13 Oct 2020 20:58 IST

Unplugging from social media and TV is the way to attain ‘nirvana’

Relationships online are often transactional, creating a false sense of connection with little to no depth

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about how I unsubscribed from several WhatsApp groups to get my life back.

All I had said to those groups. “I’m trying an experiment of unsubscribing from all of my WhatsApp groups for a few weeks to see how this would impact me. I will continue to be on WhatsApp, however, for one-on-one chats. So, temp goodbye!” A few appropriate emojis, I hoped, would soften the blow.

I have learned several things since. No one cared to message me to consider. Friends have told me that the groups have continued to operate. More importantly, the unsubscribing exercise, just like cleaning a desk drawer, is not a one-time thing. Having signed on to multiple new groups since, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes just to be polite, I now have to periodically unsubscribe.

For the last five years, I have stopped watching live TV unless it is a sports event. I never watch TV news. TV is designed to be consumed in a serial manner — and the order is determined by the TV station. This is a huge problem because I do not want to cede that kind of control to someone else. A physical newspaper or website is different. I can peruse a headline and dive into it if I wish, in parallel. I am always in control.

Living in an on-demand world

On TV, the repetition, the crazy banner headlines, the bait to waiting out a commercial because something breaking will be revealed shortly - all drive me insane. We live in an on-demand world in which the fast-forward weapon is a powerful tool. When I can consume the same content about an hour later on YouTube, with the ability to pause or advance the clip, why would I become bait to a big media company? Of course, these days, YouTube is infested with ads - so paying for YouTube Premium may be a good alternative.

And the content on TV is nothing to write home about. A writer of soap dramas told me that her producer specifically instructed her to change plot lines to keep the viewer hanging at the end of each episode. In his mind, people who watch soaps are suckers.

Most humans tend to avoid unpleasant situations. Growing up, we saw how strangers quickly broke into a street brawl pulling fighters away from each other. “Please forget and let it go!” was the collective wisdom of the masses. Even at home, we tend to go to extreme lengths to avoid conflict. Some of us would rather cheat than confront. Remember our friends who would steal a smoke and load up on breath mints afterward?

So why would we voluntarily engage in watching conflict? We sit for hours and watch TV talking heads hit it off. Do we honestly believe that those experts know more than we do? Even if they do, what is the point in watching a studio-brawl over which we have no control? Unlike on the street, these brawls are egged on by the moderator. It is their job to keep the conflict alive.

Worst offender

Social media is the worst offender. There are people with nothing better to do than craft messages. And the rest of the world cooperates, freely forwarding their art, sharing and liking it. Why on earth do we do something so stupid?

Forwarding a Santa/Banta joke is one thing. It’s harmless and designed to provide instant gratification. But, most of the time, we forward clips or posts without providing context to the message or our own commentary. Many of these messages are deliberately incendiary. Nearly all of them are factually incorrect.

As consumers, we insist on validating the source of a product — a seal, a brand name — before we open the package. Can you imagine drinking from a water bottle if a seal is broken or the brand seems spurious?

But on WhatsApp and Facebook, this is exactly what we do. We forward because we are too busy, lazy, or we just don’t care enough. We never verify the source of a forwarded message. Yes, we know it was posted by a friend, but she was just a link in a long chain. In a sense, we forward because we trust the judgement of the person who forwarded it to us in the first place — although we know that they had nothing to do with its creation.

Implicit assumptions

We really ought to care about who originally created the message. What is their qualification? What is their agenda?

Besides, forwarding a message is a binary action. This is dangerous because the implicit assumption is that anyone who forwards fully agrees with the message's content. I rarely agree with any message 100 per cent. In fact, I sometimes disagree with my own columns written years ago. So, I refrain from forwarding messages.

In summary, we don’t like confrontation, yet we engage in it multiple times every day. We like authenticity, yet we are willing partners-in-crime to lend veracity to inauthentic messages and distribute them in an enormous Ponzi scheme. We complain that we are always busy, yet, we do someone else’s bidding for free when we share messages to our groups, on our time, deriving no financial, social, or emotional benefit whatsoever. In fact, engaging in this kind of behaviour often costs us relationships.

So why are we so stupid and harmful to ourselves? I have a well-thought-out answer but wait, I’ll tell you later. I have an emergency to attend to. I haven’t checked my WhatsApp messages in over an hour.