It all started on Instagram, as most things do these days.
I must have done something wrong. Liked a horrifying soccer mom recipe or a clip of Fred Again playing in a hot air balloon over Dubrovnik. It must have been my fault.
The algorithms flagged me as someone who wants to do crazy things and eat massive sandwiches; hammering me with suggested posts for a culture I had only ever seen from a distance. I was invited into a world of strange new habits and fad foods: a review of a “supreme wheel croissant” in Camden, flyers for eye-wateringly expensive club nights with 10 different ticket releases, footage of Shoreditch gaming bars and short guides to “sober curious fun” in Bristol. Fly-by-night pleasure for hybrid workers and city-breakers alike.
There was something alluring in it all. For a few years, I’d been plugged out of the shared experience matrix, sequestered in quasi-rural Middle England, where people know what they like and like what they know. But now I was back in the city, and the city was presenting something quite novel: a kind of collective adventure, hard-sold to me by shrieking street-food bloggers, activewear influencers and urban lifestyle platforms.
These accounts soon had me by the throat, regardless of whether I bought into it or not. This was my orbit now. In the fallow days between Christmas and New Year, I was presented with a “things to do in Manchester on NYE” post. I don’t live in Manchester and haven’t been in some time, but that didn’t matter to the algorithms, who clearly saw me as distant prey. I was grimly seduced by the offerings: a “Peaky Blinders/Gatsby-style party” with dancers and a five-course meal, a “bottomless board game brunch”, something called “Escape to Freight Island”. I tried to assemble an expedition team, but couldn’t find any takers.
Roaming around my old London haunts, I started to notice new venues had popped up, all revealing mysterious new codes and crazes. One night in the streets around Waterloo station I saw a long, snaking queue, the kind you expect to lead to something special (or at the very least, cheap). In some Pied Piper trance, I followed it to its final destination, which turned out to be little more than a cocktail bar called Tonight Josephine. I was missing something here. This wasn’t the only drinking hole in the area. Google told me it wasn’t even the only Tonight Josephine, its Clapham outpost only a 15-minute drive away. Yet, something about the place had generated a throng of people that appeared like a late-Soviet bread queue.
Scrolling through Resident Advisor I found – to some joy – that nightlife was in better health than I remembered. The club scene (in London, at least) seems to have turned a corner from the dark days of mass closures, with more and more venues appearing on the edgelands of town. The old abattoirs and workhouses between Hackney Wick and Canning Town have become London’s annexed, unofficial party district. But alongside all the hyperpop shows and Hospital Records D&B nights, something more depressing has emerged: a glut of heavily-managed, themed events, precision-packaged with group tickets and bonus experiences. Think “Rihanna vs Beyoncé in a glorified pub function room” and the omnipresent “Soul-Funk-Disco-Garage brunch” events.
I also noticed that Cambridge Heath’s Metropolis, ostensibly a “gentleman’s club” that occasionally hosted good music – a slice of London deep lore if there ever was one – was now being explicitly marketed as a “disco in a strip club”. Down the road, the techno-friendly big room club Oval Space had become Oval Studios, a space for weddings, “brand activations” and “immersive experiences”. It all begged the question: why so serious?
It was a shift I found reflected in the dating apps I’d been reduced to. I signed up dreading the hyper-politicised hookup culture I’d read about in so many thinkpieces, but instead found a discourse that seemed much closer to LinkedIn or Zoom meeting “energisers”. The omnipresent “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” prompt on Hinge was usually followed by a line like, “I started a whole new career in the middle of a global pandemic”, while the “special skill” was unlikely to be “opening champagne bottles with my teeth”, rather “I am proficient in three languages – guess which!” In one North London pizza pub, I found myself surrounded by first and second app dates, all of which seemed to be conducted with the openness and honesty of a parole hearing. I listened to one guy lie through his teeth about how he actually quite enjoyed the writing in Sex and the City and, outside, witnessed an end-of-night ear kiss that would have even the greatest of romantics signing up for a seminary.
