Great Scott! How to hoax the planet (by accident)

Great Scott! How to hoax the planet (by accident)

Back to the Future (1985)
Dir: robert zemeckis | Cast: Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Michael J. Fox | Writers: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Dir: robert zemeckis | Cast: Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Michael J. Fox, Thomas F. Wilson | Writers: Bob Gale (characters), Bob Gale (screenplay), Bob Gale (story), Robert Zemeckis (characters), Robert Zemeckis (story)

Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Dir: robert zemeckis | Cast: Christopher Lloyd, mary steenburgen, Michael J. Fox, Thomas F. Wilson | Writers: Bob Gale (characters), Bob Gale (screenplay), Bob Gale (story), Robert Zemeckis (characters), Robert Zemeckis (story)

Next year marks 10 years since Back To The Future was re-released. Which means almost 10 years have passed since Future Publishing’s popular entertainment magazine Total Film hoaxed the planet. We didn’t know yet about fake news or how quickly it can spread. To be fair, it was an accident. And it was my fault.

What the hell is Future Day?

Let’s start by confirming, for the record, it’s definitely not 5 July 2010. Future Day is the day that Marty McFly appears in the future to save his family in Back To The Future Part 2. It is actually 21 October 2015. And that is when Universal decided to do a 30 year anniversary re-release of the film in cinemas.

So why am I thinking about this now? A pal of mine recently referred to the Future Day hoax as my claim to fame. It’s been nine years and I am now a very serious, responsible and successful product manager but apparently my sole claim to fame is that I am still *that* person. So - 10 years on nearly - here is my side of the events.

How it came about

The Total Film twitter account was - back in 2010 - the sole territory of a probably the world’s greatest social media manager until WeRateDogs VS Brent happened in 2018, a guy called Dan Dalton. When he left Future Publishing, he went on to be a journalist for Buzzfeed where he wrote a confessional about the fiasco to celebrate the real Future Day. 

In both this article and a few others (about a million others) including this from The Washington Post, I am obliquely referred to as some person who had just watched the film. 

I am a geek - there are no two ways about it - and my job at the time was a sort of junior product manager responsible for a few digital brands at the once mighty Future Publishing. I usually worked with tech journos but for a year or so I hobnobbed with the mix of ultra cool and mega-nerd people that ran Total Film, once one of the top two most popular film mags in the UK. I launched a digital rebrand and tried to sort out the hell hole of their content management system, stuff like that. The team was made up of utterly terrifying, brilliant people - gonzo journos, about to be published authors and people who - unlike me - could film nerd it as an Olympic sport. I wanted to be in with them.

On 4 July 2010 I’d been out for most of the day with some friends and fell asleep in front of BTTF Part 1 which was on the telly that evening (probably thanks to one of the many ITV channels). Doc Brown types three dates into the time circuits (birth of Christ, signing of the declaration of independence and the day he invented time travel: 5 Nov 1955).

Waking with a hangover, I cycled into work in Marylebone and did not feel any the better for it. I stumbled to my desk and spotted an opportunity to contribute something to the fog of social media glory that Dan quietly churned out daily. I burbled some words to him about the dates typed into the time circuits and yesterday being one of them. Or so I intended.

I wish Wish WISH I could remember what I said in detail. I couldn’t a few minutes later and I definitely can’t now but that was it. A poorly stated fact, mumbled to Dan across the desks followed by an inaccurate Tweet and the Future Day hoax erupted.

And it went on for all of that day, the week and - looking back - the next five years until the actual Future Day in 2015.

Repercussions

And what happened to us? Well, I wanted to die for most of the day because of the hangover but also because no matter what Dan did the legacy of that tweet ran off in so many directions. As Dan says:

‘In the hours that followed, Joe Jonas, Ivanka Trump, and Elizabeth Banks, each with over a million followers, wished their fans a happy Future Day. Even Dougie Poynter, bassist of the band McFly (named for BTTF's Marty) tweeted about it.’

Some were retweeting and celebrating Future Day, some people were angry with us for making a mistake and then the accusations of a hoax began and it just ramped up and up and up. Dan was like a firefighter trying to quash it all with a super-fast photoshop of the time circuits which just fanned the flames further.

The editor of Total Film online was off that day. My boss at the time was the last person anyone would go to in a crisis, so I just styled it out and waited while the world went nuts around me. As was the way at Future at the time, no one above a purely functional level seemed to notice anything was happening. I don’t know if Dan ever got in trouble but I remember at some point someone - probably our audience development guy - pointed out we should post an article about the whole thing to try and get some value from the whole furore so Dan posted something to point all the search engine magic at. Looking back at the keyword volumes this probably did wonders for our display ad inventory.

You can see the spike in keyword searches clearly here. The hoax caused a spike only slightly smaller in the UK that what I suspect was the spike around the BTTF Secret Cinema event marketing two years later.

The next day I hoped it would be over but no. On the tube on the way to work I picked up The Metro and - horrors - on page three was their coverage of the fiasco. The social media manager for Number 10, a friend of a friend, asked to come and meet Dan. Read Dan’s article, he describes how it went.

Was it awful? No, not really. It was kind of fun to have made a ruckus but I definitely felt concern for our jobs that week, especially had Universal kicked off about it. They didn’t and our jobs remained intact.

So why do I still care?

Why have I bothered to take two hours out of a busy day to write this? Because the internet never forgets and I still stumble across oblique references to myself like in the Post article. But I am the BTTF fan. I’m not just ‘a co-worker who said she’d just seen the film’. My childhood bedroom was adorned with pictures of Marty McFly, I sometimes sleep in a BTTF-themed t-shirt, there is a Welcome to Hill Valley print in my hallway that I got at the BTTF Secret Cinema. Dan is too cool for that shit. I inadvertently caused a hoax about my all-time favourite film, not some other zeitgeisty, cool-person film but Back to the Future.

And as a result of hearing about it incessantly for about for days on end back then, I got sick of it. I still am. I saw it a while back at an open-air cinema. People were laughing along to the comedy and I realised I was not.

I have decided not to watch my favourite film for 10 years so I can forget it, watch it afresh and love it again. My own personal Future Day will be some time in August 2027. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: I don’t know Dan anymore but I occasionally see stuff by him here and there, including a book he wrote. I haven’t read it yet but he is a smart, dark and peculiar person so it is probably great. Read it. 


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