On my radar: Digital mob throws stones

2012-07-14 10:18

In cyberspace it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have to say, as long as you can say it in 140 characters

The day The Spear painting was defaced proved to be an “aha” moment for me.

If you had a Twitter account, it was a morning where any hope of work or productivity flew out the window.

I, like most of South Africa’s Twitter community, was glued to my Twitter stream, following – in real time – the drama unfolding in neat, bite-sized chunks of 140 characters.

The morning started much like any other. An occasional glance at the Twitter feed to follow, what was then, a story of an artwork that was dividing the nation.

Like any big news story that hits the radar, the Twittersphere was peppered with personal commentary, the casual banter perhaps more lively that day, given the topic.

Then it happened. The first tweets about the defacing came streaming through, and like lighter fluid on hot coals, the social-media blaze ignited.

#TheSpear started trending internationally, as the story went viral. By lunchtime, the two defacers had been arrested, the painting removed and the gallery was on lockdown.

Within a space of a few minutes, you could feel the mood on Twitter change: the virtual crowd had dispersed.

Like a deep sigh, the retreat was palpable, even in cyberspace.

As I forced myself to get back onto the email treadmill, I experienced mixed emotions: part elation for the technology that allowed me to witness a watershed event, but also part loathing for taking part in the feeding frenzy. I had succumbed to what I now call “rubbernecking in cyberspace”.

Ever since The Spear incident, I’ve watched how people react to events on Twitter.

Whether it’s witnessing the somewhat baffling cult of Iskotane, or the alarming hate speech (that’s what it boiled down to) spewed at 3rd Degree for daring to air a programme on the politics of black hair.

In all cases, these events gain more followers as they start trending on Twitter, which just fuels a mob mentality.

There’s nothing wrong with following a breaking story on Twitter – it is one of the marvels and advantages of the social-media platform.

It does, however, inevitably reach a dangerous tipping point when the cyber crowd’s confidence becomes buoyed by the number of followers – and that is when the reckless comments start flying.

The same thing happens in real life when large and rowdy crowds break out into violent riots.

Edged on by a collective mindset, usually law-abiding individuals draw courage from the anonymity of being part of a faceless crowd.

The same thing happens on Twitter, but cyberspace provides an added layer of anonymity.

People are not only able to hide behind an avatar, but they also have the advantage of participating from an undetectable source – a smartphone or laptop.

You are able to experience the adrenaline of an angry mob baying for blood, but you can also throw venomous vitriol from the comfort of your home or workplace.

In a way it is so much more deadly. Much like a psychopath whose pulse does not rise while committing a brutal act, we now are able to spew hate and venom while casually typing on a smartphone.

Once the tweet is sent, we can disengage if necessary and come back later to stir the pot and check to see how toxic the broth has become.

On the one hand, it feels liberating to be able to contribute to an open dialogue; but on the other hand, we seldom stop to think of the impact of those 140 characters – just ask model Jessica Leandra dos Santos.

We never really have to think of the ripple effect because our actions are so conveniently divorced from the physical reality of the event.

We are, in essence, part of a noisy and boisterous virtual peanut gallery, one that can be switched on and off at will and, in doing so, we’re shortening our attention spans to those of lab rats.

In the past six months, we’ve experienced news events that shook South Africa to the core (or so we thought) – from Julius Malema’s suspension to The Spear (16N) – but they already feel like vague and distant memories.

Like the paparazzo, we’re on the hunt for the next cheap thrill, and when we find it, it will be like another scene from Lord of the Flies – mob justice, but using tweets as our weapons of choice.

The growing problem with “rubbernecking in cyberspace” is that we’re not just content to gawp and stare as we cruise the information highway.

We somehow feel the need to inflict some pain as we pass by.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words – in cyberspace – can now inflict harm.

» Chang is founder of Flux Trends: www.fluxtrends.com

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