Opinion Piece

Marelise van der Merwe: The Other News Round-Up: Twist in your Sobriety

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported happenings from South Africa and elsewhere in the world. This week: the trolls are not where they seem.

Facebook, as many of us will be aware, has begun delivering small gems in the form of “On This Day”, a daily reminder of what we and our friends have posted each year on the same date. This week, it reminded me that in October 2000-and-something, I had a small brain explosion. I had discovered the underbelly of crack cocaine enthusiasts online.

Why exactly I was browsing drug forums I’m not sure, since for me a really wild night out involves a double sparkling water. I hasten to add, in case you’re picturing scenes from Requiem for a Dream, that there were no graphic photos of wasted bodies, prostrate in the gutters. Nope. Instead what I found was the proverbial unicorn: polite people on the internet.

I’m not even joking, man. These guys are not recreational drug users, having a bit of a jol of a Saturday. One of the forums has in its description, in all caps with multiple exclamations, HARDCORE USERS ONLY!!! Yet I’ll give you a sample conversation:

User A: Which do you prefer and why? Shooting cocaine or smoking crack?

User B: (Tells horror story)

User C: Amen, brotha… I don’t recommend shooting coke.

User D: It is certainly a crazy rush!

I’ll give you another sample from a different forum, a thread welcoming a new member.

User A: Welcome! (smiley face) Hopefully we will be lucky to get some really interesting posts.

User B: What a pedigree! Welcome, you undoubtedly strengthen (the team).

User C: Want a friend? Always happy to help!

User D: Good mind, good things, good comment!

User E: Good luck with your studies.

User F: I’d be interested in some of your research. Can you provide a source?

User G: Welcome! Great to have new insight, especially of your level.

My friends, these guys hardly even swear. There were comments on the weather, for crying out loud. In places it was like reading a letter from your granny, except your granny doesn’t normally debate how best to get high.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say if it were not a conversation about drugs and, say, a conversation about Miley Cyrus, it would go in a much less savoury direction. Heck, I’ve seen conversations about canaries on YouTube take all of three seconds to degenerate into full-scale F-bomb wars and instructions to go somewhere unpleasant and die. Lizzie Velasquez, who spearheaded a worldwide anti-bullying campaign, did so after – at age 11 – she saw a picture of herself online branded “the ugliest woman alive”. Comments included “kill it with fire”.

Apparently it’s not only drug users hiding away in the polite corners of the internet. Intrigued, I Googled “polite internet users”. Guess what came up? Porn. Calvin Hennick, writing for Esquire, describes porn fans as “the last decent people on the internet”, labelling porn sites as the one place “where there is no snark, no sarcasm, no vile puns… devoid of Hitler comparisons, lacking in wrong-headed dissections of the Affordable Care Act, where no one calls each other ‘libtards’ or ‘Repukes’.”

Hennick describes “straightforward, sincere expressions of appreciation” and “simple requests for more information”. Samples? “She’s the best!” “Great video” and “11 out of 10!”

Random sample from the other side: I went onto YouTube and searched something fairly neutral – “girl singing”. A child of about 12 came up, rapping for her dad on his birthday. She was wearing a T-shirt with his face on it. Many of the comments were supportive. Others, however, were not. “Fucking terrible.” “I thought that T-shirt had Trump on it.” “She’s lip sinking (sic).” “She’s reading the lyrics.” “I can hear someone saying ‘I’m thirsty’ in the background lol.” Then the inevitable: “Shut the fuck up haters.” “You shut the fuck up.” “Jump off a cliff.”

I tried again. What’s really neutral? Okay. Surely nobody can get worked up about pancakes? Everybody loves pancakes! “Pancake recipe.” Clicked on the first one. 4,834 comments – and, for ease of reading, just put a giant “sic” over everything. “Thank you for screwing up my pancakes.” “Way too salty.” “Took 45 min to make wtf”. “2 Tablespoons of baking powder? Jesus fucking Christ.” (It was actually two teaspoons.) “Your theme song reminds me of Spongebob.” “Your retarded.” “Nigga I was being sarcastic because she spelt description wrong fuck u mean.” “By 1 letter dumbass.” “Stop copying my fucking comment you creepy bastard.” “Liberal idiots who don’t read the description.” (My favourite.)

What’s going on? Have we become so judgemental that only taboo zones are free from attack? Or have we humans managed to make our lives so damn miserable that the only time we can be nice to each other is when we’re high or watching porn? (Not even pancakes make us happy!) For crying out loud, I’ve seen yoga websites that are mean-spirited – people accusing each other of pretensions or insulting each other’s bodies. Not to mention (ahem) religious websites. Gem of the week: Christian blog dublinsmickdotcom.wordpress.com, which jumped on the Christwire.com bandwagon that in 2011 claimed Michele Obama was born a man named Michael LaVaughn Robinson. Dublin’s Mick believes Obama had her gender reassignment surgery on 13 January 1983 (“a significant date for Satanists”), added it was indicative of the End Times, and that “even more startling, Barack Obama knows his wife was once a man, making him the first homogay President of our Christian nation”. Not just gay, my friends. Homogay.

Chief among the commenters is a nice-looking blonde lady with the alias “50 Shades of Pissed Off”. She seems peaceful.

I don’t know what to tell you. I can hardly advocate that we all while away our days watching porn or smoking crack. But maybe we should ask ourselves why, behind the mask, so many of us can’t resist being just a little nasty. And then take a load off. Maybe then it will be easier to follow that age-old, unaffiliated commandment: don’t be kak, be lekker. DM

HEADLINE FEATURES

YOUR NEXT ARTICLE