I open the newspaper and read that a reputed research institute has found that getting of Facebook makes people happier. In another piece, one that has inspired me this morning, I read that many 20-something in Europe are organizing themselves via social media, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, to volunteer at refugee camps and help stations along the Balkan refugee route. Their volunteerism is filling a crucial gap where governments and international organizations are failing humanity through various errors of omission or commission.
This right here is the paradox of the modern digitally connected world, a world that brings everything to our doorstep and yet drives us further into self-obsession and paranoia. A world that has the potential for positive transformation but that also can peddle dangerous misinformation that can destroy the social fabric we live in. Which brings me to something I have been deeply concerned about lately. As users of social media, how responsible are we about what we ‘like’ and ‘share’, how accountable are we for our ‘comments’ and ‘replies’, our ‘retweets’ and ‘mentions’? Are we conscious that our actions on social media influence many others? Are we responsible enough?
Much of the presumably passive behaviour on social media send out the wrong signals to those who are aggressively peddling a specific agenda. For instance, someone I know shared some inflammatory (read communal, racist) content on Whatsapp recently because someone close to her had shared it. When I brought it up, she got very defensive about it. She said she wasn’t going to risk offending her friend by taking a stand and refusing to share something she had expressly been requested to. Does a friend’s refusal to share content posted by you constitute a breach of friendship? How do we construe etiquette on social media, which typically reduces everything to binaries (like or not, retweet or not), unless you are prepared for a longer, more time-consuming, engaged interaction over comments and responses?
Another example of passive online behaviour is the endless sharing and forwarding of hoax messages. From the erstwhile menace of email chain letters that spread in a few days, we’re now in the age of social media shares that can go round the world in a matter of minutes! Hoaxes prey on our fears and most of us respond with a ‘share’ out of genuine concern for those around us. However, sharing a hoax also means adding substantially to the climate of paranoia and alarm around us. I find this totally unnecessary and have started cross-checking the verity of all alarmist messages before deciding to share. Perhaps if we were to be pro-active about warning our friends of the ‘hoax-ness’ of certain messages, we might be doing each other a huge favour!
Coming back to the passiveness of non-engagement. When we refrain from expressing dissent or engaging in an argument, do we fail to stand up for what we believe in? Can we find ways to debate on social media without being abusive, without becoming the trolls we constantly complain about? Is the short format available to us via FB/Twitter/LinkedIn inherently unsuitable to meaningful conversation and more suited to simplistic reductions?
To put it plainly, I’m concerned at the way the educated urban elite is peddling information via social media without really engaging with it. In our own way, by practicing a kind of reductionism we are exacerbating the problem of lower tolerance. We are aiding the creation of a society where nuance and civilised debate is fast becoming an impossibility. We do need to take a step back and think about this. For our actions, not just physical but also virtual, are continually shaping the world in which we live, a world we share with a new generation of impressionable young people who deserve a more tolerant, more encouraging and more diverse universe.
The future is in safe hands: Inspired by the bonding, empathy between students from two ends of the world
When mHS took on the task of hosting a workshop in the slums of Delhi for a class of American students from the ACARA program at the University of Minnesota, we spent a lot of time worrying about how to do this without just landing inside a community like aliens and shooting questions at those who lived there. And so we partnered with a well-known NGO Katha, which runs a school in Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri near Kalkaji, New Delhi. Class 12 students from the Katha Khazana school took the lead in introducing 15 American students to their community. They took them home, helped them speak to shopkeepers and neighbors and relatives, showed them places they liked and places they would like to change. They also spoke of their aspirations, their lives, their dreams, their future, their joys and sorrows…
In the two-day workshop, we who were wearing the facilitator’s hat found that while we did need to step in to translate conversations related to the assignment the University students were doing, we had no need to intervene in the bonds that we being formed between the Katha kids and the American ones. By the end of the two-hour visit on Saturday, the tone of conversations was relaxed and informal. By the end of that first day, Facebook requests were flying around. By Day 2, they were sharing earphones and exchanging views on music, eating together, taking pictures together, body language had changed. Even the girls from the Katha school who were from conservative families (parents were calling every half hour to check on them) were mixing openly and clearly feeling very comfortable with the American students.
