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Of digital communities

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Widely derided for the problems it causes, from silly good morning graphics to fake news, WhatsApp doesn’t easily get its due. Those who unlock the endearing possibilities of the app are busy celebrating the experience and may not pause to marvel at the enabling technology. WhatsApp-for-good, however, is too ubiquitous to miss.

Look at the countless groups of school or college mates out there. To dismiss them as fluffy nostalgia with a digital topping would be a mistake, as they are a unique social experiment.

It may sound counter-intuitive that a WhatsApp group of classmates of the 1980s or 1990s doesn’t over-obsess about their olden times. Memories may have brought them together, but reminiscence is not an everyday activity past their brief formative phase.

Such digital communities on WhatsApp soon become sites of contemporary discussions conducted with the camaraderie of the past. From politics to poverty and religious fundamentalism to climate change, the exchanges are mostly contemporary with ample time spent on personal stories alongside. It is as if a community that dissolved a couple of decades ago, suddenly resurfaced and resumed life in a drastically new environment. Such classmates’ groups aren’t comparable to alumni meetings of the physical world where a group of old pals gather, spend a few hours reliving their past, make merry and go home. While alumni meetings are about invoking the past to wish away the present, digital communities of classmates use the past to re-establish a lost community transposed in time. The former stoke up memories, the latter confront the present.

Jean Baudrillard talks about hyper-reality as a representation without an original referent. A WhatsApp group of people who were classmates a couple of decades ago, represents a reality with a disputable “original”. The hyper-real digital community is connected to a corresponding group of people that existed but with incomparable identities. For example, a group admin who is an affluent software engineer living in a metro with a right-leaning political ideology was in school, a leftist leader from a village with meagre financial means. Similarly, every member would have become almost a different individual, going through life-altering transformations. So, the connection between the virtual group and its putative original is ridden with contradictions than similarities.

What is even more remarkable is that the cultural artefacts of their daily exchange, voice messages, short videos, smileys, trolls, memes, GIFs and so on were non-existent in their “original” group. Nevertheless, they reconfigure themselves with the new language.

It is equally interesting to think of the purpose and activities of such groups. There is no lofty common purpose for them. They share a wide range of personal matters including joyful incidents and sorrowful experiences, work-related issues and success stories, news from family, academics of their children and so on, besides airing views and commentary about public affairs in general. Many members also find the group a reason to reconnect with their long-lost creative talent in singing, painting, acting and so on. It is not uncommon to see those who stopped singing as they left their student life recording new songs with karaoke and sharing within their WhatsApp groups to the applause or teasing of their former

classmates. In general, several attributes of one’s identity that faded over time are recovered and reactivated.

Whereas the original student community was the byproduct of an institutional purpose, its digital reincarnation exists for its own sake. The absence of institutional formality enables a lot of people to seek gratifications that can’t be realised elsewhere. The original student community was not bashful about their naked souls and the mutuality was less conditioned by the external world. In its digital version, people try to preserve their primal intimacy against all cues of their current life, often creating an atmosphere of emotional safety in a world of disruptions and uncertainties. This, despite, all of them having been transformed into unrecognisably different selves. It is the triumph of becoming over being, that Frederick Nietzsche would have been pleased to witness.

Unlike other WhatsApp groups with a coexisting, real-world equivalent, the digital tribe of erstwhile communities may report individuals showing a dilution of their acquired toxicities — communal, socio-economic or cultural.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 5:43:52 AM |

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