Centre for Internet & Society
Web of Sameness

A picture depicting the Web of Sameness published in the Indian Express

The social Web has been an ominous space at the start of 2013. It has been awash with horror, pain and grief. The recent gang rape and death of a medical student in Delhi prevents one from being too optimistic about the year to come. My live feeds on various social networks are filled with rue and rage at the gruesome incident and the seeming depravity of our society.

Nishant Shah's column was published in the Indian Express on January 18, 2013.

As I contemplate the event, I see that the Web has become a space for coping with pain and mitigating the horror of our lives. I feel comforted, when I go online, and see people grieving for a woman they never knew, and demanding better conditions for all. As I look at these resolves for change, battle cries demanding justice, and angry responses directed at imagined and imaginary perpetrators of these crimes, I realise that I have heard it all before, over and over again.

“Not Again!” has been the refrain of the year. If life were a musical, this would have been the persistent chorus line of 2012. From fighting against censorship and violation of privacy by government and corporations to acts of hatred, or from ridiculing the map glitches on the iPhone to seeing the growing stronghold of authoritarian forces over the social Web, we have repeatedly rolled our digital sleeves, gnashed our fingers on the keyboards and shouted in political solidarity, “Not Again!”. While this show of protest, this robust expression of change holds a promise of how things will change for the better, it is also a refrain that has lost its bite. What does it mean, this ability to repeatedly say “Not Again!” only to experience these horrors in despairing cyclic patterns?

I want to see how the social Web and the new public spheres online might offer us outlets for emotions but not necessarily platforms for action. Some of the earliest critiques of the Web expressed the fear that given the extreme customisation of social networks, we might soon reside only in digital echo chambers. In the heavily informatised ages that we live in, it is not uncommon to set up specific groups that we belong to, identify friends that we talk with, mark people we follow, set up circles we share in, and configure filters that help us receive information that is tailor-made to suit our personalised preferences. Unfortunately, this quest for selective information sampling often means that we separate the digital spaces of life from the physical ones, without even realising it. We might be seamlessly navigating these two spaces, not really caring for the distinctions of “virtual reality” and “real life”, but in instances like these, it is easy to see how we shroud ourselves in echo chambers, never allowing voices to translate into the world of action.

You are sure to have been bombarded with tweets that have insightfully analysed the conditions of safety in our public spaces. And in all of this, like me, you must have been comforted thinking that there is still hope. But for every “like” you received on your status update, for every time your tweet got favourited or retweeted, for every time you found yourself agreeing with the social experts, you also separated yourself from the reality. Because the people who gave your opinions the attention, are actually people just like you. They are already on your side of things. Talking to them, exchanging ideas with them, calling for change side-by-side is like preaching to the choir, but it gives us a sense of having reached out. The voices in an echo chamber are not just repeated ad nauseum, but they are also not heard by anybody else on the outside, thus stifling the energy and passions that might have resulted in real change.

The Web also offers an easy separation of us versus them. As coping mechanisms and as a way of distancing ourselves from these events, the Web offers us a clear disavowal of guilt. The young man, who shot those children in the school, was mentally unstable. The laws that allowed him to purchase guns are because of the politicians and the arms industry. The student, who got raped in a bus, is the responsibility of the ‘rape capital’ Delhi. If we were in charge, these things would not have happened this way. But now they have happened, and so we will be angry, we will be shocked, we will tweet “Not Again!” and then quickly shift our ever-expanding attention to the burgeoning space of information online.

And then we will wait, for the next incident to happen — oh, not the same, but similar — and we will go through this process once again.

If I have to look into the future and hope that 2013 shall be the year of change, then I am hoping that the change will be from “Not Again” to a “Never Again”. We will have to learn how to use the energy, the power of the Web, the influence of the digital crowds on the digital commons, to produce a change that goes beyond the social network feeds.

I hope that the social Web matures. We have to make sure that the promise of change that the digital social network offers, does not die as armchair clicktivism that witnesses but does nothing to change the act that affects us.

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