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Digital native: What’s in a name? Privilege

Posted by Nishant Shah at Sep 10, 2017 08:00 PM |
Anonymity-based internet apps like Sarahah may not be as vicious for those surrounded by the comfort of social status. If your experience of Sarahah has been positive, it might be good to reflect on your own cultural and social capital.

The article was published in the Indian Express on September 10, 2017.


After days of witnessing the brouhaha around Sarahah, I finally gave in and signed up for an account. Having been a part of the rise and fall of other similar anonymity-based spaces like QOOH, Secret, Yikyak; and, having lived out shamefully long hours on Internet-trawling platforms like Reddit, I was more or less ready for yet another app that invited the world to write to me anonymously, with no option of replying or engaging meaningfully.

When I signed up for it and shared the link on my social networks, I braced myself for the barrage to begin. As I went along with my usual day, with an eye on the app, the notifications started pouring in. Instead of the vicious and vitriolic tripe that I have come to expect from the anonymous message, my app was singing outpourings of love and celebration of different relationships. Friends shared memories that they wanted to re-live. Students wrote in with messages of joy, filling me with proxy pride at the wonderful young people I get to work with. Colleagues and acquaintances sent messages of celebration. One reluctant person regretfully told me that they find my work shallow but if I am successful doing it, then more power to me.

The invitation text on Sarahah says, “Say something constructive”, and it looked like people have been so well-conditioned to listening to bot-messages that they were actually following the instructions to the T. A few days of this euphoric validation from my social networks made me walk on clouds and smile at unsuspecting strangers. I also started thinking why people berate these anonymous app when they are such a wonderful celebration of a mediated social world, where performances of affection and appreciation are dwindling.

It would have been easy for me to dismiss the growing alarm around cases of bullying, harassment, threats, and destructive messages that others have experienced on this app. Absorbed in just my own bubble, I could insist the need for these kinds of platforms, ignoring the experiences of others. I had to remind myself that this super-positive response I have had in the last three weeks is not because of the nature of the app, but because of a confluence of privilege, sociality and demography inherent on my social networks.

As an independent expat living in Europe, with jobs that back me up with cultural and economic capital, and with years of fluency and familiarity with the medium that I am engaging in, I am not an easy target. If barbs, jabs, insults and threats had made their way to me, not only would I be able to take it in my stride and shake it off, but would, possibly, be able to reciprocate in ways where I would find myself on the winning end. I also live in the comfort of knowing that if there was ever a public brawl, I have the cushion of networks, which would not only come to my defence but also protect me from further repercussions of such events. Also, much as I would like to be otherwise, I am not young. I moved out of the digital natives demography a few years ago, and the social networks that I have created around me comprise people who I know to be mature and sensitive. I would have been shocked if any of them had engaged in acts of bullying or vicious attacks.

These are all affordances that might appear natural to me because they are a part of my everyday experience, but I need to recognise these as privileges. If your experience of Sarahah has been positive, it might be good to reflect on your own cultural and social capital. Historically, those who carry the knapsack of privileges with ease, have never found themselves at the centre of bullying, intimidation or harassment. Those are always saved for minorities, people who do not fit, people who are marked by precariousness in a way that does not even give them the voice to narrate their stories or the capacities to deal with the abuse that is sent their way. It is very easy to just look at our experiences, shaped by privilege, and use it to dismiss the pain, sorrow and the turbulence that is often reserved for women, people of colour, people defined by markers of language, literacy, location and class. It is necessary to remind ourselves that the personal is not a symptom of the universal experience. More often than not, it is only a testimony of the extreme customisation that the digital world offers, so that, ensconced in our own filtered bubble, we can easily forget and devalue those who suffer through other conditions.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.