FB community honours murdered Professor

This afternoon, Professor Mike Larkin of UCT’s law department will be laid to rest in Rondebosch. He was stabbed and murdered for the briefcase he was carrying home from work last Friday evening, most likely resisting because of the exam scripts therein. From what I have heard and read of Prof. Larkin over the last week, the inconvenience the loss of these scripts would cause his students was probably foremost in his mind, instead of his own safety.

You might wonder why I am writing about this here on a blog about political marketing and new media (not withstanding the warning in my first blog that I might climb on a political soapbox from time to time), and not as a contribution to the DA’s Eye on Crime blog. There are two reasons…

The one reason is that this post is quite personal for me: my girlfriend was one of Prof. Larkin’s students and, like many others who were touched by him, felt his loss quite keenly. Another is that I was struck by the significant role that Facebook played in the mourning of, and playing tribute to, Prof. Larkin by his students and friends.

The story first broke in the Weekend Argus last Saturday, but it quickly moved on to Facebook, where students expressed their shock, disbelief and horror at the tragedy on the Wall of the UCT Law Group. Within a couple of hours, two new groups were started: ‘Tribute to Professor Mike Larkin‘ and ‘In remembrance of Professor Michael Larkin‘.

These groups dispel any doubts that online communities are real. Many of the people who joined these groups were friends, classmates or colleagues. For them, Facebook was merely an extension of a pre-existing community. But it went beyond that. Many wall posts were from all around the world – people who had been taught by, or worked with, Prof. Larkin in the past, but were not connected to the UCT students who set up the groups in anyway. Some of them expressed their appreciation for the opportunity the groups provided to share in the tribute and to be a part of the community that was mourning their loss.

Besides the tributes, Facebook served as a forum for the students to co-author letters to the newspapers and local radio stations about the incident. There is a strong sense of activism that has been generated among them to do something about crime, for the UCT community in particular, but also for South Africa generally.

It was also used to announce a memorial walk, which resulted in a phenomenal turnout at short notice. A video tribute featuring the walk, the laying of flowers at the site of the murder and interviews with colleagues and students was subsequently posted on MyVideo and linked to the groups.

I am not sure I would have been as moved by visiting these groups and reading about Prof. Larkin if I hadn’t been connected to the community, albeit extremely peripherally. In truth, I probably would never have known about these groups and, desensitised as we’ve all become to stories about crime in the media, I probably would have read the story on the front page of the newspaper, perhaps felt a pang of anger and despair at the high levels of crime in SA, and then moved on. We don’t often stop to think about the people left behind.

But every story you read has a community like this one affected by it, living the tragedy, mourning the loss of their loved one, friend or colleague. They’re not all online, but they’re all real. It has been quite eye-opening to be a virtual fly-on-the-wall of this community. It’s also brought home for me the fact that Facebook isn’t just for fun; it can play a very serious and important role in the way people express themselves and interact with each other. It offers a very real sense of community at times when the need for that sense of belonging and sharing is particularly strongly felt.

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