On lurking

Social media as a spectator sport

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 12.08.18
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Social media is a spectator sport. More precisely, it's reality television without the cameras. While the people involved in tweeting or posting on Facebook or Instagramming might well be communicating with their friends or interlocutors, their real function is the entertainment of strangers.

The riches of Twitter are yours for the asking without the inconvenience of visibility. You can follow your friends, stalk your enemies, search for Trump's latest bon mot or Modi's curious taste in tweeters without logging in. Lurking on Twitter is an underrated online pleasure. Watching people in twitter-world going pithily about their business is like being an invisible guest at a kitty party; you hoover up the gossip without helping with the bill. Yes, you are a free rider, you don't contribute to the ecology of this disconcerting, equal-opportunity world, but if people choose to be themselves in a public way, that must count as a kind of permission.

Also, lurking is browsing by another name. Browsing, which now means chewing the cud on the interwebs, used to mean happy haphazard reading in a library. In my middle class childhood, the British Council library was a brick-a-mortar portal that gave me access to a remote and exotic world. Reading days-old newspapers, hunting out the latest issue of Books and Bookmen, reading Roger Woddis's weekly political poem in the New Statesman, wondering how anything as unfunny as Punch ever got published, all this seems very similar to bookmarking magazines and newspapers or following particular Twitter handles or charismatic Facebook people online. There was, of course, a postcolonial pathos to eager desis my age trying to hitch their intellectual wagons to an Anglo world and unlike social media, you were an onlooker, not a player, but that's where I began, with spectatorship.

The reason it's such fun being a spectator is that social media activity, like cricket or football, is a competitive sport. The most obvious metric for Twitter success is the number of followers you have, but there are more arcane snobberies that determine status. So if you are deemed to be 'someone', i.e. famous or a public figure (whatever that means), Twitter will give you a hallmark that authenticates your you-ness. This is a white tick on blue ground next to your display name. This is a source of heartburn for people who aspire to be of the Twitterati, but are denied Twitter's authenticating seal, its twice-born status marker, that certifies that having once been born in the real world you have been born-again online. I once read, with the disinterested malice characteristic of social media browsing, the mutterings of a truculent right-wing journalist who had been denied this dvija marker.

For most of us, Facebook is part diary, part photo album, part archive of things written and part pen-friend platform on steroids. Like Twitter, it is often a magical archive of readings that you would never have known of had it not been for your army of online friends. One of the great advantages of Facebook is that you can become friends with people who are experts, who share their expertise in detailed posts and article links. I have a Facebook friend who I have never met, who I read to know what to think about large legal and constitutional matters. Given the gulf in age and location, it's unlikely that I would have befriended him otherwise; thanks to Facebook, I don't have to puzzle my way through things I know little about.

On the whole, continuous reasoning is easier to browse through on Facebook because it allows for large chunks of prose. The Twitter thread is too arch a business to take seriously. There must be a kind of intellectual rigour involved in summarizing an argument in a sequence of character-limited tweets, but the preciousness of numbered tweets and the distraction of furious replies (which you can't resist reading) make the ambitious thread very hard work.

Status anxiety on Facebook, though, is much more entertaining than anything Twitter has to offer. My favourite sub-genre of Facebook lunacy is the Spring Cleaning Announcement. Otherwise sane, considerate persons will announce that they are going to purge their pages of unsatisfactory friends. The preferred word for this purging is 'cull'. So perfectly non-violent people will publicly announce that they are going to euthanize large numbers of their friends to improve their online environment.

Try to think of a real-world equivalent for this. You can't. Nobody is going to publicly announce that they are going to unperson large numbers of their acquaintance because they are social deadwood. They might discreetly stop meeting them or messaging them or answering their calls or inviting them over for Eid or Christmas or Diwali, but they are unlikely to prefigure this with a notice in the local newspaper.

The SCA has an unvarying template. The friends to be purged are accused of being dormant: i.e. of not responding to the aggrieved purger's posts, of possibly not reading them, and, therefore, being guilty of not paying attention. Think of the neediness of this; how far up yourself do you have to be to not realize that you sound like a sad, self-obsessed narcissist. Not that there's anything the matter with being all of the above, so long as you keep it private.

The other delicate Facebook truffle to look out for is a subset of the SCA. This is the toe-curling announcement that begins by saying that the person posting suspects his/her friends of not reading his/her posts right to the end. Stop a minute and think of this complaint in any other context. Think of a writer or a poet broadcasting his suspicion that nobody gets to the end of their books. It has probably crossed their minds but self-preservation will keep them from saying it out loud. Why would you make yourself a laughing stock by accusing your friends of not reading your hundred-word-long Facebook vapourings? Having successfully done this, this person will prescribe a test: all his/her friends who get to the end of this accusatory post must post something that will demonstrate their fidelity. In what world do you make people jump through hoops to qualify for your affections? There's something about online sociability that encourages people to behave like self-regarding oafs in public. If it wasn't for the entertainment value of these eruptions, SCAs and their variations should trigger the culling of those who post them.

Social media's vocabulary sometimes helps you find names and words for real world habits. For example, I had no idea what trolling meant till five years ago. I now know that it means needling people online to get a rise out of them. Thus Boris Johnson has been trolling burqa-ed women and liberals who leap to their defence. Trump trolls the world each day. Narendra Modi had a statement expunged from the records of the Rajya Sabha because he trolled the Opposition's candidate for the deputy leadership of the Rajya Sabha by punning on his initials: B.K. Hariprasad becoming, in the prime minister's subtle mind, 'BiKay' (sold out) Hari. All of which leads to the piercing insight that politicians have always been offline trolls.

I also realized that much of opinion writing designed to provoke (mine included) could be described as trolling. This is particularly true of writing about sport. No one who chooses to be bilious about sportspersons that he doesn't know, who takes public sporting performances personally, and vents about them in print, can afford to sneer at social media trolls.

But there's a way of distinguishing between entertaining (and sometimes illuminating) provocation and malignant trolling. If you're punching up, going at people who are more powerful, famous, articulate and rich than you are, you can still be a pig but your potential for viciousness is dialled back. If, on the other hand, you enjoy mocking the poor, minority citizens, articulate women and do-gooders on behalf of majorities, plutocrats, shock-jocks and violent, ranting men, you aren't a provocateur for all that the word sounds French and sexy, you're a thug, a troll.

Does this lead to the politically correct conclusion that if you're male, middle class, upper caste and metropolitan, your (doubtless elegant) provocations are more likely to be trollery than if you're not? The short answer to that is yes. Your station in life makes it objectively harder to punch up when most people in the world live way below Peak Privilege, your natural habitat.

The unique thing about Twitter and Facebook is that they wholly obscure an important truth: that the world isn't about you. On the other hand, the indifference of the world to us might be a fact, but it's also depressing, so perhaps Facebook's virtual friends and Twitter's stranger-followers are a necessary and democratic consolation.

mukulkesavan@hotmail.com