Mob Morality

twitter mob

Nothing quite affords anonymity like the Internet does. One may choose to be anonymous there, and by its very nature you already are: a minute part of an enormous data set, where our merged identities form a gigantic collective, infinitesimal flashes of electricity, amongst trillions of others, in a remote server farm far, far away.

On a personal level, anonymity is a convenient little costume to slip into online. It usually acquits you of any repercussions; one can perform traceless acts of virtual violence, then withdraw from the online world and carry on with everyday life, as if nothing had happened. Although your chosen prey may not find it so easy to afterwards.

Social media enhances and amplifies this phenomenon, and it is there that something really ugly emerges:

Mobs.

They are a permanent feature of life on social media now. Outraged mobs on Twitter resemble scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where a lone individual is pursued by a swirl of angry, pecking tweeting.

Believing might makes right, these mobs, by sheer virtue of their numbers, demand conformity and total obedience. It doesn’t matter how much hurt they cause, they operate in an anonymous, consequence-free zone where power is crowdsourced and responsibility distributed.

Even though a member of the mob may go by their real name, they are anonymised through their absorption into the furious multitude.

No one has yet been held responsible for the vicious attack on the family of the late Sunil Tripathi, the student wrongly identified as one of the Boston bombers by the misguided hordes on social media.

Jittery advertisers, afraid of compromising their brands, often acquiesce to the mob’s demands by pulling financial support from individuals and websites that have incurred the mob’s wrath, serving only to legitimise it and setting dangerous precedents that are wide open to future abuse.

As a result of these faceless gangs on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, etc., people have had their livelihoods destroyed or been forced out of their jobs, reputations irreparably damaged. Often for the simple sin of expressing an opinion the mob don’t like.

This is the true horror of social media and modern Internet culture, how destructive it can be of individuality and independent thought.

A while ago, I had a run in with someone on Twitter over an article I wrote, he said to me something I can’t remember verbatim, but to the effect of: “Now you see the reaction to your blog, maybe you’ll rethink what you said.”

What he seemed to be implying with this statement is that my conscience should be externally, rather than internally guided. Instead of speaking my own unique truth, I should allow it to be defined by others, should it come into conflict with their worldview.

This is mob morality, which is, in fact, no morality at all.

It is merely a display of pure brute force, where the ends justify the means, and righteous anger devolves into verbal abuse. One concedes not to a superior argument, but is overwhelmed by a wave of rage.

In this new social order, the reaction to content is more important than the relative merits of the content itself – and in the hits-hungry digital economy, probably more valuable.

And there’s the rub: unscrupulous, controversy-courting media loves whipping up the easily manipulated mob to get more traffic to their sites. They are the ones who truly benefit from discord. It’s an effective strategy: divide and conquer.

In the midst of these cynical agendas, we must work hard to retain our individual identity, listen carefully to our inner voice and not reduce our complex humanity to someone else’s triumphant spike on a Google Analytics report.

Featured Image Credit: Candice Holdsworth

Ungoogleable Ghosts: Persons Missing From The Google Grid

I last saw X over ten years ago, when we met to commiserate the death of a mutual friend. Much more than just a mutual friend, Runt was the third angle in our Brotherhood of the Eternal Triangle, the silly name we gave our three-man band/friendship between ages 15 and 19. Runt was the connection between X and me, having been his friend longer, but Runt and I had been closer. X and I did hang out together, but inevitably it was never the same without Runt: for the triangle to work, it had to be complete.

The BET – our makeshift, badly out-of-tune garage band that mostly involved more talking shit, getting into trouble while drinking too much beer than actual music – was modeled on our mutual love for the music of The Police. X was our Sting, brooding and volatile, he even looked a little like him. Runt was the talented but quirky wildcard Andy Summers and I filled the fun-loving fool role held by Stewart Copeland, except I didn’t have a drum kit. It was the best band in the world…in our minds. The fact that X couldn’t sing, Runt would rather play the blues and my hands got tired of clapping after a while, we were determined, like so many wide-eyed kids, for global domination.

And yet, as with all great non-bands, it was not to be and, like most childhood friendships, we drifted apart at the end of our school days. Runt left for university, X went to live in New York City with his dad, and I remained the fun-loving fool in Snor City. We all went on with our lives, meeting up now and then, but it would never be the same. Priorities changed, sensibilities matured and being cities, even continents apart, we lost our connection over time.

