There has been an awful lot of kerfuffle over the HSC testing process this week, and I thought I’d just take a few minutes to address some things that to my knowledge haven’t been addressed yet. The gist is basically that a bunch of students took to harassing the author of a poem (Mangoes by Ellen Van Neerven) which was used as a stimulus text in this year’s HSC assessment. Some of the memes were subsequently deemed racist by various news outlets and now we have a situation where a Year 12 student is apparently being sent death threats, receiving phone calls, abusive messages and the like. Right.
I’m not going to bother going into detail about the ethics of the actions of all parties involved. I’m not going to defend either point of view. What I am going to do, however briefly, is bring up something that has so far not been put forward in any of the dozen or so articles and op-eds I have read on the subject. I’m going to hazard a guess that it hasn’t been brought up on account of the authors of said articles being only vaguely acquainted with the mechanics of social media.
Facebook recently informed me that I have been using its platform for a whole 9 years now, and in that time I have probably spent an average of 2-10 hours per day actively engaging with people on it. In that time, I have observed – and been party to – a great many flavours of social interaction, all of which I keep note of. Facebook groups are a very specific kind of interactive playing field, and it is this delicate online ecology that has, thus far at least, eluded mention by the many ‘experts’ who have opined on the topic of the HSC debacle. Now, obviously, I am no expert myself. I don’t have a degree. But I have actively cultivated these exact environments on more than one occasion. I am in many different Facebook groups, each one with their own in-jokes, codes of etiquette, posting hierarchies, power constructs. Hell, I even know a thing or two about harassing people on social media over their art, so I feel like I am more than qualified to speak on the topic. And if you disagree, you are welcome to ignore everything I have to say.
Facebook groups are not inherently evil, but they are the perfect breeding ground for exactly the kind of ridiculous actions we have seen over the past week. Take the HSC discussion group, for instance. I was actually in that group briefly. Myself and a few other members of yet another group I am in thought it would be hilarious to join the group and mock the Year 12s who were complaining about the poem. I actually saw the infamous ‘monkey on a typewriter’ meme in real time and didn’t think anything of it. Why would I have? No one knew that the author was indigenous at this point, and to me, it was an obvious allusion to the infinite monkey theorem, popularised amongst my generation by an episode of The Simpsons in which the monkeys type out ‘it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times’. Hilarious, right? Yeah, not so much when the target of that meme turns out to be someone who has undoubtedly endured an entire lifetime of racial abuse very similar to what the initially harmless meme appears to represent. There were hundreds of posts within hours of the year group finishing the Mangoes section of the exam. Most of them were groan-inducing. However, this interaction is the clue to what really accounts for the behaviour of those few students that ruined everything for everyone.
Facebook groups, particularly shitposting groups, are an exercise in one-upmanship. A Facebook group is essentially one infinitely large, globe-spanning playground, where the only true value lies in social capital. This is measured using post interaction as a metric. Likes are validation. What this means, is that as a participant, you are constantly competing against your peers in an eternal dick measuring contest – who can make the funniest meme, who can get the most likes, who can go further, do better, shitpost the hardest. Again, I willingly participate in this myself, daily. It is a fantastic social exercise, not to mention very creatively stimulating. The downside is that it is ultimately doomed to end in tears, if not all the time, then certainly with alarming consistency. I’ve been a part of groups in which people have been bullied out of them, harassed outside the groups, had their professional lives messed with, and plenty more. I’ve participated in these activities. And the underlying factor is always that one-upmanship, which is driven by the pack mentality of a close, insular group social setting.
The thing is, if the memes had have been confined to the HSC discussion group, things probably wouldn’t have gotten this far. There are literally thousands, probably even millions, of groups in which artists are pilloried for their perceived failings, and I should know, given my role in I Probably Hate Your Band‘s creation. But the line is always blurry, and when you take the group dynamic beyond the group setting it was formed in, you are always asking for trouble. This isn’t new to Facebook, either. Internet forums have existed for a long time now, and it is exactly the same dynamic and interaction base, with the exception of anonymity in the case of some forums.
To sum up: social media, as much as I love it, is definitely a breeding ground for situations exactly like what has happened in the past week. I find it incredible that a group of Year 12s have been driven to distraction by such a straightforward poem, particularly when, as a collective, they have zero difficulty parsing post-ironic memes which are infinitely more obtuse. It boggles the mind that a 17-year-old can spot a loss meme, regardless of how perverted the format is, yet can’t deduce and rationalise the poem in question. I’m not sure what the appropriate course of action for the students involved is, either.
Honestly, I just find the whole situation really sad.