In 2009, on Facebook, I was friended by Jack, a man who wasn’t real. He was a better man than the one who made him — he was designed and not born, his traits and language, values and manners chosen, not bred. Jack was powerful in that he was listened to — his words intrigued and his ideas found support, raised hackles, engendered debate.
Jack was created so he could proffer to the world what his creator — an old, staid, businessman — could not. And Jack could with oomph. He was designed worldly-wise and jaded. He was a retiree from government service who wanted better from government.
Jack was uncommissioned. This was at a time when organic growth could be relied on to move his words across the landscape of social media. The creator did not have to sponsor or boost any of his posts or memes. Jack spoke with real people, parleyed with celebrities and kings. He could smell a troll a mile away and knew how to shush the paid. Jack kept his threads proper and polite; he scolded when commenters were ill-mannered.
He provoked, cajoled, sought and succeeded to inject ideas into the public discourse. A favorite subject matter was the foibles and lusts of the princes of the Roman Catholic Church, how they sinned spectacularly and managed to save themselves from the authorities and from consequences.
And then there was politics
Jack’s creator disliked many of the candidates of the 2010 elections and so he dedicated part of his day to presenting dark horses and strange pairings as better options. Jack was out there, walking the streets of social media, peddling his druthers, interacting with denizens of this ‘Second Life’ world, entering gated communities (groups) and engaging with the impassioned advocates of other candidates. Jack would offer a shoulder to cry on and an accommodating ear to the disgruntled and the angry, to people who knew the ugliness of the rogues and rascals in government.
The creator’s preferred candidates and pairing won and he felt that the work of his hands was blessed, and he felt good about Jack.
The battlefield of 2016, however, was something else.
Candidates fielded warriors — no euphemism here as in minutes, on social media, they could protect their candidate, clog up threads, and bash and. This was ‘The Swarm’ that we in communications expected with one difference: each member represented various personae — many Jacks.
If it was a vicious campaign — well, this was a new campaign medium — people learned how to use it to the hilt. Mercenaries brought to the battlefield mercenary morals. They did not leave posts unanswered; they responded in vast numbers.
Jack was active — for a while. He received many threats but what successfully silenced him was the medium’s new requirement for money. His voice could no longer be heard above the din of the boosted and sponsored and the paid conversations; he was now one feeble, uncommissioned voice in the wilderness.
The temper did not change after the elections. If you feel that the fever is still at campaign period pitch, welcome to the new reality: social media warriors are the cheapest PR folks you can hire. They operate 24/7, always ready to protect and defend and undermine the opposition of the day. It really doesn’t matter if you won by a landslide in the last election; today it’s campaign season forever.
Knowing how ugly it can get, do I want social media controlled?
This is media except that right now we have yet to learn how to tell programming from the ads. This is commerce and conversation, human interaction being waged in democratic space. We can all opt in, like, follow, or block, unfriend, unlike, choose what not to read.
Social media is the ultimate soapbox, the podium of the ordinary man. While he is usually powerless against government, there is an arming that happens as he steps onto it. Facebook or Twitter posts are his prayer.
While on it, the ordinary man can take officials to task, force otherwise deaf heavens to listen and respond. He can affect and infect people, topple governments. While on the podium, he is the public and government officials public servants.
We pray social media remains zona libre: a safe place where he can espouse, accuse, champion, rally and protest without bridle and censor, a place where the ordinary man is free to make demands of government, without fear, without the Luddites of our Senate looking over his shoulder.
Bridle his indignation, check his words and you hurt his spirit; leave him without a voice and you force him to consider the use of his arms instead.
If you must err, err on the side of excess, not less.
As for Jack, he is dead now, or deactivated. The creator grew old and lost fondness for his puppet.
The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through email@example.com.