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Welcome to Racebook

by Rob Scher / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 11.10.2011

Everyone has ‘that guy’ they went to school with; prone to bursts of aggression, antisocial behaviour in class, and a general disrespect for authority figures. They represent the very beacon of adolescent angst. Jonah Takalua, captured so vividly by the talented Australian comedian Chris Lilley in the show Summer Heights High is a perfect caricature of such an individual. Everyone went to school with a Jonah. Mine was Jack.

Jack and I were on good terms. His sardonic outlook on life was humorous to a 13 year old, whose basic requirement for friendship was making fart sounds with your mouth – something Jack excelled at. Until recently, such a character would fade into your memory to be reminisced over amongst lifelong school friends. The added perspective of age and pop psychology would allow for theories on how they may have turned out – until Facebook.

There’s no longer a need to hypothesise. The world-over people have ‘reconnected’ with past friends. Social convention it would seem, dictates that you add anyone you have ever met. Dare to defy and the social network monolith will recommend daily that you become friends until one buckles under the pressure. Before Facebook, Jack could have remained a quirky memory. Now, along with his 600 friends, I have become an unwilling audience for his digital soapbox and his kak retrogressive views on, well, just about everything.

I had long since “hidden” Jack and his reactionary right wing views. But with the move towards the ominous ‘Facebook Timeline’, my newsfeed once again has became cluttered with updates of all “friends” on the site. Including Jack. And the meta-mini-feed in the corner has become a ticker tape of vitriol as I am assaulted by the most uninformed and bigoted paragraphs fresh from Jack’s mind.

Racebook

Let’s briefly indulge Jack and his take on the socio-economic situation in our country. Jack chooses to dichotomise our society into two groups – the “haves” and the “have nots”. His argument that the “work hards” must stop supporting the “work nots” is in fact rooted in a previously established school of economic thought. Influential English scholar and political economist, Thomas Malthus was on Jack’s page. Malthus was opposed to ‘poor laws’ adopted in Britain, believing that society was becoming overpopulated. Malthus discouraged supporting the poor, believing that famine and disease act as natural population checks. Jack tends to agree spewing the sentiment on his Facebook, in an attempt to educate “the moronic ‘haves’ who give to the ‘have nots’”. Like Malthus, Jack’s views are outspoken for their time – the difference though – Malthus lived in the 18th Century.

What Facebook has effectively done is provide a window into the arrested development of people like Jack’s minds, the world over. Yes there are the preventative mechanisms that allow for us to “report misuse” but really who gives a shit? What’s most disturbing is not Jack’s mindset – there are plenty people in this country who share his views with varying degrees of bigotry. But that Jack feels bold and comfortable enough to share his views openly on social media, is what astounds me the most. Stripped of his anonymity, he stands out, identifiable, amongst the anonymous trolls, who pollute the News24 comment board with flurries of racist, rightwing vitriol.

And while he received eight “likes” for his nazi-lite babble, the very medium of social media renders his views obsolete. His post, his line in the digital sand, is invariably destined to be just another drop in the endless sea of social media babble spewed out daily – all seeking some kind of response, recognition, return. We live in an information economy. Everyone is vying for a brief moment of your attention. Status updates, blogposts, how many “likes” you get for that picture you posted, the amount of followers you have on Twitter – attention is a commodity. In Malthusian times, Jack would have had to establish himself as a well regarded figure before earning access to as many people as he does now on Facebook. In the 18th Century, if 600 people were listening to you – your opinion would matter. In today’s world, the supply has drastically increased, and demand has shriveled.

And Jack is no Julius Malema.

In fact, in the information economy, Jack is the very hallmark of a “have not”. He is the one standing at the traffic light begging for the attention of the social media “haves”. Along with those who spend hours clogging up bandwidth with their mindless drivel, Jack’s opinion matters about as much as a bitter little cruton floating in an ocean of soup.

*Illustration © Alastair Laird.

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