First published as After social media in Republica daily
During my teenage years, I craved attention and recognition from people. Some of my memories of plus two years include being fed up of an insignificant existence in this overcrowded world. There used to be bouts of a suffocating feeling that I will live and die just as an insignificant average citizen of a poor and wretched third world country.
Over years, the feeling got diluted and I thought I got past that craving. Looking back now, however, I feel otherwise. Instead of vanishing without trace, that craving had silently morphed into something else and was driving much of my passion. At 24, I started blogging and kept on writing so compulsively and prolifically that now, after a decade, there are 557 published posts in my main blog and there are altogether 23 blogs that I have created and posted something in. One of them contains a whole book. The others deal with topics as varied as Ebola and postmodernism. And there are scores of my articles published by newspapers and other online outlets.
Besides other less easily definable motives, I now see my craving for recognition as one of the main drivers for so voluminous a writing. Over the second half of the decade, blogging got the boost from social media as now I was no longer the only reader of much of my work. In the meantime, social media was itself evolving as the vehicle of choice for everybody who sought attention. If, in 2008, I felt more empowered than my friends who did not blog, by 2012 or so, everybody was a writer, publisher, activist, humorist, mentor, photographer, etc., thanks to Facebook. A little later, as Twitter penetrated deeper in Nepal, everybody was a master arguer, philosopher and a savior of the country and the society. This wave of people’s empowerment—which I have labeled as quasi- or pseudo-empowerment over time—was both much deeper and wider compared to the one led by the pre-social media online publishing and blogging.
Ever since I became active in social media, I was aware of its downsides and desisted from its provocative use. Whenever I was engaged in arguments and debates, I tried to keep them as decent as possible. When provoked, instead of pounding back immediately, I took my time and responded as gently as possible. Some of my memorable moments in social media use came while interacting with people as diverse as an Egyptian participant of Arab spring and the American filmmaker Michael Moore. After a friend insinuated in a Facebook post that Moore was a hypocrite, I debated with him in the comment section and then posted the ensuing debate between him and me in my blog and tweeted it to the filmmaker. To my surprise, he responded with three tweets.
The most remarkable and meaningful use of social media for me took place during the drive against Lokman Singh Karki when the mainstream media’s coverage of the issue was less consistent than we desired. Indeed that was the time when even the editors took to twitter to say what they could not in the pages of their own newspapers. After a laborious day of street protests, simply compiling and embedding a series of incisive tweets by a dozen people would make a comprehensive and meaningful post—full of important images, cartoons and even videos—which would then be shared widely through the social media.
Over time, though, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the factor of obsession that went on with social media use. Even if you knew it was time you left the screen and went to bed, the urge to keep scrolling the mostly parochial posts of others was irresistible. You knew the in-depth piece you are writing needed utmost attention but you could not just resist checking out the likes and comments in Facebook and the notifications in Twitter. Along with my own discomfort with direct social media use, I enthusiastically followed a constant stream of articles in international media looking into the abusive side of social media platforms. While I never considered myself as particularly vulnerable to trolling (I remember blocking only one or two persons in Twitter over nearly five years of active use), the toll taken by them in the most meaningful discourses of the day was damning.
One particularly glaring example was how the trolls successfully ‘broke Amir Khan’s spirit’ according to an incisive piece published in Indian online outlet Catchnews.com. Khan, once ready to confront the establishment by standing with movements like Narmada Bachao Aandolan, was transformed by the vicious attack from the religious right—mostly online trolling—into someone ready to make a sycophantic support of demonetization and dismissive of the suffering of millions of people including 100 who died because of that decision by the government.
Then one day near the end of 2016, somebody shared a New York Times article in twitter titled ‘Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It’. One particular line in the article resonated so deeply within me that I instantly decided to quit Facebook and Twitter. This said: As you become more valuable to the marketplace, good things will find you. In other words: you should focus more on finessing your product—physical or otherwise—rather than endlessly worrying about its reception by others and peddling it to others from social media etc. I asked the inevitable question to myself: was I wasting too much of time and effort in peddling my articles with less of both left to finesse them?
From the evening of 31st December, 2016, I stopped using my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Ever since, I have been closely watching the mammoth scandals that are unfolding, including the ones related to abuse of these platforms during US presidential election. I am also closely watching the anxiety arising from the fact that the oligopoly of top five technology companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google’s parent company Alphabet and Facebook) is riding roughshod over competitors gobbling up the market share as well as advertising revenues—Google and Facebook now reportedly consume three quarters of the digital-ad market in the world. Over this year, well-meaning people doing public-spirited journalism who once felt immensely empowered by Facebook have the new feeling of being smothered by it, thanks to few small tweaks in the platform’s algorithm resulting in a precipitous decline in viewer traffic. Listing all the vices of social media discovered in 2017 is beyond scope of this article.
As soon as I stopped using social media, the volume of my writing came down drastically: I posted only 24 articles in my blog, many of them cross-posts from newspapers, over past year. So did the number of photographs I took with my cellphone. Meanwhile, the nature of material I read has changed. Along with the New York Times in print, I made a habit of printing and reading long articles from sources as varied as Caravan from India, New Yorker from the US, Guardian from the UK and so on. I spent much more time in Youtube, not watching videos but downloading and listening to them while walking. The nearly 100 documentaries, most of them related to history (rise of Christianity, fate of Roman Empire, the Dark Age, the Crusades, the Protestant Reform Movement, the Enlightenment, American civil war, recent histories of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, etc) have fascinated me so much that my cellphone sometimes contains more than 70 downloaded videos.
On writing also, I have tried to be much more frugal with words and have entirely omitted writing on many issues and ideas that would have once compelled me to write about them. Most importantly, however, I have learnt to value the restraint and silence—and the accompanying dignity—in my social and intellectual life. Just imagine: if, over the past decade, everybody as literate as me had written 557 articles and thrown them in the public domain, what would have happened? With social media now, something akin to that is happening. Has this made us better–more empathetic and considerate–human beings? At a more fundamental level, this year of unusual serenity and peace has helped me re-examine my own attitude towards ‘meaningful’ life. Does pummeling your ideas to others hoping to change them as per your wish constitute a service to mankind thus giving meaning to your life? Or is it self-reflection and self-transformation that helps to make this world better?
Conversely, what if this inward journey discourages you from offering to the society something that may be of genuine use and help to others? How do you strike a balance between the two opposing journeys so that your own optimum development and your most meaningful interaction with the society do not obstruct one another? Having (hopefully) finally got rid of the teenage obsession to attention from the world, I am now free to explore answers to this question.