A wall crawl to spot when Facebook stopped being fun4 min read . Updated: 17 Sep 2020, 09:16 PM IST
As scandals swirl around the social media platform and cryptic notifications arrive on new terms of service, one could scroll back to the time it served us well as an inter-generational space.
When I clambered on to Facebook in 2009, imagining I was being enterprising, the response from my then 16-year-old son disabused me. “I’m surprised you weren’t able to resist the peer pressure to join Facebook, " he wrote on my wall, sounding parental in his disapproval. “Don’t stalk me," he added. Naturally, I strenuously denied any such intention.
My reward for keeping my promise (more or less) was access to an uninhibited space largely populated by my children and their friends, my friends and their children, nieces and nephews, and colleagues of assorted ages. As new scandals swirl around Facebook, and an insistent, cryptic notification announcing “an update to the terms of service" from 1 October revives murmurs of “Should we leave?", I’ve been thinking back—almost in the spirit of one researching an obituary—to that time Facebook really worked for me, when it was an inter-generational place.
“It has shaped what it means and feels like to be young," The Economist wrote last year of Facebook’s influence on America. It also reshaped, perhaps not fundamentally, but in funny, uplifting ways, what it felt like to be middle-aged. It was young Facebookers who showed older people like me the path to taking selfies—mine were all scrunched-up nose and self-consciously curled lips—and to music-sharing, with unintended consequences: Our walls ( as we called them then) exploded with old Hindi film songs. And, while I never got around to calling anyone “dude" or calling anything “Lit", I do admit to the stealthy march of OMG, haha and LOL into my vocabulary.
The young, being the first users of Facebook, were the first to display what observers called the social network’s “disinhibiting effect", which makes you forget just how many people are reading. I was amazed when I realized (okay, after a bit of stalking) that the question “Why are you blowing your nose so loudly?" was addressed to my son by a college dorm-mate in the middle of the night. The lasting legacy of that is a surfeit of oversharing. Who hasn’t cringed from verbose tributes shared on Facebook by husbands to wives, possibly written when both were on the same sofa?
But back then, the chatter helped us newbies find our voices in a new medium. At times, we were imitative. Scrolling back, I am amused by my heartful venting from Delhi traffic jams and Goan restaurants, but also notice that my old posts, say from a political rally, sound more vivid than articles I slaved over. I compare that with my sloppy, staccato sentences on frank, intimate but sometimes oppressive WhatsApp groups and feel, yes, that Facebook of a few years ago was a sweet spot between public and private.
That sweet spot crumbled. Facebook’s collegial quality was marred by privacy and other scandals, and our own careless gatekeeping. We let in “friends" who were really not, and didn’t bother with filters. The politics also got nasty in a darkening Indian landscape. And, over the past four to five years, many younger people, including my children, have melted away from Facebook. Their story isn’t the larger Indian one of newly internet-enabled young people flocking to Facebook. It’s a niche story of westernized, laptop-owning kids who signed on early and left early, mirroring a well-documented Western trend. I won’t dwell on why, because in the best traditions of social media narcissism, this piece isn’t about them, it’s about me.
My timeline became a ghastly mess. Birthday messages from strangers to strangers in garish colours and large fonts. Tiresome rounds of book “challenges" and “nominations" (why don’t they just talk about books, I muttered). Cut and paste entreaties to care about everything from migraines to menopause. Oft-repeated words and phrases that began appearing in my nightmares… “superheroes", “survivors", “big shout out to", “such an important voice". A young writer posted that he came onto Facebook to ask about things like vacuum cleaners, and otherwise hung out on Instagram. A childhood friend who always remembered my birthday supported Article 370 being struck down. A kindly cousin said Muslims abroad had so many Muslim countries to go to, so why did they need to come to India? I felt like I had been mugged from behind.
I jabbed buttons and went into sanitization mode with vicious pleasure. I now find myself in a place heaving with posts on students being framed in conspiracy cases, leavened by pictures of freshly-baked bread and handloom saris. Fake news only arrives here via fact-checking sites, and no one hates Rhea Chakraborty. When I check in, I feel good that people are shocked by very things that shock me. Yes, we are on a platform that seems to tilt right, judging from news stories on Facebook’s Indian operations and its role in US elections. But what’s the alternative, if you flinch from the trolls on Twitter and the very thought of “image filters" on Instagram makes your eyes glaze over? Also, frankly, platforms designed to be addictive are habit-forming. So, like the protagonists of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, I say, “ Yes, let’s go", but do not move.
Anjali Puri is a Delhi-based journalist.