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Reply to: The perils of appearing on the internet

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Replying to: The perils of appearing on the internet

Well, so here we are, and if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m a little nervous about it. I’ve never appeared on the internet before, you see, other than that clip a so-called friend posted on YouTube of that time in Vegas I thought I was playing strip-billiards with Prince Harry, who turned out to be a Ron Weasely impersonator and kept saying ‘Patronus expectorum’ in a suggestive tone of voice. But I’m here now, and it feels something like taking a midnight stroll through a forest dark and tangled, accompanied by padding sounds and the low hungry coughs of yellow-eyed beasts while wearing Lady Gaga’s meat-dress and smoking a cigar made of fear and biltong.

I’ve always avoided the internet with the fervour that shrewd men avoid Calcutta prisons or Port Elizabeth, and for the same reason: there are bad people there and they intend you harm, and once you’re inside you have to do terrible, degrading things just to stay alive. Plus you have to pee in a bucket.

The thing is, if I’m slightly wary of people in real life (and I am; they do unaccountable things like stand at the ATM, ignoring the queue behind them, reading their transaction slips for minutes on end. What are they reading there? Does their bank manager include motivational limericks beside their balances? Serialisations of Fifty Shades of Grey between the deposits and withdrawals? No … what are you doing now? You don’t need to make another transaction! There’s no surprise ending! All the shades really are grey!) I’m trebly wary of people on the internet.

If there is awfulness in the real world, the internet intensifies that awful. It is an electromagnetic aggregator chock-full of awf, a vibrating hotspot of behavioural beyond-the-paleness that attracts awful the way Debora Patta’s skin-tone attracts bees. People are mean there, the way I imagine they’d be mean in real life if everybody walked around in vast, shifting mobs with electric cattle-prods while wearing stocking masks and giving themselves temporary names like davey206 and ekhaatslaapstad.

Visit the comments section of a more-or-less mainstream website – News24, say – and behold the heart of impenetrable darkness. Such venom, such voracious willingness to misread, misinterpret and misspell in the ungrammatical enthusiasm to twist any topic – the weather! Paralympics! Charlize Theron dating that fat guy from Modern Family! – into wild ad hominem attacks on the government or white liberals or whichever South African sports team has most recently lost. How is it even possible to misspell ANC as many times as vera.van.straaten2 did last week? You start off fearing for the future of the country with such creatures in it; by the time you’re finished, you are hollow-eyed and hoarsely whispering: ‘Exterminate the brutes! Exterminate us all!’

Writing on the internet is like an incantation to summon all the demons and trolls and nightmare creatures of the woods. Dostoyevsky and Dickens and Tolstoy can consider themselves lucky they lived in the 19th century: imagine having to bring out your book in monthly instalments in an online publication with the comments facility enabled.

‘Obviously you don’t know anything about South Africa because there’s no crime and punishment there’s only crime and no punishment you should go work for the ANC hahahahah!’

‘Make up your mind dumbasses is it the best of times or is it the worst of times??? Soooo typical of News24, they don’t even pay for subeditors but what do you expect, welcome to Africa!’

‘War and Peace is leftie propaganda and I’ll bet you’re going to remove this comment because freedom of speech ended in 1989. Bullard is the only writer who tells the truth.’

Sometimes I like to go to Facebook and just sit there a spell, catching my breath. Facebook is like a genteel, potpourri-scented old-age home where shell-shocked refugees from the internet wars go to sip tea and exchange photos of their children and pretend everything’s normal. It’s all fake, of course – the only face anyone really cares about in Facebook is their own – but at least it doesn’t make you cry and jump at sudden noises.

The frightening thing about the blood-dimmed tide of the internet is that everyone is so sure of their opinions.  A little less vehemence is a deeply attractive quality to me. Believing anything too absolutely and expressing it too forcefully, being too full of passionate intensity, strikes me as inhuman. Civility and simple good sense surely suggest some circumspection, some space for doubt, but the internet is a great spinning drum that tends to centrifugally separate out circumspection like lint (if that is in fact how lint is separated out. I would google it, but who has the time?).

To survive on the internet takes a bold man, and I’m not sure I’m bold. I’m more likely italic, I think – slanted and shunned by most house styles and best used sparingly for emphasis. But still – here we are, in a place where there are books, which is always comforting, and I’m grateful to you for having me, and all I can say is I’ll do my very best.

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