In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Digital sh1t: Mobile website Outoilet, the mobile phone and the marking of space

,by Alette Schoon
In November last year the mobile phone website Outoilet (Old toilet) shot to notoriety as it was associated with the distribution of an amateur video of a statutory rape at Jules High School in Jeppestown. Since then mobile phone networks have blocked access to the site, and the Film and Publication Board has attempted to persuade its Russian hosts to close it down. Outoilet responded by urging  users to bypass the blockages by using the unmonitored mobile browser Opera Mini, took down their school chatrooms, displayed an age restriction and cheekily added ‘as seen on TV’ to their header.  However, despite its links to various porn video and photography sites, Outoilet itself is text based, a low bandwidth free-for-all bulletin board, which boasts in its header ‘the only place where you can gossip without anyone knowing who you are’. 

What does Outoilet have to do with synthetic dirt? In the call for papers for this colloquium, synthetic dirt is defined as the “integration of the synthetic and the human, the raw and the cooked”.  In the community I studied, the township Hooggenoeg, on the outskirts of Grahamstown, the word ‘raw’ (‘rou’ in Afr.) has a special significance that is associated with the uncultured, the sexually promiscuous, the crude and the lower class. Raw here is defined in terms of social mobility and progress, as a ‘raw’ person is seen to be ‘slipping backwards’ into drink, crude language, sexual promiscuity and the abandonment of all ambition – a kind of directionless abjection. This notion of ‘raw’ has also been documented by Fiona Ross who studied a similar poor rural community comprised both of people who identify as ‘coloured’ as well as Xhosa. In contrast, the mobile phone is associated with modernity, class mobility, progress, with bettering oneself, connecting with the wider world, and being on your way to somewhere.  This correlates with the ideology of modernity, where technology is invariably associated with rational thought and individual progress. Where does this place Outoilet? The Outoilet logo of a man caught in the moment of defecation while reading the newspaper, encapsulates its nature, as the rational notion of news is sullied with the verbal defecation of gossip. Outoilet dirties the pristine world of information and technology with the directionless subversion of acting ‘raw’ and can therefore be considered ‘synthetic dirt’ as it joins the raw and the cooked, crude human fallibility and the technological.

To get a sense of the meanings people make of Outoilet, I conducted an ethnographic study among young adults. From interviews I gathered that here, Outoilet is very much part of street culture, a more high-tech version of the urban African ‘radio trottoir’.   The generally accepted notion that technology globalises and widens the scope of communication, was inverted in this space, where the mobile site was focused on the immediate neighbourhood, and broadcast from the corner.

Interviewer:     So the girls would maybe get together on the corner, and then look at Outoilet?
Danny:     Uh, what most of them did is, like, one of them would be on Outoilet, the rest would be on Mxit, sending out this, this, and this and saying go to Outoilet and you should see this: this, and this, and this… That’s how they used to do it. So one’s got the info, and the others are, like, sending the info out.

In this community, like in most township areas characterised by small houses, and pedestrian lifestyles, everyone knew everyone else, creating a space ideal for the formation of gossip. Outoilet’s existence depends on such spaces. Tied to the geography of nation, Outoilet breaks South Africa up into provinces and from there into towns or townships, where one can read 15 pages of gossip related to this space that are regularly ‘flushed’ as new posts come in. Through referring to actual posts I will now argue that counter to the commonly held myth of technology facilitating social mobility, here it is used to keep people down.

Fuck off (20:04 - Sep 18)
Mieta, you know I fucked you around the corner and then you wiped yourself with the dog’s blanket

What had made Mieta the object of scrutiny was not that she was any more promiscuous than anyone else, but that she was about to marry above her station and get out of this community.  She had got it right and was actually getting married to a soldier. In this community, where most people were unemployed, everyone thought he must be crazy, proposing, and they were all on Outoilet, speculating how this could have happened.

The flurry of Outoilet posts attacked Mieta’s respectability, suggesting she was ‘rou’ and part of this was suggesting that she was a “Khoisan”.

So there Mieta tieta (21:42 - Oct 30)

Lindas bf is fckng beautfl hv u seen the car u tlk of 5cent cut u hv a 2cent cut she has smooth fair yr a goysan

Here respectability is raced, similarly to the observations made by Zimitri Erasmus in her research into ‘coloured’ communities .Young people talked about this unravelling of a person’s reputation, such as happens on Outoilet, as a ‘dragging down’. It can be described as a Foucauldian disciplinary mechanism to enforce class boundaries and limit social mobility.  While to an outsider, Outoilet appears to only deal with sexual scandal, this class policing is its prime purpose for people who live in these communities.

