ECHO CHAM­BER RE­DE­FINED

What hap­pens in­side In­dia’s What­sApp groups – apart from post­ing jokes and pic­tures?

Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - FRONT PAGE - Snigdha Poonam snigdha.poonam@hin­dus­tan­times.com

What’s the worst thing you can do on a What­sApp group – send good morn­ing quotes/for­ward mar­riage jokes/make up con­ve­nient facts? Think again.

“In my school group, there is a friend who can­not be both­ered to write ‘happy birth­day’. She copies and pastes the last sent mes­sage, spell­ing mis­takes and smi­leys in­cluded, which looks quite weird,” said Riti Khanna, a beauty care pro­fes­sional based in Delhi.

“The worst are ‘sales moms’. We had one in our mom group who started deal­ing in China-sourced baby prod­ucts – toys, blan­kets, bot­tles. She would send 100 photos of one prod­uct one af­ter the other. When I ob­jected to it on the group, she called me a dic­ta­tor,” said Am­rita Gupta, a banker based in Mum­bai.

“There are peo­ple in my alumni group who, when they don’t agree with what I am say­ing in an ar­gu­ment, get per­sonal. For ex­am­ple, when I ex­pressed my doubts about de­mon­eti­sa­tion on the group, one of them said I must have hoarded black money,” said Aman Ma­lik, a prod­uct designer based in Gur­gaon.

To­day it’s hard to find some­one who isn’t tired of What­sApp groups, but it’s harder to find some­one who is not a mem­ber of one. What­sApp is to mid­dle-class In­di­ans what Snapchat is to Amer­i­can teenagers: a so­cial net­work that re­ally, truly gets them. While they ac­count for most of the back­lash against the mes­sag­ing plat­form, deadly ru­mours aren’t the only thing that cir­cu­lates through In­dia’s What­sApp net­work of 200 mil­lion users, the world’s largest mar­ket for the app. Ex­tremely open (free to down­load, easy to use) and en­tirely closed (end-to-end en­crypted), Face­book’s in­stant mes­sag­ing app is cen­tral to the mak­ing of com­mu­nity and con­sen­sus in In­dia to­day. The Fam­ily Group isn’t What­sApp’s only of­fer­ing to In­dian so­ci­ety. The plat­form has cre­ated whole new vir­tual com­mu­ni­ties – school mom group, condo group – as well as animated old as­so­ci­a­tions like alumni and party mem­bers.

How is a WhatApp group dif­fer­ent from one formed over email or Face­book? It’s ur­gent and in­ti­mate – ur­gent be­cause it ex­ists on the smart­phone and in­ti­mate be­cause it’s held to­gether not by com­mon in­ter­est but core con­nec­tions, as mem­bers of a fam­ily, of­fice, build­ing, or alumni. What­sApp pro­vides not only a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion but also a tem­plate for it. There are no lim­its: you can post as many up­dates in a day as you like on as many top­ics as you like, mak­ing it to­tally nor­mal to go from talk­ing about maids to talk­ing about Modi. The con­ver­sa­tions bare the soul of mod­ern In­dia: likes and dis­likes, pride and prej­u­dice, fear and loathing.

So, what are In­di­ans cur­rently talk­ing about over What­sApp?

MA­JOR­ITY RULES

An­shu Ku­mar, a Delhi-based lawyer, is a part of an alumni group from a pres­ti­gious law school. “Ev­ery­one is placed high in their ca­reers. Mem­bers are added se­lec­tively; there is even a wait­ing list for en­try. It’s meant for net­work­ing within le­gal and pub­lic pol­icy com­mu­nity. But peo­ple are con­stantly post­ing about cur­rent af­fairs, of­ten with­out check­ing their facts,” he said. In Au­gust, the out­go­ing vice pres­i­dent, Hamid An­sari, ruf­fled feath­ers by say­ing that Mus­lims felt in­se­cure and uneasy in to­day’s In­dia. Within sec­onds, smart­phones across In­dia were buzzing with What­sApp alerts. “A col­lege se­nior on our group said Hamid An­sari was a cousin of Mukhtar An­sari, the gang­ster-politi­cian from east­ern Ut­tar Pradesh. I pointed out that it was not true. He got ag­gres­sive and said he knows best be­cause he is from the same area. I sent him a link to an ar­ti­cle stat­ing his fam­ily back­ground; he sent me a link to post­card news af­firm­ing his re­la­tions with the crim­i­nal. I said ‘this is bull­shit’, but he still didn’t back down.”

Few of the group’s 254 mem­bers are Mus­lims, said Ku­mar. “They just go quiet when some­thing like this hap­pens.” As do women when male mem­bers of the group post jokes about the glass ceil­ing, and par­tic­i­pants from Dalit and tribal com­mu­ni­ties ev­ery time some­one brings up merit. “I usu­ally stay quiet when a man posts a sex­ist joke,” said Am­rita Gupta, mem­ber of an alumni group from her busi­ness school.