Seeking counsel, a friend told me this is how it is now, and that really it could be a lot worse. He told me he knew someone who had recently gone on a date before work – at 8.30am in a City coffee shop. I could only gauge that the casual, spontaneous opportunities that urban life is supposed to offer were in short supply. Instead, something more intentional, competitive and strangely occupational had risen in their place. The stench of “networking” hung heavy in the air. This was after-work nightlife, before-work dating, work-based social life. Endless work.
It was almost as if there was an entire other city out there. One which I had previously managed to avoid, yet seemed to be edging closer to every day: a boring blob on the horizon. While most people I knew seemed to live out their days holed up, Assault on Precinct 13-style, in 200-year-old piss dens, there was this second planet we were all meant to be joining, one that people were rushing towards with pure survival instinct. This was an attention-deficit kingdom of perpetual experience and consumption. A place with no locals, no constants and little community to fall back on. Here, everything was up for grabs. Just book it, smash it, rubber-stamp it and share with everyone back home.
All the bread and circus of our cities had been marketed and monetised to within an inch of their life. Eating out had become a box-ticking exercise of mass-validated establishments and micro-trends, while going out had become expensive, orderly and usually involved a killer Uber journey. Every major exhibition, every primetime cinema showing, seemed to be selling out in advance. Meeting romantic partners had started to seem like a corporate headhunting exercise. We were witnessing the true dawn of organised fun.
Of course, this is nothing new exactly. Escape Rooms, Tough Mudder, Secret Cinema, Bongo’s Bingo, burger queues and the infamous “adult ball pond” Ballie Ballerson are already well-established tropes, a millennial addendum to tired old jokes about “Janet from accounts”. But much like how the Swinging Sixties didn’t actually start until 1968, it feels as if only now are we seeing the fruits of this harvest.
Right now, things appear to be heading towards an incredible overdrive. On the unseasonal date of Saturday 14th January 2023, a cursory listings search found more than 25 separate “bottomless” and themed “brunch” events in my London vicinity, among them an “R&B Brunch” (tickets from £18), “Bougie Drag Bottomless Brunch” (£15 – 44.95), “Beyonce Drag Bottomless Brunch” (where tickets began at a staggering £89) and “Bottomless Karaoke Brunch Islington”, where for £45 (minimum four people per booking) you can enjoy the privilege of hearing strangers belt out Walking in Memphis as you eat unspecified breakfast items. At full capacity, the markups are nothing short of astonishing. Eggs, bubbles and a PA system, often for the price of a Premier League football match or major pop concert.
In an industry as beleaguered as hospitality, the profit potential here is hard to begrudge. Business rates, worker shortages, skyrocketing energy bills and every other Covid-knock-on-effect you can name continue to hit the industry hard. So, naturally, new ways of using space, of pulling the punters away from the sofa, will arise. Unfortunately, many of them fall headfirst towards the lowest common denominator.
There is no exact way of grouping these happenings together. Marketing and events types will likely term them as “experiential”, “immersive” and so on. And in some ways, the street food element is an entirely different thing – yet it all seems to fall under a coherent “vibe”. Essentially, what they are is heavily-marketed, massively-profitable activities with a novelty hook. They’re perfect for monetising a quiet Sunday morning in a city centre pub, a small kiosk in a market, a dilapidated brewery or an empty shopping centre unit. Together, they create a version of city living that resembles a children’s i‑Spy book, a prescribed list of sights to rattle off, like pylons on a motorway. Deliverable leisure, weekend deep work.
In the interests of research, I bought tickets for what seemed like a perfect distillation of it all: an “Abba vs Fleetwood Mac Disco Party” at Brixton Jamm. The part that really sold it to me was – in a piece of small print that must be ranked alongside the classic “Superman cape does not enable wearer to fly” – the disclaimer on the receipt: “This is a tribute event. Abba and Fleetwood Mac themselves will not be performing.” Alas, I turned up without the necessary ID and had to look on from a distance as the strains of Go Your Own Way drifted into the cold South London night. A predicament I had mixed feelings about.
