Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for August, 2021 is Digital Realities. We invite submissions on the many layers of experiences from the virtual world throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to email@example.com
The impact created by COVID-19-induced lockdown is undeniable. A shift to digital cultures reconstituted our engagement with work, people, and hobbies. As I say this, I recognise the privilege of economic capital: a smooth shift to the digital life is possible only when personal or familial survival is not particularly threatened. My experience with the lockdowns is, consequently, one of the many experiences, all of which retain their validity.
The internet and I share a complex relationship. My teenage fascination with digital networks of communication ended shortly after I received eighteen unsolicited pictures of penises on WhatsApp. A year later, thirty more followed. In addition, several strangers sent me inappropriate messages on Instagram. Someone even temporarily hacked my Gmail account. It can be hard to love the internet and the gendered space that it has come to be in the wake of such experiences.
Recent developments have raised more concerns about the nuances of the internet. For instance, the political theatre on Twitter compels us to acknowledge the increasingly important role that social media companies are gaining. Every time Facebook deletes a post or Twitter blocks an account, we must ask: what legitimacy do these mediators have? How is it that platforms with no accountability demand accountability from us?
While I consider my criticism valid, I couldn’t help but succumb to the participation in the virtual world during the lockdowns. My professors had already shared Google Meet links. A few groups on WhatsApp had taken the initiative to collate reliable resources that users could access if they sought any form of medical intervention.
Uninstalling WhatsApp was not an option, the application hosted several formal groups that I could not leave. Instagram had to be reinstalled to cope with home isolation.
Even as I questioned my complicity in the system that I sought to criticise, I couldn’t find an alternative. After all, what is the alternative to social media applications? Possibly a different technological intervention with its own set of problems. That said, the Internet, particularly the Zoom culture, did encourage me to take up new habits during this period.
Reading, conversing, and listening together
Shortly after the lockdown, an intimate group of friends and acquaintances formed a WhatsApp group titled, ‘The Scriblerus Club‘. Our initial purpose was to create a weekly webinar series to discuss literature and occasionally write short fiction or poetry. We decided to not professionalise our discussions for public consumption on social media as we did not seek commercial profit.
The first discussion was somewhat awkward since nobody knew what had to be done. Sometimes, in a 45-minute discussion on Zoom, we spent around 20 minutes on personal conversations. Since we did not have concrete professional or academic expectations, we were not particularly concerned about the ‘wastage’ of time.
Throughout the past year, we have discussed a diverse range of topics including Orwell’s dystopian fiction, Korean novels, Malayalam films, American novellas, contemporary flash fiction, war poetry, short documentaries, rap songs, etc.
In interweaving well-known novels with popular songs, we hoped to reshape our understanding of the possibilities within literature. Occasionally, we would also incorporate debates pertaining to India’s current social and political realities. Discussions on global issues were also not uncommon.
Weekly discussions sometimes got postponed on account of emergencies. Otherwise, the group remains a reliable source of information-exchange and knowledge sharing. Together, we read, watch, and listen to unlearn and relearn. I hope we continue to sustain our shared passion for literature.
Bringing cinema halls home through Zoom
The digital culture facilitated by the lockdown inspired another activity: my regular video calls with my best friend metamorphosed into film watching sessions where we laughed together for all the right reasons. Here’s the procedure: we meet on Zoom and use the share-screen feature to watch something publicly available, typically on YouTube.
My friend and I are quite scared of horror films. While neither of us believes in ghosts or apparitions, accelerated montages depicting actors in realistic makeup can easily terrify us. Watching horror films together helped us share our fear and simultaneously make hilarious observations, if and when possible.
The success of our tradition is contingent on the subject matter of the film, which essentially means that we tend to watch films that provide us with the potential to comment and laugh at the plot. This is why films that narrate unrealistic or overdramatic stories remain a popular choice.
The other alternative is, as mentioned before, the horror genre, which works only because we depend on talking and laughing as a mechanism to cope with fear.
Book challenges, using social media to streamline personal growth
Reading challenges on the Internet motivated me to read one academic book every week. Consequently, a few months ago, I created an Instagram account to blog my progress by sharing chapter-wise book summaries. I think that a material record can encourage us to read more. I wholeheartedly recommend a similar strategy to fellow readers.
I tend to read books that broadly deal with feminist, postcolonial, or Marxist frameworks. After I finish reading, I open Microsoft Power point to document a short summary. I post screenshots of the presentation on my Instagram account. The process can sometimes be time-consuming, which makes it difficult to maintain the habit. (I hope to overcome my current backlog by next week.)
While I enjoy making academic knowledge accessible, I do not wish to create ‘content’ for users. I respect the choice that content creators make, but I am not certain whether such an initiative would align with my personal schedule. This is why I have not converted my profile into a business account or promoted it within my social circles.
The creation of a different account has also helped me to re-route my digital interaction: since I now follow around thirty-three accounts, I get the opportunity to reduce information overload and connect with organisations and people whose work I truly admire.
Even when we benefit from the Internet, I believe that it is important to remain skeptical of its power systems. Strategising for personal growth or interpersonal interaction should not necessarily result in uncritical submission to its appeal.
I end with two questions: Is the use of virtual applications, particularly social media, for self-growth counter-productive for companies that depend on our obsession with these digital worlds? If so, is it a form of resistance?
Featured Image Source: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India