I have always been wary of social networking platforms. One of my friends had to bug me for six months before I joined Orkut. And when Facebook turned up, I was one of the last among my friends to join. I haven't gone anywhere near Twitter or Instagram, which would make me a dinosaur, I think. It was not until 2014 and my second android phone that I finally gave in to peer pressure to install Whatsapp.
As in any relationship, the honeymoon period was fabulous! There was a lot of catching up to do in the five groups I was added. Friends all over the world, in different time zones, came together in shared waking times and chatted, sharing tidbits from their daily lives. Some chats continued for days. There was a lot of good-natured teasing and reminiscing.
Whatsapp helped a lot with dealing with tough times too. When a dear friend was in trouble, one group chipped in and helped out. It helped in organizing 3 reunions in the past 3 years. Most of the time, the news enthusiasts kept me up-to-date on the latest breaking news. When I needed to find a reliable computer hardware specialist for my sis-in-law in her home town, it was my group I turned to and got prompt results. And when my mother passed, it was easier to just pass the news to one friend in each group who got the news out and had the calls and messages coming in.
It was not all love and hugs either! I got slammed in one group for choosing to be a homemaker. In another I got slammed for being a bad mother (because of a joke in which I said I would slap my kids' hands if they tried to take my food from me - after they got their own portions of course)! There were animated and occasionally acrimonious discussions about faith and sometimes even politics. But I enjoyed those discussions because they were fun and rousing and because it was with my friends that I was sharing my convictions and beliefs.
Then what, you ask, prompted me to quit Whatsapp groups?
The endless stream of forwarded pictures, videos, gifs and jokes that came to stand in for REAL conversation. Since there had been warnings about the evils of Whatsapp media message auto downloading, I had disabled the feature from the very beginning. And I ignored almost all media messages unless someone added a line to it that it was worth watching for some reason. I thought I was being very clever and selective.
But as time went on, any real chatting in the groups died down. But my phone still vibrated several times during the day and they all seemed to be for what I will call "media vomit". Soon, I too was downloading all media as soon as they came and being the sociable creature that I am, commenting or reacting to whatever was in them. And I even started forwarding them to other groups as well. I enjoyed the funny, thanked the senders for the instructive, shared the inspirational AND (here is where I went wrong) objected to things that seemed inappropriate to me.
My friends being very kind, did not ask me who the hell I was to judge what was inappropriate or wrong. When I found rumors, I immediately searched snopes.com to check if it was true and posted that link right beneath the rumor-mongering messages. I slammed sexist jokes. I took up issue with the kind of videos that glorify old Indian customs with spurious scientific explanations. And then I realized, I don't like the ME in Whatsapp groups - I was becoming a sort of information-Nazi. A liberal-feminist-non-left-wing-non-denominational Nazi perhaps, but a Nazi nonetheless.
I took a small step back and really thought about where I was vis-a-vis this problem. DH and I had gradually developed a nighttime ritual of showing each other the Whatsapp videos and jokes that we enjoyed during the day. One day he was on leave due to a cold and asked me to read out an abridged version of the classic Rama Raja Bahadur to him. We enjoyed the first two chapters so much that we continued the practice till we finished the book. It became the best bedtime ritual there could be. You can be sure I did the 'voices' in the dialogues! Each night's installment was followed by a light discussion and speculation of what would happen. It was such an improvement on sharing media vomit!
And then came the straw that broke the camel's back. There is a new song video out now - it goes... "A for anderwear, B for bhegitables" I got the SAME video forwarded to me by 6 different people in just 3 groups - which only goes to show that most people DO NOT check what they are already receiving in the first place!
I looked around at my carefully curated collection of books, then at the long and ever-growing list of books that I want to read. I remembered an article I read a while back which concluded that "You are what you read/watch everyday". So what was I doing to my level of consciousness by admitting all this media vomit into my mind for almost one or two hours a day? (Oh yes, those 5-minute videos add up!!!) And here I pride myself on being someone who doesn't watch brain-eating soap-operas!
In Facebook, if somebody regularly posts things that annoy you, you can just quietly unsubscribe from their stream. There is no such option in Whatsapp groups. And I seemed to be unable to stop myself from downloading media. So I took the leap, I quit all my groups. It was like surgery, pretty painful, but necessary.
It's been two days now. I still sporadically search the status bar of my phone for the icon. But so far I have not gone crawling to the group admins and begged to be taken back :)
And my friends? The ones who really matter are always at hand, ready for some real conversation either through Whatsapp or otherwise. But hey, they are the ones who have been there since before this part of the information revolution and they are likely to be there always. One of the greatest blessings of my life for which I am extremely grateful.