, distressing their families.

The use of digital media to affect social and political change for good has been seen in the Arab Spring of the past couple of years. The immediacy of dissemination through social media, YouTube etc is such that it is a huge force in directing public opinion. Conventional media channels and outlets have no choice but to support this opinion, unchallenged. Their agenda is solely and without soul to direct users to advertisers through their web pages, TV channels and newspapers.

Freedom of expression, its speed, and the ability of expression through image and design in this way is still a relatively new phenomenon. There is a lack of control and an anonymity, as well as a lack of policing, that allows this freedom to be absolute. This can be good and bad. Whether abuse on comments-enabled websites, the unpleasant underworld of anonymous online abuse called trolling, and elsewhere, this freedom is abused. The need to have the responsibilities or the codes of behaviour used elsewhere in life is seemingly not understood. We rail against the lack of restraint of bankers, fat cats or MPs, but can we restrain ourselves?