The tug at the beginning is all-encompassing; the desire to evade all sense of responsibility overly tempting. Joy, elation and delight culminate into a driblet that does not quite look like happiness. Your sense of self-worth increases, your friends comment on how much weight you’ve lost and relatives you haven’t seen in decades send their endorsements in Times New Roman.
This is what happens when you get a ‘like’ for a social media post. The algorithm makes you feel as though you are the prettiest you have ever been, even if you’re very aware of the prominent freckles on your cheek. You brush past your insecurities, download an editing app and set in motion a process that has now taken root deep inside the chasms of your brain.
Tan lines get edited, acne that you’ve had since you were a teenager abruptly disappears and your skin appears warmer and smoother than you have ever known it to be. The glow that you seem to be emitting cannot be overlooked.
In short, the truth – or the reality of who you are – gets a drastic makeover.
When Facebook first came into being in 2004, its basic premise was to connect you with your family, friends, relatives and acquaintances, and possibly in that order. That world has now been turned upside down; the reason why Zuckerberg wanted to enter your lives demolished entirely.
Don’t get me wrong, the aforementioned gentleman is no saint – he would have been had he chosen to live as a hermit in Alaska with no belongings but an unverified Twitter account – but this essay does not intend to sing paeans of his praise or homages of the criticism he generates. This is supposed to be on how, despite the irrefutable advantages that social media offers – the wide-reaching benefits, the constant connectivity, the offerings of help, the career proposals, the incentivised bids, the inflated self-worth and the insincere blessings of relatives long-forgotten – I chose to walk away from it.
I created a Facebook account in August 2016, my freshman year in college. I quit exactly a year later. The ease with which my new friends from campus could reach me seemed like a shot of adrenaline at first, and yet the unrestraint with which they could loom over me at all times of the day appeared bewildering. I had taken classes alongside them, batted against them in the cricket nets and come back home chatting. And when I reached home and turned my computer on, they were ‘with me’ again.
I could be riding my bicycle on State Highway-1, trying to reach the lake in Shamirpet before sunrise, or playing a spot of football with my cousins at the ground in Bowenpally, or devouring ice cream with my mother at her favourite creamery in Begumpet, or trekking the lower slopes of the Western Ghats in Karnataka with my best friend – one ping and I was back in the rabbit hole that I had tried to avoid all my life.
The message that I received was loud and clear. I could be taken away from where I was in reality and into the virtual world where truth and falsehood exist correspondingly in blurred lines without my explicit permission. The classmate whom I had assisted in applying for an endowment intended for economically backward students would upload a selfie that very evening of driving his father’s BMW; the cousin whom I knew to be lagooned at home would post pictures of a fictional trip to Goa; the friend who could not tell the guitar from a percussion instrument, and knew nothing of classic rock, would write a critical analysis of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed a few hours later.
None of this was harmful in the exact sense of the word, but it was detrimental to the existence of my soul. My spirit was being assailed relentlessly, and I could not exist in such a counterfeit world. My 17-year-old self could not understand why someone would try to portray themselves to be something they are not, or why they would want to seek the approval of people they had never met. None of this was the icebreaker, and yet it should have been.
The direction that my moral compass was taking did not make for good reading. The idea of truth – ineradicable and indestructible – that was ingrained deep within me by my parents and my guru Anil Mittal was losing shape, and I felt myself become complicit in the falsehoods being propagated even if it was from a respectable distance. The voyeur in me chose to withstand the simple joy of getting to know who was doing what and who was holidaying where.
I have always examined my essence, and that of those around me, by an extremely strict moral code, and the fact that I continued for a year on a platform where such untruths were being reproduced every day fills me with deep remorse. The coward that I was, I chose flight over fight. I did not take up arms or retaliate against social media. I gathered my tools, upped and left when I knew that I would not be able to withstand the storm that was coming.
A lot of well-meaning acquaintances ever since have told me that I should have stood my ground, and tried to battle the evils caused by social media by cutting down on the time I spent there, but this black and white soul of mine wanted no part in such a grey attempt at reconciliation. It was either yes or no that I understood, and social media was a big NO.
I am, by disposition, an unduly intimate individual. The rationale of constant connectivity did not have me as a fan of social media in the first place. The fact that people could contact you across borders must seem intensely appealing to many – and that is perhaps the reason why social media has more subscribers than newspapers do – but I find that to be a concentrated attack on the defences of my privacy. That an internet application with a tiny hologram and no joining fee could claim to confidently have as much control over my life scared me.
I needed to reclaim what was mine.
I celebrated four years of being off Facebook this past August, and I have not regretted a single moment. I do have a Twitter account which comes in handy for professional engagements, but I do not log onto it more than once a fortnight, and that too to retrieve messages and backlogs. The people with whom I need to have connections have my phone number; they call me when they can, and vice-versa. Messages that need delivering do get relayed to me; my life has not got derailed. I have not missed a single practice session or match since, and the process of publishing four books has gone smoothly enough.
What I have gained is an increasing dependence upon myself in times of sequestration. The seclusion that the absence of a social media account brought in the early days of my withdrawal was disheartening; I felt compelled to go back to my old ways and throw all my resolve down the weakly Musi flowing on the southern bank of the Salar Jung. However, once the initial phase passed, I was able to celebrate the fact that I was not under an algorithm’s guardianship any more.
I did not have the safety net of scrolling through my social media feed when stuck in traffic or waiting for my mother to get ready for dinner, and this meant that I had a lot of time on my hands to do nothing but think. And I do not need to tell you what magic such solitude can do. It gives you the most incredible of ideas, and it was one such traffic jam from which This Means War was conceived.
On any given day, my phone does not show more than 30 minutes of screen time, and I am glad that I use it for the purpose it was invented for in the first place – to get in touch with people and to let them get in touch with you – but at my convenience, and not theirs. I feel no shame in not taking non-essential phone calls, and calling back at leisure. I could not let anyone take control over my life and the years since I quit social media have made me more self-reliant and experience happiness – if there is a thing as such.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty
Mohul Bhowmick is a national-level cricketer and passionate writer. He has published three books of poetry and one travelogue. His latest work Seeking Kathmandu: Travails of a solo traveller across Nepal is out now.