Runt began to take the beer and drugs we all had fun with in our youth, a little more seriously, and soon enough, had dropped out of varsity and almost hit rock bottom. He met a girl and had a daughter, and he seemed to be making a life for himself. I saw him a little more often after that, but still, that connection was never the same, and soon, wrapped up in starting my own life and family, I hardly acknowledged he was still around anymore.

Until I heard he had killed himself, which was a shock in itself, but I found out months after it happened – his parents never liked me much, so didn’t think to let me know. The collapse of our friendship, which towards the end imploded violently and with much resentment, was, and still is my greatest regret.

I still think about him almost every day, especially when I hear a Clapton lick he so easily mastered, or a corny joke he would have loved, or sometimes when I just want someone to talk to – he was the easiest guy in the world to talk to.

At the time of his death, the only thing I could do, and made it my mission to do, was to find X – now established in New York without much connection to South Africa – and let him know about Runt. It was important to me that I share this with the one person who would know and understand how I felt.

This was the early 2000s, the internet was up and running, but there were few resources like the ones we have today, social media like Facebook or Twitter, where you could have simply punched his name in and found him instantly. Even the now mighty Google was such a digital wasteland of uncorrelated and incomplete information back then; you couldn’t trust what you found there.

The story of how I eventually contacted X after Runt died is an epic in itself, a quest that culminated in me on the phone at 3AM with the New York State phone exchange, drunkenly bawling my story to the unfortunate, but sympathetic operator. He eventually sourced a number for X from some confidential database, and put me straight through to his office, just as X was about to head into a meeting. It was a bizarre, awkward reunion filled with sadness, but the echoes of a long-ago friendship still crackled eerily across the bad connection. Was this really him, or had I connected somehow through a portal to the past?

We promised to meet up when he was next in South Africa and have a long drunken evening of remembering some long forgotten stories. We did meet up less than a year later, I met his wife and we had a great time, even if that lost angle had left a huge hole in the conversation.

And then, like that, he was gone again. Back to America, never to be seen or contacted again. My fault, really.  I had his email address, but just never used it. Life went on.

When the Google/Facebook revolution struck and became a larger part our lives, I, like a lot of people end up doing late at night, between bouts of looking at girls in bikinis and searching for the meaning of life in the electro-ether of the internet, began the fine art of Googling all the people I had ever met in my life: long lost acquaintances, past work colleagues, old girlfriends, and yes, eventually, X too.

To my surprise, it seemed, to Google at least, he did not exist. No hits on Google, no Facebook profile, not even a telephone number listing for anywhere in the world.

I know what you thinking, though: of the millions upon millions of people reluctantly catalogued and indexed by the internet, it surely must be difficult to find one specific person. After all, there should be thousands with the same name – I myself have found that there are over a thousand Chris Andersons in the universe. One thing the internet has succeeded quite well at is showing us that we’re not quite as unique as we think.

But that’s the thing with X. His real name – which I won’t divulge here – IS truly unique. His surname is spelt really specifically; there is no way to misspell it purposely or otherwise. His first names are, if I remember correctly, perhaps more quixotically, named after some obscure, early 20th century writer whom no one except his father had ever read. There was no other X in this solar system, other than the X I was looking for. And according to the most concisely constructed internet search engine in the world, he didn’t exist.

This, for me, was difficult to fathom. I had effortlessly found my old primary school teacher living in Russia. My old Polish girlfriend, whose surname, if you misplace the second Z would turn into a completely different person altogether, was quickly auto-corrected back into place and easily traceable, (she’s a doctor and married the guy she met after me, they look really happy).

But again and again, my rudimentary searching for X came up with nothing. I started to doubt he ever existed in real life.

He became my Ungoogleable, my white whale, my Livingston. I became obsessed with finding him. I had found him once, without much help from the primitive internet, surely I could do it again with the one tool that finds things, that can find anything and everything from a plumber around the corner, to a Tibetan monk dancing to Don’t Worry Be Happy on a Himalayan mountaintop, somewhere my answer lay in those seemingly organic intricacies of the Google algorithm.

There were almost no concrete clues to finding my long-lost friend X out there in vastness of the internet, except, as I delved further and adjusted my search criteria ever so subtly, a small snapshot of digital DNA emerged, a foggy wisp, but it was something.

One piece of trace was something called “Left Digestion”. A truly bizarre piece of short fiction that was written by someone called “X” posted on a small independent publisher’s website/blog, but with not a lot more information about the piece nor its author. As I read it, though, I recognised the voice in the piece, with an off-colour humour and familiar quirky language, and a slight worldly cynicism. It sounded a lot like those hilarious but weird jokes and observations X used to make back in our younger days.