But in Camden Market, I found the real frontline. In recent years, Camden has reinvented itself, from the place subcultures go to die to a kind of Gen Z Disneyland. Alongside the dank metal T‑shirt stalls of old and the newly-arrived “Peaky Blinders immersive experience” lie some of the city’s most viral foodstuffs. All the big boys are here. The aforementioned supreme croissant wheel (a spindle of hard-looking pastry), the “world-famous cheese wheel pasta”, the “Hot Cheetos K‑Dog”. It was the latter that had generated the biggest queue on the day I turned up, but I had come in search of something else – the Turin Shroud of fad foods – the Yorkshire pudding burrito.
The Yorkshire Pudding Burrito is a dish with a serious online footprint, an object of amateur food critics everywhere, with more tagged posts than the Taj Mahal. I had heard tales of hour-long queues, but in the end I was pleasantly relieved to find one in my hand within 10 minutes. Maybe it was the time of year. How did it taste? Exactly as you’d imagine a Sunday roast wrapped in a giant Yorkshire pudding to taste, but also probably not as bad as that. Walking and eating, I perused the remains of Stables Market and watched the daytrippers queue in the biting wind, their fingers slowly numbing as they made their way through turkey mozzarella K‑Dogs with extra ranch sauce.
It all seemed a far cry from the Camden I grew up with, the one where some friends and I once chipped in to buy a pair of steel nunchucks from under the counter of a kung fu video store run by Rastafarians. I left the queuers to it, all the while trying to avoid being asked if I’m a bowcat by a team of roving teenage vox-poppers.
The reels kept following me; an “adults only funfair” in Canary Wharf, a sex-themed restaurant in Soho, a forensic investigation of “Fat Hippo’s famous Honey Monsta burger”. The whole thing left me torn between sympathy and bitter cynicism. It was hard to blame the punters exactly, but easy to believe that their hapless, uncritical demand was keeping up the supply.
It all felt as if there was something bigger at play here. Organised fun hasn’t appeared overnight, as the result of some mass collapse in public taste. It’s an industry that builds on the pathology and paranoias of our time, one that is encouraged by desperate local authorities that have seen funding slashed to the bone and greedy landlords alike. From what I saw of the highly-functioning adults who had paid and congregated in the back end of Brixton to scream Chiquitita at each other, I found not lunacy, but complacency, with a base note of melancholy. In the queue for the Camden Market stalls, you could feel the listlessness, the disappointment and an overwhelming feeling that someone else was telling you to do this. Just as Coca-Cola once built their brand on aspiration, a slew of buck-hungry entrepreneurs were capitalising on the malaise of modern urban life, one pop-up at a time.
All this could be seen as an acceleration of what’s known as the “experience economy”. The term, coined by the Harvard Business Review in 1998, suggests that, at some point, people stopped buying products purely for their quality or adjacent status and started spending money on the surrounding experience.
At first, the idea was that experience was a conduit to buying products – the “Abercrombie ambience”, that certain je ne sais quoi of a Saab dealership. But now, experience itself is the product. Many marketers believe that we’re more inclined to spend our money “doing stuff” rather than “buying stuff” – especially if you can show off about it. As trend forecaster James Wallman told the Guardian in 2017: “If you think about the 20th century, the big dominant value system was materialism, the belief that if we had more stuff we’d be happier… the big change to what I call ‘experientialism’ is more about finding happiness and status in experiences instead.”
Here, organised fun takes the reigns, presenting infinite variations of experience-based status displays. Whereas once upon a time you may have shown off a Bang & Olufsen stereo or a ride-on lawnmower to your friends, such things have become redundant and/or impossible in contemporary city life. They’re too big, too expensive, too suburban. Yet status is an evergreen human instinct, so what do you do? Well, for a start you can show off your day at Winter Wonderland, or how you braved the queue at Padella and wolfed down a delicious cacio e pepe while everyone else was eating microwave cannelloni. Experience is now the dominant commodity in urban culture, and the organised fun industry weaponises it to a tee.