Undoubtedly, this is a different generation. With apparently so little in common (language, affluence, social background, family structures, exposure….), young people can connect effortlessly both in person as well as via social networks on a variety of common subjects like music, role models, aspirations, relationships…… In a flash, they can bridge an enormous gap, something that has never been possible before in the history of humankind; and technology helps them do this effectively and maintain that connection long after their time together. What’s more, they have no hesitations about taking that leap. Not all the bad news in the world-media screaming headlines about rapes, warnings from anxious parents and Embassy bulletins giving all sorts of travel advisories, nothing can deter young people from taking forward a connection once they deem in worth their attention.
What is equally striking is the enormous capacity for empathy. In these two days, we saw children who had never stepped outside the proverbial ‘West’ sit squeezed inside the matchbox-sized homes of their new friends genuinely trying to find out about how they live and what bothers them, We saw them walk over open sewers and across garbage dumps, ask the most sensitive questions in the nicest way and even walk into the filthiest toilets in the world without even wrinkling their noses! I actively tried to dissuade one particular student from doing that. He hadn’t been too well and I had just seen the appalling conditions in the community toilets. I genuinely thought he didn’t need to subject himself to that experience. But on he went. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me” he declared! Of course, those toilets are not good enough for the community and that’s a story for another post, but I was sufficiently impressed by his determination and genuine empathy with the people who lived in Bhumiheen Camp.
Observing the young people from Katha and University of Minnesotta during this two-day workshop filled me with a sense of hope. The future is in safe hands if the young can so effortlessly exhibit sensitivity and concern and genuinely find common ground with those unlike them. I am inspired, indeed infected, by the innocence, spontaneity and simplicity of the interactions i saw and resolve to bring more of these aspects into my life. A new, better way of doing things, perhaps.
Can’t let FB replace real contact: Am resolving to call and meet the people that matter to me this festive season- Oct 19, 2012
I love social networking, but I realized how much it had changed my life when I caught up with a dear friend recently. She is not active on Facebook. In fact, she is only comfortable with visits and phone calls. Even sms and email is a no-no. In a way, she is how we are were before the communication madness hit the world.
This friend and I go back a long way to a time when we were snivelling, crazy children in primary school. We were a riot. Parents would be looking high and low for us while we played ghar-ghar under some row of bushes somewhere, or up in one corner of the terrace! We fought, we yelled, we played and we were mostly inseparable for some four years of our lives way back in Parel, Mumbai.
Yes, that was a different place, a different time. A world gone by. A world in which a landline phone was a luxury. And letters and occasional phone calls were how people communicated. Friends met up, like face-to-face met up, all the time. Despite lives being equally busy, I remember my parents took out a lot of time for meeting family and friends for outings, dinners, walks, or even just a cup of tea in each other’s homes.
So this friend and I live in the same city, sort of. She lives in Delhi, I love in Gurgaon. We speak on an average once a month, usually when one of her children is ill and she is stressed out. When you know someone else for most of your life, just speaking with them is comforting. So yes, we use each other as support, to boost our morale when we are down or simply to let off steam when we are mad.
We meet a couple of times a year. And we have no contact in any other way. No FB, no sms, no BBM, nothing. That seems strange at times. So many people who are merely acquaintances are reading my status updates and blog entries, looking at pictures of my children. They know about what’s happening in my life. I meet them and they comment on some pic they liked or someplace we had been to. And this best friend from my childhood is oblivious to the details of my life.
When we meet, the catching up is very very real, intense and pleasurable. We actually have to fill in for things that have happened over months. We have to share our ups and downs, our state of mind. We have to indulge in nostalgia, laugh about old incidents, discuss the health of our parents and children, remember my father’s fun loving ways (he was a big factor in both our lives).
