In his recent sketch on the film Padmaavat, stand-up comedian Varun Grover discusses the role of a central character in theoriginal story — a talking parrot called Hiramal. When Raja Ratan Sen wants to act upon hearing of Padmini’s great beauty from Hiramal, Grover questions his sanity thus:
“Already married, ek tota aake usko bol raha hai…tota hai ki sasur WhatsApp hai? Jo bola tuney maan liya.”
In many ways, that is such an apt analogy for what WhatsApp seems to have become in India today.
A talking parrot.
At one point, WhatsApp felt like the great savior; a core part of the Dark Web that marketers and other exploiters couldn’t penetrate, at a time when Facebook and Google have become so insidious, they know your every word and action regardless of whether you’re awake or asleep, on the ground or in airplane mode. On WhatsApp, you could believe you were having private conversations, talking about things firsthand with people you trusted. But now, WhatsApp feels exactly like Hiramal: a filter-less conveyor of information regardless of veracity.
Memes, GIFs, mindless videos and images cram WhatsApp, and indeed the Internet, like some human species overrunning a blue planet. The Wall Street
Journal recently pointed to Indians as a big reason for a creaking Internet.
The worst offender is probably the “Forwarded as Received” pieces.
They have become an aid to absolute abdication of responsibility for content, perspective and morality. The two biggest drivers of innovation in technology — both creation and adoption — have been porn and politics.
It’s no different with WhatsApp either.
One of the first to exploit this wonderful way to absolve responsibility while retaining anonymity have been politicians. And in an increasingly polarised nation, where socio-political affiliations — not facts or logic — drive what people read, watch and believe, “Forwarded as Received” has become a convenient way of appearing unbiased while perpetuating your belief system. It’s theequivalent of the “If true, then this...” strategy that some political Twitterati are fond of using.
And yet, WhatsApp continues to be a trusted brand. Perhaps a big reason for that is they still don’t allow paid ads. At least, not visibly. There are no retargeted ads that incessantly stalk you the minute you utter key words (IRL or online) that spark off programmatic campaigns from all corners of the web.
WhatsApp’s credibility also comes from the sources of the information— even when it’s “Forwarded as Received,” it’s from someone personally known to the receiver, regardless of the nature of the content. A dirty joke seems less offensive from your school WhatsApp group, or an old uncle. A politically-loaded forward seems reasonable because the colleague who sent it is otherwise “reasonable.” A chain message seems worth forwarding because, well, look at all the people you know who’ve passed italong.
And then, there’s the whole issue of group dynamics. Hard-boiled, cynical, zero attention span millennials stay put in familyWhatsApp groups because they might otherwise offend an aunty or distant cousin somewhere. With older people, there is a self-selection and self-exclusion that happens where you feel you’re too old to argue with idiots who have opinions that are different from your own. Neither is exactly enhancing WhatsApp’s reputation.
But let’s return to that talking parrot analogy. Its made for brevity template makes WhatsApp perhaps as much of a culprit in thedumbing down of society, as it makes Twitter.
Reasonable societies are built on platforms for reasoning and debate, where time and space don’t limit the (sometimes heated) exchange of ideas and perspectives. The argumentative Indian has remained a thriving sub-species precisely because traditional platforms for argument—without (violent) outcomes—have always existed. They have allowed for the exploration of shades of grey. Digital platforms — WhatsApp being chief among them — seem to turn argument into a binary activity, with no time or space for nuance, indecision, or an outcome-less state.
And in that, it has exposed the limitations of a medium’s intelligence. By becoming an echo chamber, it makes it appear like it both has a voice and gives others a place for their voices to be heard. But, like the talking parrot, it only picks up and repeats what ithears, without the advantage of sentience or intelligence.
Perhaps like with much of everything else in the world right now, its redemption lies in the hands of young people — born with thepower of choice, awareness and the courage of conviction in doing the right thing. (Yes, yes, I’m talking about the same narcissistic, selfie-obsessed, materialistic millennial generation.)
Earlier this year, an innocuous-sounding tweet from Kylie Jenner wiped out nearly $1.3 billion from Snapchat’s market value.WhatsApp probably doesn’t want her or her generation asking “Does anyone use WhatsApp anymore?” only because its credibility comes into question.
Millennials, it seems, have the power and the discernment to tell the viral from the virus, and decide which one is worth spreading.