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“How New York glows in the night; how she vibrates with toxic alcoholic breath in the vacuum left by hookers going down on the mad hatters of urban America.” – Quote from “Left Digestion”

 

Another clue found on Google was a reference to a certain “X” being the treasurer of a New York Birding and Wildlife Society.

One of the more unique things about the X I grew up with, was that he was an avid birder – a bird watcher and documenter. If you have ever known a birder, you will know, birders are possibly the most obsessive of all the amateur naturalists. They spend every spare minute of their lives looking for birds, reading about birds, talking about birds, writing things in little notepads about birds. X, despite his young age and youthful penchant for cheap wine, beautiful women and loud song, always had a mature and unhurried affinity for nature, and particularly, birds.

I remember one occasion during our friendship years before, after a particularly brutal night of drinking and attempting to play music, X was woken up by his father and older brother (Runt and I were passed out in sleeping bags in his room) urging him to come along birding that (really) early morning. He didn’t need to be asked twice and was out on the trail within 15 minutes. They returned 6 hours later, with excited stories of indistinguishable gibberish about the birds spotted that day. Runt and I looked at each other, more than a little perplexed by these strange avian enthusiasts.

The Wildlife Society website looked deserted, the last entry from two years ago. Mysteriously, even on the staff profile page, there was little information apart from X’s name. Everyone else had a short introduction and small photo. All it said next to his name was “treasurer”. It turned into another dead end for me.

Then, more intriguingly, there was “the state of New York and Homeland Security Vs “X” Vs. Gonzalez”, a Google hit to a public record website referencing some 2006 legal proceeding involving X. Filled with various legalese and case code numbers, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Homeland security? Sounded serious, but again, other than that, there was no further information about where X was, and what he was doing.

At the very least, my worst fear now was he might be held up in Guantanamo Bay or somewhere equally horrendous, accused of some scandalous crime like bird-watching in international waters or the wearing of an offensive birding hat. Another thing I remember about X was that, along with his precocious cynicism, his passionate anti-authoritarian streak had often gotten us into trouble in our youth. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised there might be some sort of run-in with the law wherever he may have found himself. Yet, once again, the clue offered little else, and the trail ran cold for a couple of years after that. I’d sort of given up hope on ever finding him again, but every once in a while, I’d punched his name back into the Google machine again.

And, about a year ago, I found the birds.

Mostly from a handful of the thousands of birding blogs available (ye gods, they had finally taken over the internet, these birding freaks), there were some birding photos credited to X. There was no doubt this was him. The pics had been taken all across the world, mostly Asia, places like Thailand and Sri Lanka but again, frustratingly, no other information. Was he on the run? An international fugitive who just couldn’t keep away from the birds.

I had eventually just given up the search completely. All I hoped now was that he was alive, happy and healthy. I made peace with the fact that the last connection with my younger days was finally lost.

“Page 2”

Not a lot of people know about the mythological second page of Google search results. It’s where all those nasty Russian porn sites, too-geeky-for-normal-society blogs and dead websites wallow in infamy. But think about it, when we do a casual Google search, how often do we think to click through to the second, third or fourth pages of returned results? We usually find what we need, or if not, we try another search. Very rarely, for me at least, do we search beyond that first page.

In fact, if you look closely at the page design of Google, they do a pretty good job at hiding the click-through link to further pages. The link looks like it was HTMLed in 1992. I’m not even sure the good people at Google realise it’s even still there: “oh, leave that bit of coding for the new design; no one ever clicks on it, anyway.” A bit exaggerated, perhaps, but it says a lot about how Google has been able to streamline and tweak every search to our specific needs: you want “recipes for nutmeg soup with lentils”, here, all on one page, are the top 30 matches for your request. There is no need to search further. Want “nutmeg soup with eggplant”? Here let us suggest it to you.

This streamlining is what has made the almighty Google the behemoth of convenience we know and love today, and how it has become such an integral, important and permanent part of, not only our online lives, but our real-world existence, too. Think about it, it’s scary. It’s also the system that has banished millions of old, SEO-unfriendly and undesirable websites out into undiscovered oblivion.

And that’s the lesson I learned less than a week ago, once again typing in my old best friend’s name into Google, convinced this was the day I would find him…or perhaps not.

Page 2? Why, I don’t think I have ever gone to page 2…click.