But it’s not only the exchange of information that enriches the meeting. It’s the joy we feel at seeing each other…I love the familiarity of her voice, the expressions that flit across her face, the idiosyncrasies that are so endearing, the comfort that she knows me so well that I can say anything I feel and get away with it….it’s a different sort of joy from seeing a friend’s picture on Facebook or exchanging an email. Nothing substitutes for real contact, no matter how much pleasure we get from virtual interactions.
Of course, I am glad social networks exist we can connect to many more people. But because we have an easy way out, we don’t make the effort any more. A few other friends, who also still believe in the traditional modes of contact, continue to call and speak to me a few times a year. And I love those conversations. But I find I hardly ever make a random call to a friend nowadays. That act has been replaced with writing on someone’s wall. And at times, when I am down and out and just want to reach out, I find I am inhibited and don’t make that call I badly need to cheer me up. I end up thinking I have very few close friends and wallow in self pity for some time. But the truth is that I am ashamed to call a friend to whine when I haven’t called her in ages to just catch up! And it simply won’t do to whine on FB, would it?
Social networking has, in a sense, replaced quality with quantity. And sometimes that’s not such a good thing. So here’s to making a renewed effort to call and meet the people I think matter in my life! And what better time of the year to start than in the festive season…
I started the journey into social networking with the mandatory Orkut account ages ago, and then Facebook. These were purely a way to get back in touch with long lost friends. And to take online the conversations with the current friends circle that we cannot have face to face as our lives are too busy! Sharing photos, thoughts and experiences were a natural extension.
But things began to change when I started blogging. To promote by blog, I tentatively got myself a twitter handle. I remember asking Nupur how the hell this thing worked! I was rather at sea. And inside me somewhere, I had this notion that spending hours on social media was a retarded thing to do! Well, things have changed drastically in just a few months. I am very much that excited moron today! And proud to be one.
How did this happen, and why? For a person like me, who thinks a zillion thoughts a day, whose interests lie in many different directions and who yearns to share, listen, debate and interact, social media is nothing short of a blessing. By offsetting my blog with just two sites- Facebook and Twitter, I can achieve a mix of interactions that keep me invigorated, excited, curious about life and the world around me.
The real serious stuff that I feel strongly about goes on my blog. That is a form of self expression. The communication with my friends tends to happen directly or via FB. The fun stuff, posting pics of my kids, outings or travel, the conversations about daily events- all that good stuff is what FB is about for me. Yes, I do follow pages of social causes I identify with or organizations I find relevant, but that is a secondary activity and does not occupy much mindspace.
Twitter is where I assume my professional, intellectual (ha!) persona. It started with a deliberate positioning and I decided to follow media, organizations and individuals related to urbanism, planning and design. But over a period of time, it has changed to include a whole bunch of what I term ‘thinking, liberal’ people as well. I enjoy reading a wide range of opinions on diverse issues. I love the opportunity Twitter provides to get into a meaningful conversation or stay out of something you don’t agree with it. Or voice disagreement and dissent if that is required.
Occasionally, the boundaries between FB and Twitter do melt. Kids pics appear on Twitter via Instagram (another wonderful app). And links that I consider good for wider reading do get shared on FB, like the editorial by Ranjit Sabikhi I shared today morning.
On the whole, social networking helps me stay updated and connected, especially important for a flexi-worker like me. I work for a small organization and there are limited opportunities for physical networking as my children are young and I have chosen to spend time at home to be with them. With four standard windows open on the browser- Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and WordPress, I feel empowered and engaged. Loneliness and boredom keep away and that’s pretty much what constitutes happiness, for the most part.
Yes, I do find myself wondering if living a life via social networking will impact my real world relationships adversely. Up until now, the real and virtual worlds are complementing each other beautifully. But I am aware that there is a need for caution. When you get used to sharing too much, some private, intimate and vital aspects get short shrift, because they are unsharable. So yes, I do know I need to carve out a lion’s share of space in my mind for the real world experiences that must, ultimately, feed my world on the social networks!