The web: Feel free to be a jerk

2011-06-22 00:00

SO the Mail and Guardian recently suspended a journalist intern for an anti-Semitic comment on Facebook that amounted to hate speech and was therefore in conflict with the South African Constitution. Without a warning, the kid’s career was ruined because of a social networking site where groups like “My name is Khan” (a group that disrespects Hinduism) and “F*** Islam” exist with thousands of followers who spread the hatred.

I’m not justifying what Ngoako Matsha said, nor am I implying that M&G was wrong in suspending him, but consider the medium in which he said it — cyberspace.

In cyberspace, every person should be seen as a figment of their own imagination­. Nothing is real. Nothing we say is a true reflection of who we are. On the Internet, we are all Tyler Durdens. There are no boundaries, no policies and rules to keep us neatly between the lines, no reputations to uphold or cultural conventions to keep us in place.

The Internet is like a global Fight Club. It’s where we can guiltlessly des­troy something beautiful and return to our lives feeling better about ourselves. It’s cathartic and, since we all can’t be Jackson Pollocks, it may sometimes be our only outlet.

I constantly hear people complaining about how perfect their Facebook friends’ lives are or what interesting lives other people on Twitter have. It’s not true. It’s just what people choose to show you on the website that makes it all seem perfect.

Social networking sites house a giant­ community of people all suffering from small-penis syndrome. There is a constant war to keep up with the cyber Joneses. Saying that people exaggerate on the Internet about their lives, their feelings, their opinions and how great their lovers are is an understatement. If peer pressure in real life can drive one to do things one normally wouldn’t do, the pressure to be infamous on the Inter­net can land one in a mental institution. Gosh knows what Anthony Weiner was thinking when he tweeted a photo of his, um ... weiner­.

While it is never easy to work out the true nature of a person in real life, it is 1 000 times harder in cyberspace. On the Net, you can be anything and anyone you want to be.

Those who aren’t that popular or who lack friends may upload albums of them being cool with photos of them sloshed with their heads in a toilet just to show that they can party with the best of them. People who are going through tough times may exaggerate all the positive things in their lives and leave out the hardships. And people who are quite restricted or oppressed in their real lives, may go cyber crazy, voicing outrageous opinions and desires on the Net — probably under a pseudonym. It’s a safe outlet that we believe has no consequences — until we lose our jobs for letting loose.

The problem is that there is no line that determines how far is too far until we cross it. We constantly push the boundaries of what is right and wrong just to see how far we can go, whether it’s driving at 129 km/h in a 120 km/h zone or voicing mad love for Adolf Hitler and his beliefs.

Contemporary society has become mostly unaffected by things that are shocking or at least used to be shocking a decade ago, and to deal with this, people try to raise the bar. Cartoonists, comedians and teachers are continually trying to shock people into thinking about things on a different level. Look at how far advertisements have gone to prevent people from drinking and smoking excessively, and to encourage people to abstain from sex, and you’ll see just how just how numb our society is.

Is it okay for me to call my black friend a k***** on her Facebook wall knowing that she won’t be offended? Is it okay to tweet angrily about how upset I am about something the DA said and in turn label it as racist, not because I think that they are racist, but because I just feel the need to put the party down? No, but it feels good.

The South African Constitution currently doesn’t apply to the Internet. Maybe it should, but I doubt that will stop people from saying things, uploading videos and creating images that are shocking. Every day there are more stories of people being judged by their online images. Employers hire people based on their tweets, courts implicate people because of Facebook profile photos, people are fired because of some YouTube video that shows them spray painting expletives on a wall. But it’s those things that make us cool on the Net, that get us hits, that make us believe that this could one day make us famous.

 

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