Instead of the mobile web connecting young adults to make global connections in Castells’ indeterminate ‘space of flows’, here cyberspace creates a virtual township surveillance web, tied very firmly to the local. It’s not the information superhighway, but virtual dusty cyber-township streets.   Surveillance practices transform these text postings into the visual and spatial, drawing boundaries which are both geographical and social.
Clinton:    For instance, I was walking down there...Bauke Street...the dogs were chasing me and then I kicked the dogs and I kicked them really (gestures big motion with foot)...only to find out that a girl that’s living there by the Albany lounge down there (points to distant area)… she saw me at the library she asked me: Is my name Clinton? I say yes. She said: “No, man” she sees that I’m on Outoilet kicking dogs and doing what-what... “Why was I kicking the dogs?” So then I got a fright. How did she know? She lives over there...

Here the soap opera and reality have become inversed, as a real person could achieve cultish notoriety in the time it takes to refresh a screen. Among these young adults I observed a definite pleasure in the reading of Outoilet posts, where the foulness of the language and the merging of truth and fantasy were relished.  The posts are often constructed fantasies by jealous rivals, who hi-jack the identity of a lover or friend to create more intriguing gossip. 

Ezme:        Because sometimes I would write and then I’d pretend I’m a man. But then it actually is a woman, because I don’t want you to know that I’m writing about you. Maybe I saw you last night when you two were having sex. Now I’m going to pretend I’m the guy who had a nice time with you last night.

I came across a young woman who was put on Outoilet in this way. The identity hi-jacker pretended to be an interested young man from 5th Avenue who ‘also wanted a blowjob like the one she gave Mario’. This young woman avoided stepping out of her house for weeks, probably as everyone in the street would be reporting whether she was seen heading towards 5th Avenue.
Baudrillard talks of how the fleeting, purely semiotic world of the virtual, comes to replace concrete symbolic objects and rituals which before held in place the real, such as real human relationships of value. In his ‘simulacrum’, the virtual only simulates the real, and is no longer a representation of the real, and through its electric immediacy and its rendering visible of obscene detail, becomes more real than the real,  becomes hyper-real.  Here a mobile phone website is creating virtual webs of omni-present surveillance that trace the streets of the township and isolate those who transgress class boundaries and trap them into immobility like flies. Is it the fetishization of the object of the mobile phone that gives Outoilet’s gossip such authority in these spaces, or is the ubiquitous network of anonymous surveillance that it creates?  Baudrillard would say neither, it is the excess of information that creates the obscene, where everything is ‘more visible than visible’.
It is important to not fall into the technologically determinist trap of the modernists and see all social ills as resulting from the technology. Despite Outoilet’s attacks on reputation in this community, young adults claim that their mobile phone is their only privacy, and that otherwise privacy does not exist. Outoilet certainly cannot be blamed for introducing gossip to this community. However, it has definitely multiplied its reach and immediacy, creating the kind of obscene excesses of information that Baudrilliard describes.

Outoilet subverts notions of progress, revelling in a lower class subversivity akin to Bhakhtin’s carnivalesque, that posits ridicule and laughter as a reply to inequality. Gossip on Outoilet is an aggressive creative act. Creative, in that its users play with language, mixes of facts and fantasy, and the adoption of various identities to produce the dirtiest attacks possible. Aggressive, in that it isolates, vilifies and traps. A synthesis of the violent and the playful, Outoilet’s rejection of both politics and progress leaves little room for hope after the laugh is over.

The moral panic around Outoilet camouflages the fact that South Africa has shaped it. South Africa is Outoilet.  Just like on Outoilet, we live in a society where class and extreme inequality is the subtext for everything, but this is not spoken about. Just like on Outoilet, in South Africa today reputation and morality stand in for class, where the poor are often represented as morally dubious, tending towards corruption and criminality.  Outoilet has made visible the geography of envy that plays out in townships. It throws questions on neoliberal government policies that aim to rescue a select few township youth from their communities through employment schemes or bursaries, instead of addressing root causes. It unmasks how young adults are alienated if they attempt social mobility on a daily basis, as those who attempt to overcome their disadvantages are ‘dragged down’ back into the drain.  It is crude, obscene and violent, not because of its pornographic associations, but because of the violent reality of poverty and inequality that creates the envy that expels the shit floating in this digital cesspool.

Bakhtin, M. M. 1993 [1941, 1965] Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Baudrilliard, J. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St Louis: Telos Press.
Bourgault, L.1995. Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indiana University Press.
Castells, M. 2000. Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society
British Journal of Sociology 51 (1):  5–24
Erasmus, Z., 2001. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: Perspectives on Coloured Identities in the Cape. Cape Town: Kwela Books.
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. Harmondsworth, Middlesex : Penguin.
Ross, F. C., 2010. Raw Life, New Hope: Decency, Housing and Everyday Life in a Post-Apartheid Community. Cape Town: UCT Press.

Alette Schoon lectures in Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University

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