Zama Ndlovu

The cold internet

2012-08-15 09:21

Zama Ndlovu

I don’t like my current online personality. She’s aloof, sensitive and often cold. She often has long monologues and rarely ever invites anyone in to disagree or present a different case. It wasn’t always like this though.

When I first entered the social media space, I was excited by the immense opportunities to engage on a variety of issues that I could not in my work and at home. My strong interest in politics and socio-economics, which had  previously been relegated to long Sundays spent with newspapers and books, found a home on the interwebs amongst strangers and vaguely familiar names.

I found myself moving from long notes on Facebook, to short, punchy 140 character tweets to columns, primarily because I had strong opinions, but more importantly because sharing an opinion allowed me to learn. I engaged in long discussions with complete strangers on a variety of issues, and although discussions often got heated, they rarely got personal.

Maybe it’s an early adopter trait, but there was a time when people “collected” a following of divergent critical thinkers who exposed them to different ways of thinking rather than simply validating their most deeply held beliefs.

Unnecessary hate

But lately, there has been more burn than there has been learning.

I do not write for praise. I do not have expectation of creating a consensus, or writing things that everyone agrees with. That is not my intention nor is it my hope, as the saying goes, "if both of you agree, then one of you is not needed". However, the level of unnecessary hate and attack is leaving me wondering whether I'm growing sensitive or if the internet is growing meaner and colder.

Distasteful commentary is not only a reaction to thoughts and comments, sometimes it's random. Just this Saturday a Twitter account called @LaughAfrica replied to an innocent tweet and called me a "bitch". I was quite shocked but I've learnt a long time ago attacking like a wounded lioness only exhausts you but achieves nothing, so I blocked the account. It’s amazing that over a thousand people follow an account that supposedly gets Africa to laugh by attacking people randomly.

I've noticed the growing trend of social media packs that hunt celebrities and personalities to "put them in their place". I've seen these groups attack a single individual until that person was forced to leave a social medium, and watched them busk in satisfaction. People, who individually seem grounded and measured, turn rancorous with the encouragement of complete strangers.

I've had my own writing attacked, not for its merit but because I'm black, or female - or both.

Relearning a skill

More and more people are using anonymity as a tool to berate and wound. The ease with which people move from disagreeing with you to hating who you are is astonishing. The lines between free speech and hate speech are very thin, and open to a wide spectrum of interpretation. Sometimes the best tactic is just avoidance.

I don't want to lose the authenticity of my voice, or tame my thoughts in order to protect myself from the joys of the internet. Yet, when one grows a thick skin to deal with it, the same thick skin also hampers their ability to contemplate opposing views.

Maybe to say I'm changing is a stretch; the more accurate assessment is that I’m creating a different person, a subset of me; a little soldier who lives on the interwebs defending my ego.
Meanwhile I’m relearning a skill I has beginning to lose, the art of face to face conversations outside of the internet. I’m reminding myself to not fall into the illusion that the internet is a reflection of South Africa, whether positive or negative. I’m being reminded by foot soldiers that real influence can only be measured by the change one brings about and not by the conversations they start.

But still, I don’t like the person I am on the internet. Cold, aloof and distant.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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