WhatsApp and the Creation of a Transnational Sociality

Posted by Maitrayee Deka at Jul 01, 2015 07:15 AM |
This post by Maitrayee Deka is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. Maitrayee is a postdoctoral research fellow with the EU FP7 project, P2P value in the Department of Sociology, University of Milan, Italy. Her broader research interests are New Media, Economic Sociology and Gender and Sexuality. This is the second of Maitrayee's two posts on WhatsApp and networks of commerce and sociality among lower-end traders in Delhi.

 

The beginnings of WhatsApp messages in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar with lower-end traders in China were mostly trade related. However, with time, the messages were not just confined to the domain of products and prices. The traders in India started sharing personal messages and images with their counterparts in China. Some of the social exchanges could be interpreted within the gambit of the economy. In other words, these social exchanges in the form of photographs of anime and food developed trust and familiarity that further led to the strengthening of trade ties. However, other social exchanges on WhatsApp could be related to a more personal space whereby traders were binding themselves with Chinese traders in romantic relationships. In 2012 and 2013, the transnational sociality through WhatsApp was at its embryonic stage and showed signs of becoming much more layered in the future.

 

Friendship and Trust

The traders in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar elaborated on how the electronic shops in China were usually managed by polite and pretty women. Women managing the business transactions in China made the Indian traders come in touch with them via WhatsApp. One day at Rakesh’s shop at Palika Bazaar, he was browsing through his WhatsApp messages. He invited me to see some of the messages that he thought were interesting. As I went closer to the screen, I saw images of food, a bowl of soup and salad. Rakesh told me how he had become friends with this particular trader. She was a married woman and had a shop that sold accessories of games in China. Rakesh said over time that they had developed a special relationship. He regarded her as a warm person. He was familiar with her domestic life, her children and how old they were. Their interactions were governed by the exchange of information on everyday activities going on in their lives.

I observed that the trading exchanges were mitigated by various social and personal messages. It appeared that the personal messages were a way to maintain continuity of ties, business and otherwise. Whereas the traders between the two countries might not be doing business with the same set of people everyday, an image of a teddy bear and food acted as an assurance of a lasting relationship. It indicated that even though trade between two persons was temporarily suspended, they were going to revive it in the near future. The exchange of personal messages in between trade activities developed trust and mutual respect. In a physical market place, traders developed special relationship with different people, for instance, with the customers who came to the same shop regularly. These relationships were born out of investment of time and energy on part of the both parties, the traders as well as the customers. In both Palika Bazaar and Lajpat Rai Market, often a trader had a customer who had been visiting his shops since he was a child. The trader knew what his customer did for a living as an adult, how many members his family had and their whereabouts. The same case was true for a customer. He quickly noticed what were the changes that had been made to the physical layout of the shop. The long-term ties were advantageous to both the parties. Usually the customer got a good discount for a product and he also knew that in case of a defect he could easily ask for a replacement. For the trader, a customer was a constant source of income, as he knew that the customer would not choose another trader over him. Rarely, a permanent customer approached another trader in the market.

In the absence of physical proximity between the Chinese and Indian traders, there were few occasions in which the ties of trust based on familiarity could be developed. Simple exchange of trade messages did not build social solidarity. In order for the traders to substitute the strength of physical proximity and face-to-face interaction online, the cute anime were seen to intervene. The exchange of photographs and cartoons indicated that individual traders invested in each other and developed a circle of familiar objects and symbols that generated trust.