As imaginary cabinet doors creaked, I peered onto page 2 and it frightened me. Strange languages swore at me, bizarre symbols hissed. Badly composed website addresses slid and slobbered across the page, glaring at me, imploring me “click me, click me please, it’s been so long since someone just clicked me”: www.h:/grovemusick.dot.?/bleh, www.persianboobs.org.net.com.zed, www.ilovenewkidsontheblockforever.ca. www.myspace.com www.friendster.com www.gorein00.com

Indeed, this was where the internet came to die. And there, amongst the ruins, lay a barely breathing, left for dead search result attached to the name “X”. From the outside it looked diseased, a .ru domain name carbuncle festering on its tail. Dare I?

Its short description mentioned something about long-dead actor River Phoenix, some sort of fan website, but more importantly, it mentioned my friend, and this proved too good to ignore. I clicked.

Fifteen minutes later the page finally loaded. I imagined some Eastern European website designer, long retired, being woken up in the middle of the night by an internet nightwatchman: ‘Yuri, Yuri, come quick, your River Phoenix fansite from 1996 just got a hit; we need to prepare the horses.’

It was one of those weird Frankenstein-like websites – those primitive click-baiters that use material from other websites to lure visitors to their substandard, plagarised and often illicit wares. But it indeed was a River Phoenix tribute site, filled with badly scanned magazine covers of the dead actor, and other cobbled paraphernalia, including some poems and short prose, all apparently in honour of the young man who had a just a little too much fun that fateful night at the Viper Room in 1993.

One of the pilfered texts began: “oh mother, where can we stop the world and care about what we give…” attributed to my friend. “Soon, Janice, soon,” it continued. I stared at it for a long while, not sure what to make of it. I read through the piece, not sure what it was all about, but the X style was there, this was his work. Right at the bottom of the text, in an almost invisible watermark, read the words: courtesy of Dan Dare Publishers. There was the connection. Dan Dare was where I found the original “Left Digestion” story. The Dan Dare website itself was now defunct, but I knew this new piece of prose was the next clue to finding X. One step closer.

Copy and paste – three of the greatest words in modern history. I loaded the opening sentence into Google, added the “speech marks” to search for the exact phrase and hit “find”…

I met the first result: flashfictionfunk.wordpress.com: “the home of perpetual prose, where a good, short idea is never turned away.” Proprietor: one EZ Riveo.

I knocked on the “about EZ Riveo” tab, and my eyes squinted onto a grainy photograph. A tall, lanky man, wearing a shady longshoreman’s cap walked through some breezy alleyway eatery in an ancient city somewhere, his eyes hidden, but an impish half-smile emerged from under a ski-slope nose. He looked a lot like Sting.

It was him. I stared at the screen and repeated: “no way, no way. No. Frikkin. Way!” It felt like finishing a Rubik’s Cube, I had no idea how I did it. So much relief, but so much confusion. I looked at the photo again, to be certain. I began to second-guess my first intuition. It had to be him, but it seemed so unreal. Below his photo lay the usual array of social media links: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (fucking Pinterest? You must be joking?). Time to make sure, once and for all. I clicked the “f” and there he was, uncovered and certified and identified: X.

His Facebook profile photo saw him sitting on a couch, having a beer, puckish grin on his face, as if to say: “what took you so long?”

Post Script: Answers?

That was yesterday. In all, over ten years of searching for my oldest friend came to a head in whatever I was about to write in my message, my first contact, to him, on Facebook. Famous first words?

“Got you! You son of a gun. We meet again, you elusive scoundrel. You frikkin’ Byzantine Waldo, I got you.”

“Yowzer – there’s a surprise. Nice one! Thought I’d lost contact forever. How’d you find me? How the hell are you?”

I gave him a brief summary of my detective work over the years, and could almost hear him laugh:

“Alrighty then, Rodney Roundabout. I thought you might have found my brother and trolled his friend list.”

Whoever EZ Riveo was, or had become, he was and still is just good old dark and sardonic X to me. Who looked a lot like Sting.

Do you want to know the mysteries behind EZ Riveo? I’m not even sure I want to know. I guess, as I get reacquainted with X through this marvelous, but infuriating social medium called Facebook, all those questions will eventually be answered. The where, when, what, who and whys of the story, they’ll come, but that said, the journey to those answers is conclusion enough for me.

Now, who’s next on my list? There is one other incomplete block of history for me that has also niggled at me for years, and it involves a certain headstrong, ambitious young girl I took to watch Batman Returns one sunny Saturday afternoon in 1992.

She taught me how to smoke cigarettes, told me her most intimate hopes and dreams, and challenged me to run away with her to become secret agents. All I have left of her are her initials: LBS.

Challenge accepted.