13 Sep 2016 19:48 IST

The darker side of social media

Nothing good comes of allowing the ever-opinionated Indians access to something so permanent

We Indians love a bargain. Return on investment, that is, what we get for what we put in, is always foremost on our minds.

When Reliance launched its new Jio pricing two weeks ago, WhatsApp lit up with all kinds of analyses on the pricing per gigabyte (GB) of data, including comparisons with existing BSNL plans. Reliance, which probably paid crores of rupees to management consultants to come up with its pricing strategy, realised quickly that an otherwise impressive product launch fell flat because of what ordinary people found and shared instantly: there was no tier between the ₹149 rung and the ₹499 rung. And that the ₹50 per GB price only applied to those who bought the most expensive plans.

WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook, which are modern day versions of the old and trusted email, all have much in common — they are easy to learn, free to use, and allow us to instantly share with friends. We are, after all, among the world’s most opinionated, and not too shy to publicly air our views, sometimes even without due regard to others in a debate. It is little wonder that ROI-loving Indians are among the world’s largest users of these tools.

But ordinary Indians, who have had little or no corporate training in the use of electronic communication, are slowly realising that these tools can become the Bhasmasurs of modern life.

No “oops” button

For one thing, social media tools are extremely unforgiving, especially for people with a quick draw. There’s no “oops” button to withdraw what one said or forwarded. And unlike in the real world, where spoken words disappear into thin air and can even be defended as taken out of context, these monster lines remain with us throughout eternity. If you have any doubts, look at the mess Hillary Clinton finds herself in because all of her e-mail gaffes.

Take the common case of someone unintentionally forwarding a message to a group. WhatsApp users are generally members of several groups — friends from high school, college, work, community and family. The content of messages sent and received on different groups is generally appropriate to each group. Adult jokes or images about Bollywood stars may be fine for a college group, but are a poor fit for sharing on a family group, where people over the age of 70 are just beginning to learn the nuances of a smartphone.

But these unintended shares happen all the time, causing embarrassment to everyone in the group.

And sometimes, there are seemingly original messages not intended for one individual in a group that are posted anyway. For example, a jab on a group, “I hope Srikanth remembered to take a bath this morning!” can create headaches if Srikanth is part of the group and interprets the message as an insult. There’s only so much softening that an emoji can accomplish.

WhatsApp headaches

Group administration is a big headache. Many WhatsApp administrators provide administrative privileges to a few other trusted members in the group, largely for backup reasons. Suppose one of the administrators employs his new-found powers and adds a member to the group, even though a majority of existing members would not have wanted this new individual to join it. What happens now?

In a nutshell, nothing good. If the new member accepts the invite and becomes a part of the group, removing him is akin to giving him 25 lashes in a public square. The person feels demoralised that he was once deemed likeable enough to merit a group invitation but that is no longer the case.

When he confronts an administrator as to why he was removed, the answers he gets are not always honest. It is painful to tell someone that they are not welcome, so the administrator lies, and an already bad situation takes a turn for the worse. When the remaining members of the group debate this decision, hard feelings and hidden agendas surface. Even if the dismissed member is re-invited to join the group, things are never quite the same again. Oh, what a tangled web this is!

Two sides

Then there’s the sharing of original pictures and videos on Facebook. When families settled abroad post pictures of their nice home with two gleaming cars in the driveway and kids playing around in a backyard swimming pool — and these shares happen on the regular — those who don’t have a similar environment around their own homes feel left behind. Pictures of other couples being seemingly happy can be devastating to those nursing relationship issues with their own. Facebook was designed to share the brighter side of life and suppress its darker side. Unfortunately for Facebook, life doesn’t work that way.

This is the problem with social media. For all of its power and ROI, it is a poor substitute for what humans, especially Indians, have been doing well for thousands of years: reaching out and talking to people in person. This too is free, but the ROI is vastly superior.