Last month, af­ter years of check­ing facts on his many What­sApp groups – school, col­lege, fam­ily – Aman Ma­lik quit them all. “Peo­ple were push­ing con­tent with­out ver­i­fy­ing facts or car­ing about the agenda be­hind them. I be­came no­to­ri­ous for post­ing links to ar­ti­cles by cred­i­ble jour­nal­ists.” But af­ter fail­ing to con­vince fel­low mem­bers on his B school alumni group – “eco­nom­i­cally top 2 per­cent of the coun­try”– that Urdu is an In­dian as Hindi, he gave up. “It was point­less, a waste of time.”

“The idea is to cre­ate a com­mu­nity of peers. Struc­turally, What­sApp groups work on a sense of like­ness, a uni­fy­ing ba­sis. They are made up of Peo­ple Like Us. A What­sApp group is a co­hort; the idea is to find com­fort in same­ness. That’s why it’s nat­u­ral to ex­clude or si­lence oth­ers,” says San­tosh De­sai, so­cial com­men­ta­tor and re­luc­tant mem­ber of an “elite” condo group.

FAULT LINES

The pol­i­tics of In­dia’s What­sApp con­ver­sa­tions isn’t hard to guess – it’s pro-Hin­dus, pro-BJP and pro-Naren­dra Modi. Nei­ther is the world­view re­flected in the up­dates cir­cu­lat­ing through the net­work, whether on ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Europe or Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed ban on im­mi­grants from Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries. How­ever, no pub­lic opin­ion is above per­sonal in­ter­est. So, Trump is only a hero on NRI fam­ily groups un­til he turns his at­ten­tion to H1B Visas; and Modi a vi­sion­ary on busi­ness groups un­til his de­ci­sion threat­ens to af­fect profit mar­gins. Mem­ber of a What­sApp group made up of fac­tory own­ers op­er­at­ing in one in­dus­trial zone, Del­hibased Amar­jit Singh says con­ver­sa­tion on his group has lately re­volved around frus­tra­tions with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Goods and Ser­vice Tax (GST). Even the most pas­sion­ate gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers on the group are re­act­ing to GDP fig­ures from UPA years with a thumbs-up and “Achche Din” jokes with tears-of-joy.

Pol­i­tics isn’t, how­ever, the only thing that unites and di­vides mem­bers of a What­sApp group. Solidarities can as eas­ily make or break over a sub­ject like breast­feed­ing, as Am­rita Gupta re­alised af­ter form­ing a What­sApp group with fel­low ex­pect­ing moth­ers in her pre­na­tal classes in south Mum­bai. “Cer­tain moth­ers on mom groups get so judg­men­tal. Af­ter our de­liv­er­ies, when a mother men­tioned she was feed­ing her child for­mula, an­other said, ‘you are giv­ing your child poi­son.’ Don’t ex­pect me to take a stand on it.”

Her own dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the group be­gan over class. “Most of these women were filthy rich – builders’ wives, Bol­ly­wood wives. They had sep­a­rate staff – nanny, cook, driver – for ev­ery child. And then there were ‘Burberry Moms’– women who dress their chil­dren in designer wear from head to toe. There are two classes of Burberry Moms – Class One shops from Amer­ica and Class Two shops from Dubai. Af­ter a cer­tain point, they branched out from the main group and made a sep­a­rate group. So did the work­ing moth­ers in­clud­ing my­self. While they were fo­cused on or­gan­is­ing themed play dates, our main con­cern was bal­anc­ing work and babies.”

Gupta con­tin­ued as the ad­min of the orig­i­nal group un­til she was forced to me­di­ate a fight be­tween “a Sales Mom and a Burberry Mom. It hap­pened at a play date where the first said to se­cond over a par­ent­ing de­ci­sion, ‘what kind of mom are you!’ Then all hell broke loose. Fi­nally, I left the group and cre­ated a new group with sane mem­bers!” Does any­thing good ever come out of a What­sApp group? Plenty, it turns out.

3 A.M. SUP­PORT

If not for WhasApp groups, pas­sion­ate users ar­gue, how would school moms have ex­changed “page-by-page home­work”, hous­ing so­ci­eties or­gan­ised “sufi nights” and fac­tory own­ers dis­cov­ered Man­mo­han Singh’s eco­nomic wis­dom.

For all the eye rolling her many fam­ily What­sApp groups (“fa­ther’s fam­ily, mother’s fam­ily, older sib­lings”) cause Riti Khanna, she thinks they al­low the ex­tended fam­ily to re­main con­nected across cities and time zones. It’s also the only place where women criss­cross­ing blood­lines could have a cor­ner to them­selves. “We have a ladies-only group with sis­ters and sis­ters-in-law where we dis­cuss girly things: from hus­band bash­ing to blouse de­signs to the re­cent AIB video.”

A What­sApp group is what Khanna turns to when she needs emo­tional sup­port at 3 a.m. “I am also in a group of women blog­gers. We dis­cuss ev­ery­thing un­der the sun.” Some­times, ly­ing awake wor­ried that she has been harsh on her chil­dren, she sends a mes­sage to the group. “I ask ‘any­one there? I need to chat’. And one by one, the group starts buzzing with ‘yes, I am here.”

POL­I­TICS ISN’T THE ONLY THING DIS­CUSSED ON WHAT­SAPP GROUPS. SOLIDARITIES CAN AS EAS­ILY BE MADE OR BRO­KEN OVER A SUB­JECT LIKE BREAST­FEED­ING

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