It could’ve been an innocuously ‘funny’ forward by my aunt on a family WhatsApp group—one of the many forwards from here, there and everywhere, bound only by a common family ‘ethos’. Lately, that ethos has slipped into war-mongering, anti-reservation and casually communal ‘nationalism’. No wonder my otherwise ‘peace-loving’ aunty thought a virulently communal ‘joke’ could be funny for the rest of us. What had been latent was now in full bloom—that’s what a flood of emotions in the form of jokes, memes and videos can do to you.
The era of mass digital communication is an era of constant engagement. The billion-plus WhatsApp users around the world engage with around 50 billion messages, 1.6 billion pictures and 250 million videos every day. We have never communicated with each other at such a pace, or in so many ways, ever before. WhatsApp took all our existing ideas—phone calls, SMS, MMS, chat rooms, Bluetooth—and tied them together. And being the country with the largest number of WhatsApp users, we know all this too well. Also, how it has changed our lives. As I write this on my smartphone, standing at a busy intersection in New Delhi, I’ve already counted three bikers typing away on theirs as they manoeuvre their bikes with the other hand. They’ve got to be WhatsApping, isn’t it?
WhatsApp did what Facebook couldn’t—it reached most of our tier-III towns and villages alongwith internet and that advanced pocket computer, the smartphone. It needed no ‘acclimatisation’ with the ‘world wide web’ over the preceding two decades for this sudden connection with the world to be established in the hinterland through smartphones. With that opened the floodgates to jokes like the one my aunty forwarded. That joke was meant for our closed group, but can anything remain private in a digital network?
Everything we write on WhatsApp, each joke cracked, each picture shared, is like a digital footprint and technology is tuned towards archiving it. And it spreads like wildfire. Sometimes, almost literally: a remark intended to be a joke triggered communal tension; a text about beef led to the arrest and custodial death of a young man.
Indeed, the effects of democratising communication can be both fascinating and scary. It’s a ‘post-fact world’, like someone said, where information is not our concern, but it’s our problem. WhatsApp is designed to disseminate a crazy amount of content in its free-flowing network. It’s we who give it context.