WhatsApp is a pun on “what’s up?” It bears the imprint of a promoter exposed at an impressionable age to concentrated bursts of Bugs Bunny episodes in which the rabbit constantly went, “What’s up, doc?” But eight years on in 2017, it has ceased to inform friends of what’s up in your life. Mostly, you forward what’s up in other people’s lives, with or without the adornment of some disembodied clapping hands and tastefully scattered flowers. Or a thumb upraised like a benevolent Caesar’s on a sunny day at the Coliseum.
WhatsApp is now a powerful channel of political communication. In translation, that means a locus of abuse, rumour and surmise buzzing like a disturbed beehive. Its most popular signature line is: “Forwarded as received.” That admission suggests three possibilities. One, that you do not have the mental capacity to evaluate what people are telling you. Two, that you do not really care about the content, since hitting the forward button is what this game is all about. You forward, therefore you are. At a time when part of one’s life is dematerialised, an electronic footprint is a vital sign, even if it’s a bit muddied. And therefore, three, you have enough intelligence to deny responsibility for the communication.
But therefore, it also follows that the life of the chronic forwarder is an empty husk. Nothing to see in there except scavenged off-colour jokes, doctored TV grabs, wild rumours and other people’s opinions, mostly vile. Life is elsewhere. In 2017, the WhatsApp landscape was “a darkling plain, swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” Writing in Victorian England, Matthew Arnold would have recognised the online world of 2017. Happy 2018, and please don’t forward this. You may have more interesting things to say yourself.