City City Bang Bang, Columns

The WhatsApp group – India’s emotional pipeline?

Every morning, all over India people are waking up to roses, inspirational quotes in pink and pious sentiments trimmed to fit in verse. Through the day, we receive a barrage of opinions, memes, ‘shairis’, regurgitated stories, outrageous conspiracy theories, libel-seeking gossip missiles, nostalgia-laden pictures featuring moustaches, and really long jokes. An instant messaging app that allows us to connect across different operating platforms, WhatsApp is fast moving eternity, belonging without end. Belonging to a WhatsApp group is like a lifetime membership of a particularly loquacious and persistent cult.

Unlike other social media sites though, WhatsApp builds a sense of community of an intimate kind, even if the group is a large one. We become a circle huddling together, wondering aloud, musing, chortling together, groaning inwardly often, but finding some common thread that we find value in. Every WhatsApp group becomes a kind of family, and like all families feels warm and dysfunctional at the same time.

It is astonishing how much people who have had little contact for decades suddenly find so much to say to each other on a hourly basis once connected. Reminiscences and old inside jokes are the staple to begin, but soon every whatsapp group tends to sameness, and it is not unusual to find the same joke, video or outrageous lie appearing within minutes on all one’s various groups. Everyone drinks from the same stream of consciousness, it would appear.

Unlike other social media sites, on WhatsApp escape is not easy. Membership is watched closely, and deserters identified swiftly. Every person that leaves a group do so with the audible gasp rising like a stink bomb among those left behind. You are too good for us, is it, is the often articulated lament. So one stays on, in mute acquiescence to a shared connection, renewed too energetically to be comfortable, but too valuable to be snapped.

The codes of response are more stringent than on other social media applications. On Facebook, thanks to its algorithm which is God-like in its apparent randomness, one can always miss a message. Also, it takes nothing to click ‘like’, or type in an emoji or mumble LOL. On WhatsApp, that does not do. Every breathless announcement of an obscure aunt has to be acknowledged in aunt-appropriate language. One has to be alert to the speed of one’s response- being a laggard raises digital eyebrows, and abstaining from commenting is not really an option in many cases.

If on Facebook, one shares lofty articles and cute videos, on WhatsApp, one can share pretty much anything. No quality standards apply. WhatsApp is the headquarters of the desultory, of the thought-mumble that is a lazy stirring at the back of the mind which then becomes a gift that we instantly decant on the world. The closed nature of the community reduces barriers to entry and participation. At one level, everyone who matters is watching, and at another, everything that is being said is in private. It helps that in the fast moving stream of posts, little is retained as a permanent document. Thoughts on whatsapp perish quickly, which is something to be fervently grateful about.

Think of it as cultural plumbing; of pipelines set in real time between closed groups that share something in common. WhatsApp is a not merely an app that sits on our phones, but an intricate network that, like its other counterparts in social media, has its own structural logic. It enables certain kind of ideas and actions, and discourages others. It connects, encloses, re-connects, reinforces, sucks in participants towards a conceptual centre, among other things.

WhatsApp is our bubble, a digital representation of our comfort zone. Sealed off from light, whispers resound, conversations arc towards the centre, where comfort lies, the consensus of emotions converging in a warm flush. Here the logic of the group lies in finding sameness and locating convergences. Those dissenting are pushed outwards as they find their comments ignored or petulantly reacted to. After a while, it is simply not worth the effort to disagree. Ideas not fitting in into the dominant ethos of a group cannot survive.

If media is air, whatsapp is what lies underground. It validates all existing ideas, strengthens stereotypes, doubles down on a point of connection, operates through the axis of similarity and familiarity. The whisper becomes louder as it gets repeated, things that cannot be said aloud, even today, begin to, through waves of recirculation, acquire the currency of legitimacy. The tentative whisper becomes an assertive roar.

An instant messaging platform like WhatsApp renews fading connections and rescues once meaningful relationships from withering away. We bask in the familiarity of each other, discovering that our often tenuous connections are still more significant than the ones we have formed more recently, particularly on other social media platforms.

But the very fact that here we deepen the circle of familiarity and form a group that rallies around some dominant values and ideas makes this platform perhaps the most powerful tool of propaganda that exists today. Its comfortable nature invites wide participation, even from those that are otherwise wary of technology. WhatsApp is idle chatter that gets consumed without too many defences, and without having to test it against any form of external reality. Conjecture hardens into certainty which in turn becomes a fact which effortlessly converts into a form of consensus. And best of all, it is invisible to the outside world until it emerges as rock hard certainty.

The world is shaped by ideas which in turn is shaped by the way human minds are thrown together. New forms of social media are configured in ways that are producing newer patterns of convergence and divergence in the ways we think and the ideas we agree upon. Of all the new media platforms, whatsapp helps reconnect us to the dominant ideas of a homogenous social group. Politically and culturally, this has profound implications, the contours of which we have not yet fully grasped.

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