There has also been a shift in how we spend our time. In 1950s America (and the UK to an extent), there was a genuine fear that people simply wouldn’t know what to do with their leisure time in a post-industrial, rapidly suburbanising society. Academics, economists and proto-behaviourists were concerned that society would collapse as we fell under the spell of television and rollerskating. That too much fun would lead to delinquency and depression. Whether it did or not is up for debate, but what’s certain is that 70 years later the leisure/work/life balance is much harder to understand.
What nobody seemed to have predicted back then was that business and pleasure would become increasingly intertwined, and while overtime would increase and disposable income would decline, the thirst to fill our spare hours appears greater than ever. With endemic rental culture, adult flat-sharing and people having children later and later, there’s a huge 30-something entertainment market to capitalise on. Here again, the organised fun industry steps in, giving us endless, wholesome, shareable activities that are unlikely to decimate our Monday morning Teams calls.
In many of the organised fun opportunities in our cities, you can feel the hands of top brass – quietly smiling in the knowledge that you’re adhering to low-impact, Design My Night-approved activities – as opposed to spending 12 hours at Fabric or filling your mind with subversive world cinema. Hell, they might even get one of those street food vans for the summer BBQ.
Your workplace may also dictate your social life more directly. In recent years, companies have started to lay more of a claim on their employees’ time off by creating calendars of mixers and socials, ordering Yard Sale Pizza to the office and putting paltry tabs behind a nearby bar. Usually this comes under the guise as a thanks for all the hard work, but it’s also an effort to capitalise on what productivity analysts call “unplanned interactions”. This is something venues like Tonight Josephine cater to perfectly with their office-friendly booking systems – and it all leads to a conclusion that work is inescapable.
And if, like many people who live and work in our cities, you’ve been thrust there after university, with little chance to make friends beyond the people who sit opposite you in daytime hours, and you’re confused and intimidated by this strange corner of a planet that costs you £1,400pcm to live alone, why not put your trust in your employers, the algorithms, the vloggers?
Organised fun is a route into feeling part of something, to becoming one of those crazy people in this crazy place. It helps justify all the alienation and expense, because only here, in the city, do these things happen. It keeps our minds off things, for now. As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote a lot on leisure time, said: “What we lack is not so much leisure to do, as time to reflect and time to feel. What we seldom take is time to experience the things that have happened, the things that are happening, the things that are still ahead of us.”
That life you wanted to have? It’s coming, one day. But for now, try and enjoy the axe-throwing.
Of course, the same could be levelled at all hobbies and social activities, from Airfix models to football violence. But what worries me about organised fun is the sheer tepidness of it, the way in which it’s sold, and how nobody seems to be truly enjoying themselves. How it throws up endless variations of “things to do in the city”, then drops them as soon as people begin to tire. Here, these entrepreneurs start to resemble three-cup con artists, offering up different versions of the same trick to a voracious public.
You can also pick up on a fairly cynical monetisation of people’s emotions here, the yearning for home that lives within so many city-dwellers. It’s that desperate desire to hear the songs you remember from school discos, to fumble in ball ponds, to taste a Sunday roast like your nan’s and look at something big and colourful. For years, £20 Sunday pub roasts have existed as a kind of sensual, nostalgic tonic for people who’ve been transplanted into cities. You could probably view the Yorkshire pudding burrito as the endgame of this, a battered Proustian comfort blanket, run with the lowest overheads possible, sold via some nightmarish TikTok filter.
Organised fun is a phenomenon that is going nowhere. It’s too easy, too profitable and the bar is too low to give up on it. It’s a safe, smooth way of making money from a kind of intangible feeling in society – the cornerstone of a lot of great products. It’s the perfect use of urban dead space, the antidote to, and the accelerator of, alienation.
But I’d also be willing to concede that, maybe, some people just enjoy these things.