This essay was also published in Esthesia Magazine.
The internet dawned on me, much after, it did on my generation of internet users. While my friends made Facebook and Club Penguin Accounts, streamed movies online, and wrote elaborate emails to each other, I was still waiting in line with my library card in the school library, week after week. Each time my brother exclaimed about a movie he watched on YouTube, or over the friends he made on Facebook, it somehow scared me. I wasn’t aware of the worlds it would open up, rather, I was scared of the world it might shut out. The world I was familiar with, one of the books and telephone conversations and remote controls that were aggressively wielded when ads came up in the middle of shows.
Much like me, my mother too was scared of this new thing that was suddenly keeping my brother glued to the desktop screen, rather than being outdoors with a bat and ball. She dealt with this fear by ensuring that anything that he did was through her accounts. Then one day, she went ballistic. She realised that he no longer needed access to her Facebook account to be able to play Farmville because he had figured out that he could just make a fake account.
The fact that I didn’t have a Facebook account when every one of her friend’s children had, was some kind of pride to her. In family gatherings, when the adults raised concerns about their children losing their appetite, eyesight, and marks to the internet, mummy would sit a little straighter and say, “Unni doesn’t even have a Facebook account and she seems to be doing just well in school.” My brother hated me more than he usually did, each time, mummy did this. Because inadvertently the question that always followed was “Agelo? I know he is very active on Facebook. That online green button is always on.” Then, she’d shrink into her chair a little and say, “Yeah he doesn’t listen to anyone.”
The first time I made my presence known on the internet, I did it as mummy. Her accounts were logged in to YouTube, her email given to join any online club, her email given to play games online. So I watched movies, played games, and joined, first Tinkle, then Club Penguin and then an array of clubs, on her account. So, she’d giggle each time she received an email saying “Hi! Please feed your puffles,” from club penguin.
My first official entry into the internet world as myself was when pappa created an email address for me in eighth grade. Each morning I’d wake up to 30 to 35 unread emails in my inbox, most of them being forwarded messages of “World’s best architecture”, “World’s best fruit carvings” and so on, and an occasional “Hi, How are you?” from a friend I see every day in school.
All through high school, after shunning away from Facebook, I created an account, the day after I graduated. And like every first-time user, I freaked out each time I accepted a friend request by mistake, or when a family member texted saying “Why are you online at this godforsaken hour?” So then one day, I went ahead and made a Facebook account for my grandmother too, secretly using that later, at godforsaken hours to scroll through sleepless nights.
When I found out you can, in fact, make multiple accounts, I did it. I had realised that you can get scrutinised by the content you choose to share online to the abundance of or lack thereof male attention. One account for family, one for the friends and acquaintances, and one with a pseudonym for strangers; one to share only sanskaar and family appropriate content, one to freely express ideologies, identities, sexualities, controversial works of literature, and one for the most random of things, memes, rants and sometimes to only pick fights. I must confess though, it is a lot of baggage, occasionally. I don’t know what I will do when all these persona’s flow into each other someday. Will there be chaos? Or will there be a new kind of liberation that is more profound than when I cut my hair short?
To my grandmother, the internet was a way of finding out about distant relations – marriages, deaths, grandchildren, sickness, birthday celebrations. The joys of making contact with her grandchildren, nephews, and nieces who lived in far-away countries were expressed in the form of long comments under profile pictures detailing her day and inquiring after them. When she discovered YouTube, there was, suddenly, an overwhelming amount of devotional songs playing at home.
To mummy, social media was a tool for her to sharpen and defend her ideals. She’d pick up fights with everyone on the internet who disagreed with her or insulted anyone she cared about. When mummy first started her Facebook account, she was cautious to add only her family. Then slowly she developed the skin to add distant relations, acquaintances, mutual friends, and finally, after years on the web, enough to vehemently voice what she thinks for everyone to see, no matter right or wrong. Now, this does scare me, and for good reason. My elder cousin sister who was following her activity online one day noticed that mummy had shared a post, to which a man responded with a rape threat. My cousin called the man out and defended mummy. Soon her friends and acquaintances came to her rescue as well. The man never apologized. He simply said, “I was joking.” Amidst the chaos that the episode had stirred up, mummy found out that the man was not a stranger but someone from her own hometown, making it even more hurtful. Eventually, mummy deleted the post from her wall, but never stopped her journey of connecting and sharing on the platform. “We should make sure she doesn’t get herself killed ya,” my cousin said afterwards. When I think of it today, I realise it was my introductory lesson into two things. Firstly, women will come to the rescue of other women, when in need, creating a space for support, discourse, and sisterhood. Secondly, while being an empowering space, the utter void of the internet is also a very unsafe space, especially for women.
Countless female friends and acquaintances have over the years narrated their harrowing stories which included unsolicited photographs, creepy and hateful messages they’ve received for the kind of clothes they wear or the ideas they believe in or solely for just being a woman with an opinion. For a few years now, I have been obsessively reading comments on Instagram, and when I find an account being hateful, intolerant, threatening, I immediately block them, an act that has almost started feeling cathartic somehow, like I’m doing myself a favour.
Last month, my teenage cousin sister decided to start an Instagram account. While I explained to her the features of the app, I also taught her how to restrict or block accounts and screenshot creepy DMs or threats to use as evidence if ever it reaches that point. We are too familiar with harassers deleting DMs and denying its existence, aren’t we? It felt like I was teaching her the equivalent of karate chops for successful survival in the virtual world.
I do not know how to entirely evade these unkind eyes. Is that even possible? Until someone finds that out, the next best thing to do seems to be occasionally giving myself a break. I was reluctant to try it because of the fear of missing out; posts from friends, memes, discussions on DMs, tags, Insta stories, Facebook status updates. But soon, you’ll come to realise that taking a break from the internet is basically hitting the pause button on the show that is making you anxious. It will still be there after you take a break, and come back, feeling better and more equipped to deal with it.
Every other summer vacation, I Marie Kondo my way through the 4000 unread emails in my email inbox; most of which are subscriptions, sale announcements, alerts, and newsletters. Then, I go through my search history and delete all that is even mildly embarrassing — like the many times I tepidly searched symptoms I thought I was showing or forgot how to use excel sheets or when I googled to find if ‘wretchedly’ was a real word and why I startle myself awake sometimes. I feel better at the end of it. This is until I realise, I don’t really know if it vanished off the face of the earth or if there is an internet void that everything is dumped in? Will it come back to haunt me? I will never know.
What is even scarier is the thought that we’re under a constant system of surveillance, with locations being traced, multinational companies tracking our online purchases and apps that harvest our data on how many steps we took, our period cycles and the amount of water we drink every day, and even eavesdropping on our conversations with friends and family to then, subtly send us personalised ads.
Today, after nearly five years in the shadows of the internet and another nine in all its light and colour, the internet is still an ocean of whats whys hows whens of constantly refreshed feeds and buffering circles, an ocean I plunged into without, exactly knowing, how to swim.
Featured Image via unsplash