 

WhatsApp and Movement

Bubo is a fascinating figure in Palika Bazaar. In Govind’s shop, several people had different things to say about Bubo. Some claimed that he was a genius; other told me he was a techno nerd. Some even thought of him as an eccentric person who lacked social skills and etiquettes. Everyone however, unanimously agreed that I should not miss an opportunity to talk to him. Bubo handled the online sales of video games for Govind’s shop. He was responsible for putting up new/ second hand video games and accessories on diverse e-commerce sites in India such as OLX and Flipkart. He had a rented apartment in Pitampura area in New Delhi. Bubo and his brother usually spend days in their apartment in front of their computer screens. The traders in Govind’s shop were of the opinion that Bubo was more comfortable being online than meet people physically. This proved to be true. I on different occasions tried to talk to Bubo. I called him on his phone and he evaded the prospect of meeting me face to face. In the end, I gave up on him, as I did not know how to convince him to have a chat with me. While I personally never met Bubo, I collected information about him from different sources. As the traders at Govind’s shop found him peculiar, they had many things to say about him. They were all impressed by the fact that Bubo self taught himself to be a hacker and got past through many of the website requirements. The online trading networks entailed certain rules. For instance, with relation to the matters of quality of goods, many of the online marketing websites such as Flipkart in India wanted the trader to put up guaranteed products. According to the traders, Bubo was able to find solution to get past the different barriers put up by the big companies. Bubo with his hacking skills was an assent to Govind’s shop. Therefore, it was not surprising to see that throughout the course of my fieldwork, his name kept reappearing. In January 2015, when I went to Govind’s shop, the mythical figure of Bubo came up again. This time I saw his face for the first time on WhatsApp through Govind’s iPhone 5. I learnt that Bubo was in China. He had a new Chinese girlfriend whom he had met through online trading exchanges. As I flipped through the images on Govind’s phone, I saw Bubo dining with his girl friend, meeting her wide circle of friends and family in China.

Bubo’s story is an interesting illustration of how the lower-end trading alliances initiated by WhatsApp start to have a life of its own. Bubo was ambitious and wanted to make the most of the opportunities available to him. However, as Govind maintained his relocation to China could not be simply put as a business strategy. Govind recollected that Bubo held a fascination for Chinese women. His move to China therefore was both an attempt to better his economic prospects as well as an attempt at finding romantic love. Bubo was trying hard to teach himself Chinese and if everything worked in his favour, he might end up making a permanent move to China, Govind added.

 

Conclusion

For many of the users of WhatsApp all over the world, it is difficult to imagine it as a tool for business. We are accustomed to sharing personal messages and images with friends and families living in different parts of the world. Only in recent times, we hear varied usages of WhatsApp: to spread xenophobic messages in closed groups, and organize events and community tasks. Even then, the impersonal usage of WhatsApp is marginal.

In early May 2015, I was part of a meeting of peer-to-peer value creation in Europe. One of the participants spoke about how a Fablab in Madrid was beginning to use WhatsApp to assign community related tasks and operations. It made me realise how the traders in Delhi were one step ahead of all of us. Already in 2013, traders were co-opting WhatsApp to their work sphere. At a time in which high-skilled knowledge workers in Europe are devising community platforms akin to WhatsApp, traders in Delhi saw the potential of it as a social and economic tool much earlier. I was amazed at the pace at which traders submerged themselves in different endeavours. The traders never had a half-hearted relationship with anything, their consumers and the search for profit. The similar merging into the environment was visible through their use of smartphones as well. The traders in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar learnt to stay alert surviving in the margins of an urban economy. It had become their second nature to see an opportunity in everything. And this attitude meant that they pushed every situation to its limits. Flirting with laws, selling of contraband and pirated media goods showed that the traders were ready to test the limits of any situation.

WhatsApp and trade related texts are an example of thinking out of the box. Even in its early days, WhatsApp facilitated trading links show a lot of potential. The traders from China and India have established profitable business links. Some of them have developed friendship and romantic relationships. Only time will tell to what extent and in which direction trade related ties would evolve. One could only imagine the prospect of long-term dense trading networks with China. With the official players in India and China having strong visions about where the futures of both countries should head, the experimental and out of the box thinking of many of the traders with technology per se gives hope for a more hybrid regime in Asia.

 

The post is published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.

 

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