Social media is the new continent the world is absorbed by. Even the alleged discovery of America by Columbus did not raise the same level of gossip. The questions then might have been profounder and more philosophical, the debate now is more intense. I guess it was also the difference between the fact America was discovered. It was a landmass that was already there while social media as a continent had to be invented. It was as if every bit of gossip recreates the space, and maps it more intimately.
Social media as a space in India creates a different world. I remember this with a certain poignancy when a student of mine insisted with an urgency that only students have, that social media destroyed his sense of writing. Social media demanded the language of speed, the quickness of response which made even the telegram seem slow. He complained that he could not write a love letter that felt and sounded like one. Social media, he claimed, made love a kneejerk affair where the time that love as duration required was not available. He claimed almost like an old classicist that love and language were the truest casualties of social media.
A few days back, I sat feeling a bit outdated in a meeting on ‘body shaming’. One of the students talked of how she posted a picture of herself and talked of the literal assault her body image was subject to. She hinted that the rules of democracy need to be invented again for digital networks, otherwise she claimed that social media had become a new form of vigilantism. Body shaming and moral policing all seem to have become avenues where social media blossoms into new tyranny.
My friends who work in policy think tanks have a different kind of take on such activities. They explain with a certain gravitas that technology is also a space that needs to be contoured in terms of values. But I feel that this discussion of values ignores the plurality of India, where three domains of orality, textuality and digitality crisscross. We need a politics that reworks the commons of the oral, the textuality of the public and the digitality of the network as three separate normative spaces. Democracy, in that sense, becomes a triptych which has to be worked
I attended a seminar where a sociologist was arguing that the social of social media had to be elaborated differently. He claimed that social media was a community based on speed, on the immediacy of knee jerk reaction, where the private turns public with an instantaneity that is difficult to absorb. One sensed that two forms of social were being invented with two corresponding theories of the self. It is almost as if the fixity of the self is to the instantaneity of the selfie as the slowness of society is the speed of society. Society one is the hare and society two is the tortoise but the tortoise often catches up with the hare with disastrous consequences as the fate of the Arab spring demonstrated where hope in all its ebullience eventually was trapped in the slow molasses of interest group politics.
The older version of the social was captured in the symbolism of the album that sociologists like Pierre Bordieu have written about. Here time is slow, and the photograph captures moments of the rite of passage like birth, death, graduation or marriage. The selfie captures the instant society, where memory is produced and consumed instantaneously. A selfie created a society where the production and consumption of the event are simultaneous. It is as if the social has to be consumed as an image concurrently for society to exist. In fact, a journalist recently suggested an isomorphy where the individual is to society as the selfies is to groupie. Technology combining with desire is desperate to rework the idea of the social as it stands.
For others, particularly moralists and many educationists, social media is only a caricature of the existing values of society. It caricatures desire and the need for information. In India, the information revolution is virtually the pornographic revolution. Pornography on the net has acquired a new reality, a new everydayness which needs to be reflected upon. Students of mine, at a computer science institute I once worked in, told me they preferred pornography to a relationship with a girl as images were less recalcitrant than the girl. Porn sites are everyday visiting sites in our society.
The second problem one sees is the conflation of information with knowledge. Students often condemn a lecture if it is downloaded. Intuitively what they suggest is information as bytes lacks the rituals of knowledge, the meta rules that make understanding possible. There is a sense that information lacks a reflexivity that knowledge provides.
As an old-fashioned sociologist, I must confess that I am perplexed by the interaction rituals that social media requires. Imagine two friends talking, flashing each other. It is as if social media provides the sensorium the intimacy, the ecology that individuals need to interact with each other. It has become a second skin through which people relate to each other, conversation is no longer a conversation till it is filtered through the soul of the digital.
Finally, there is a religiosity to social media that I find fascinating. I know busy officials who keep sending messages in the middle of seminars. The phone becomes an electronic rudraksh and identifies him and a citizen in society today. I feel an individual today is not an individual in a monadic sense. He is a ganglion of messages. It is a new definition of the individual which says I respond therefore you are. Society today is that endless act of communication where messages replace breathing as a sign of life. My favourite metaphor for social media is a fictitious remake, a cartoon of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe and Friday sit across, each content as each holds a phone, corresponding with the other. There is delight in each face as the messages flow. Below it is tagged a message, thanks to social media, no man is an island. John Dunne would have nodded at the irony of the message.
I must, however, give the last word to a media believer. He told me if the Garden of Eden had internet instead of the apple, social media would have written the Bible differently, made a quicker transition between the Old Testament to the New. Imagine God being trolled out of the Garden of Eden by a Victorious Devil. It is food for thought for alternative histories and theologies.