Somerset1: A case of Virtual-goes-Real?

In a case of Virtual-goes-Real, an online community, Somerset1, has the Helderberg ablaze! Barely 6 months old, and already this group has grown past the 3000 mark, is involved in numerous community outreaches and has propagated into a range of special interest groups. A group known for its tremendously contradictory nature, this group has no rules and revels in the freedom to post humorous, frivolous and on occasion posts of a highly suspect nature!

The Somerset1 Facebook group was started on 15 December 2013 in reaction to the overtly rule-driven community of another Somerset West facebook group. At first the pages' members consisted of mostly disgruntled members of this other page, quickly dubbed: the Dark Side (DS) on Somerset1. Many jokes and slurs followed, words in jest painting a picture of overtly controlling and prescriptive DS admins - known for their frequent 'booting' habits. Members on Somerset1 who had been booted from the DS commented with a mixture of amusement and anger, frustration and disbelief. However the welcome from those previously booted was always warm and understanding, the criticism of the DS unanimous.

This past week saw a mass culling of members from the DS, and an unprecedented outpouring of rage and anger. Innocence is a rare commodity in any disagreement, even though both sides vehemently claimed their share thereof! The DS for its sizeable footprint, felt booting trouble makers and non-conformists was an innocent enough move. After all, their page is aimed at spreading information - the plumbers' number or who makes the best cheesecake. They also made a strategic decision to only promote pet adoption and not allow adverts for the sale of pets, especially puppies, and to ban all frivolous jokes and humorous posts from their page. These rules would be strictly enforced by admins and inappropriate posts would be deleted and repeat offenders would be booted.

Meanwhile on Somerset1 tempers flared as more and more members noted their dual-citizenship had been revoked, and in a ruthless culling spree many were gathered to the booted-crowd. What had been said in jest merely hours before on Somerset1, was quoted by the DS admins to justify certain bootings and prove the 'infidelities' of  now previous DS members. In response, in what has become typical of the Somerset1 crowd's use of humorous photo posts, photos from the main DS admin was posted replete with horns and speech bubbles shouting 'Control! Control! Control!' As a group members from Somerset1 spent many hours in what can only be termed a group-therapy session, with members discussing their frustrations, anger and disbelief at being booted.

How is it that an event in virtual space, on social media for crying out loud, has so many people so hot and bothered? How is it that actions of four DS admins (arguably strongly influenced by the opinions of their members) could result in so much virtual anger? Apparently nasty emails were exchanged and threats were made - how did it all come to this?

Was it perhaps a case of Virtual that went Real - or of Real that went Virtual?

We all carry within us a certain degree of voyeurism. We watch, and listen, we read - we watch a 'couple fight' unfold in the car in front at the red robot, and either knowingly smile (feeling utter empathy) or judge and snarl - but we watch. So it is on social media. We watch the shenanigans of those fighting online, we pry on their words and smile at their witticisms, or hold back the sarcasm and celebrate the 'taking-to-arms' of those brave enough to throw a spear or two. The very brave jump in: within the safety of our own homes or the pseudo-alone-ness of waiting to be served at a restaurant. We jump in and before we know it our voyeurism is shelved as we type those first superbly crafted come-back lines. And then we wait... who will take the bait ... who will snap up the debate and carry it to the goal posts? And we join the online conversation - within the safety of our homes and our private spaces. And in the moment we type and say far more, bravened by the moment, than would ever escape our very real lips!

In this we come to see the 'other' as a virtual reality, a person who we might bump into on the street or at the u/12 netball game, or stand behind at Pick 'n Pay or the traffic department - but whose online persona is captured in a perfect photo of a perfect moment, or a cartoon that symbolizes a particular aspect of themselves that we come to realize over time. We come to see this virtual person as separate from the everyday rain-bedraggled rugby-supported or exhausted trolley-loader, from the pen-pusher or the night shift worker. We come to separate the virtual and real.

This is perhaps the greatest danger of online media - where people lose their realness, where those who hid behind elaborate personas now hide even more behind online avatars, and where we lose our connection to each other. Where our hearts are broken by meaningless photos and over-the-top comments that were never meant to be for our eyes, but were posted to vent in what we thought was a closed safe group. Where our fingers betray our hearts.

Somerset1 has made a concerted effort to remain anchored in reality, to straddle the dualities of the virtual and the real. Members meet regularly for coffee at different venues, share in community initiatives and see each other without the perfect profile pic to hide behind. What started as a discontented rebellion against the constraints of a rule-driven community page, has become an accumulation of activists, driven to make a difference in their real-world community. Perhaps holding on to the real hands and arms of those making up this group, whilst bantering and posting naughty jokes will prove that the virtual and real can be successfully breached without losing our selves and allowing our fingers to betray our hearts.

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