The Age of Social Media Innocence is long over; there’s no going back

It is hard to believe that at the beginning of the decade that just ended most of us were not on WhatsApp. There was no such thing as WhatsApp University. Now WhatsApp good mornings clog the Internet in India. At the beginning of the decade Facebook was still a place where we shared pictures of vacations, thought we were being daring when we described our relationship status as “It’s complicated” and took quizzes to figure out which Disney character we were. We had not clubbed Facebook with fake news and election-meddling. It was the Age of Social Media Innocence.

In pre-social media days I had a certain wistful nostalgia about old school-friends. We would meet once or twice a year, a fine excuse to drink whisky and reminisce about Class 4. But the school WhatsApp group has shattered that nostalgia by exposing a Petri dish of rabid political views, bad grammar and pubescent hormonal jokes. These are not school ties that bind. In fact those overheated WhatsApp groups can actually prove to be a deterrent when it comes to showing up for the annual reunion. WhatsApp at least has a mute button.

On Facebook, usually just a place for fomenting FOMO and envy, friend requests keep coming. A Sandip I did not know sent a request. When I checked I realised he had multiple friends named Sandip. He was a Sandip-collector. Someone I didn’t know from Adam sent a friend request. We had 73 friends in common.And I still had no idea who he was. In fact Facebook has done its part in devaluing the idea of what friend used to mean. Today we should ask “Is she a friend friend or a Facebook-friend?” When a real friend from my school days visited briefly from the U.S., we made sure not to post any pictures of our dinner together on social media in case our common “Facebook friends” found out, which begs the question, what’s social about social media anymore?

Trolls and stalkers

If Instagram was meant to be a pretty picture refuge, that was short-lived. Even there you are being stalked. I get elaborate film pitches meant for Satyajit Ray’s son, another Sandip, on my Instagram account. People just don’t believe that he is not on social media. Now they don’t show the likes counter because we were getting too competitive over there.

Once, people had conversations on Twitter. Now it’s just a troll-pit where people with seven followers spend their time needling celebrities, hoping to provoke some response from them. It’s a curious kind of negative validation. People put “Honoured to be followed by Narendra Modiji” in their bios as if it’s a career accomplishment. But then some people whose Facebook posts read like sentence fragments that have been run through a kitchen chopper get book contracts because of their humongous Twitter following. The only plus point, said a journalist friend, no stranger to being trolled, was that perhaps Twitter was a valve that allowed people to vent their vitriol. “Imagine what those people would be doing in real life if they didn’t have Twitter?” he said, making it sound like a sweat-out-your-toxins yoga class.

But the anonymity of social media also enables a kind of meanness and no-holds-barred misogyny few of us dare reveal in real life. Yes, there is positivity too. Stray puppies do find homes via Facebook posts. But it is not a medium that naturally encourages kindness. Kindness rarely goes viral.

True heroes

Yet despite all this we cannot turn Tiktok the clock to a pre-social media world. That genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Social media is where journalists find leads for stories and freelancers post their work. Social media is a business tool, a directory and a portable office. When an old friend logged off Facebook I realised I no longer had an email or phone number.

The true heroes of this decade are those who dare to go off social media. My friend the writer Prajwal Parajuly signed off Facebook 10 months ago despite having a massive and doting fan following. He said he was bored. I still make him suffer by sending screenshots of eyeroll-worthy things mutual “friends” are up to.

“It’s career suicide, I know, but it’s so liberating,” he says. “Every so often I wonder if I have ceased to be relevant. That’s okay, though. There’s a certain beauty TO being irrelevant.” But his days of exile might be numbered. His novel Land Where I Flee is coming out in French in 2020 and his agent has been harassing him to get back on Facebook.

With the 20/20 vision that comes with the end of a decade, it’s clear that when it comes to social media you can run but you cannot hide.

The writer is the author of Don't Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.