Talk

The reassuring babble of WhatsApp threads in a roller-coaster year

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on January 05, 2021 Published on January 05, 2021

Your call: WhatsApp threads give one the freedom to be as involved or as removed from a conversation as one would like to be   -  ISTOCK.COM

In the absence of real-world connection, my social life belongs increasingly to my phone

* Before the pandemic, I was inclined to think dismissively, even critically of the service’s popularity

* The app has served as a staging ground for bigots and vigilantes, provoking riots and killings

* I realised that I much prefer something that makes no attempt to resemble actual socialising: The rolling conversation with groups of friends and family on WhatsApp

***

Users of WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging service, send over 100 billion messages per day. Two billion people, over a quarter of the planet, use WhatsApp. Before the pandemic, I was inclined to think dismissively, even critically, of the service’s popularity. Yes, it’s quite nice to receive messages from family and friends near and far, but WhatsApp has played a deeply damaging role as a purveyor of misinformation in countries everywhere. Lies and distortions spread rapidly over the service, with real-life implications for countries such as India (Indians make up the largest single segment of WhatsApp’s user base at nearly 400 million people) and Brazil (second at around 100 million) where misinformation helped shape public opinion in the lead-up to elections. The app has served as a staging ground for bigots and vigilantes, provoking riots and killings. Along with its parent company, Facebook, WhatsApp is a prime exhibit of why politicians, academics, journalists, and activists increasingly see social media as inimical to the functioning of a healthy democratic society.

At a smaller, personal level, I found WhatsApp a distraction, yet another broadside in the constant modern assault on our attention. It offered the promise of immediacy but mostly provided interruption. My various discussion threads hummed along full of inanities and — especially in those threads involving older family members — absurdities that I could happily do without.

But after this roller-coaster year, I’ve become much more forgiving. I’m grateful for WhatsApp and all the conversation threads that have kept me in touch with others in distanced times. I have barely seen the inside of another person’s home since March — nor, for that matter, the inside of a restaurant or a café or a bar. Cold weather in New York City, where I live, has driven us further indoors, away from a possible rendezvous in parks or courtyards. In the absence of real world connection, I find that my social life belongs increasingly to my phone.

At the outset of the pandemic, friends tried to recreate the effect of meeting over a drink or a meal through the group video app Zoom. These sessions swiftly lost their appeal. I was too tired at the end of a day juggling childcare and work to focus on the invariably shadowy shapes of my friends in their respective on-screen boxes and partake in what was often a strained conversation, with none of the fluidity of an actual gathering. Others felt the same way. Few people I know now make any regular attempt to convene a “Zoom happy hour” as we tried in the early months of the pandemic. Video chats are the loosest facsimile of the real thing, and only reminded us of how much we missed meeting in person.

Instead, I realised that I much prefer something that makes no attempt to resemble actual socialising: The rolling conversation with groups of friends and family on WhatsApp. These threads give me the freedom to be as involved or as removed over the course of the day as I would like to be. And yet they have allowed a necessary broadening of my horizons, plugging me into wider communities even as my wife, my son and I have quarantined against the world.

I don’t always keep track of all the conversations buzzing through my phone. My various threads include a group of friends who fixate mostly on politics, another on the ups and downs (mostly downs in recent times) of our beloved football club Arsenal, and another for commiserating over the strains of child-rearing in the midst of the pandemic. Any inveterate WhatsApp user has a plethora of threads with family members, and I’m no different: We have one that cuts across generations, one just for my generation, and one smaller subset still, for those within my generation who share similar political views and enjoy rolling our eyes at the rest of the family (sorry to have outed us!).

Some days, I barely dip into the sea of notifications — I keep most threads “muted” so I have to make a conscious effort to check. Other days, I get absorbed in long group conversations and debates. I find the mere knowledge of this babble (whether or not I even engage with it) reassuring. I’m lucky to have weathered the various challenges of this past year and I look forward to seeing those I care about in person in the near future, as coronavirus vaccines roll out all over the world. When the pandemic really ends, I imagine I’ll think less fondly of the messages on my phone and revert to being the grumpy technophobic curmudgeon I’m well on course to becoming. But, until then, I’ll be hugely grateful for the seemingly boundless chatter that keeps me company through the day, even when I decide to studiously ignore it.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

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Published on January 05, 2021
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