It started, brilliantly and simply, with media engaging and including us. I was excited. We got to vote for our favourite idols, ‘like’ the most appealing videos on YouTube and Facebook, and feel immersively included in the media cosmos. Concurrently with this media miracle, we could now be told how many air miles we just earned, how popular our posts were, how many gym visits would make sure we levelled up and when my tyres should be changed. It was exhilarating. What harm could there be in challenging my digital self every time I went online, swiped my credit card or showed up for a visit to the doctor?
But the gamification of media – which I blissfully ‘opted in’ to – has meant that every facet of my life has become a sometimes stressful, always competitive, digital race to get… well, I have no idea where because there is no end in sight. I am being sold adverts that annoy in their targeted cynicism (yes, of course I want bigger arms, stop asking me), I am afraid to forget my wallet full of loyalty cards and will even delay shopping if it means not gaining my point benefits (really R12.50 back? Well, I ‘spose that’s awesome), and if I am honest I am now avoiding logging on to Facebook. The look of dismay on my digital self is because I thought I had left being bullied to excel behind in primary school. My inbox is telling me to up my game or lose out. I am now afraid. Should I even bother run if I left my Nike watch at home? In fact, if it didn’t record – did I even run at all?
The Rave: The digital democracy.
South Africa’s democracy is barely out its teens, quite close in age to the digital democracy of the internet. The analogy is important because like all new democracies, sentiment ricochets between the jubilance of the honeymoon period, and the dark cynicism of the new found uses and abuses of power that are fought on a daily basis in all such systems. But we are only really starting to understand the power of “one person, one post” in the greatest public space in history.
The Arab spring is probably the most cited example of how mass communication in the social media can shift millions into self-organising bodies that challenge the status quo. The staggering power of a digital democracy will go a long way to re-shape political and religious landscapes, and all because race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and education are becoming increasingly less of an impediment to press “send” on whatever devices we are using. Gay rights in Russia, Syria, animal rights in Europe – I know about these things, I have even contributed both cash and opinion because the digital ‘vote’ is daily lowering the barrier to entry into global opinions.
Not for a moment would I suggest that there are not just as many bigoted, scary memes raging across the cyber ether, or that many subversive ideas are not monitored, removed and ignored by the powerful mainstream propaganda of all ruling systems. That is a fight which will be fought in every sphere of politics, every day. But just like all South Africans must be reminded that apathy makes you complicit, the power of your digital vote means you have a voice. It might in video, song, in 140 characters or simply by pressing share. The privilege is newly won, now use it.