If we were to choose a word of the year for the last year, it would have to be survivor. With #MeToo finally finding its feet in its second wave in the Indian landscape, and every day, more women finding their voice to stand up, speak back and call out, the social web proved that it is not just an angry screaming match, but that it can also be a space for care, connections, and catharsis. Of course, the #MeToo deniers, who mock feminism and make jokes about increased policing of who we kiss (largely missing the point that nobody is objecting to kissing, just kissing without consent), will continue to populate the web with their structural misogyny and anxious masculinity, needing attention and validation.
In the meantime, we celebrate, cherish, champion, and, most importantly, believe the survivors and support them in ways that they need — by sharing, defending, and demanding action and accountability from those who have been named and called. I have been overwhelmed by the stories that survivors of sexual abuse and violence have shared and the solidarity and care that social media communities and even some of the homegrown celebrities have shown to those who took the courage to speak out. We also acknowledge those who still haven’t found the right voice to speak, but are still a part of this stance.
Survivor is going to be a badge of honour and courage, not only because of the strength that the women showed but also because they did not let abuse define them. They did not just survive, but also learned to live. This is something that is often forgotten in the social media spectacles which rely on intense performances and dramatic impact for going viral. Once somebody “comes out” as a survivor, they often get reduced to being nothing else.
And this happens on both sides. The survivor gets pin-pointed as nothing more than the person who had that experience. She is scrutinised for her testimony, made to relive the moment, subjected to fact-checks, and almost any other incident in her life is connected with and held to question her status as survivor. The digital social web specialises in gaslighting survivors by suggesting that it was in their head, or brands them as liars. The survivor becomes a digital object, more than a person, and then it gets shared, manipulated, examined and forgotten, like we do with most other digital things.
Even on the support side, the survivor faces the danger of being nothing more than that label. We are used to badges — our profile pictures, avatars, tags, narratives — standing in for us. This replacement has been so naturalised that we often see ourselves falling in love with avatars, confusing them with the persons behind them. The survivor, as a face for the movement, gets reduced to an image. Her name, face, personal life and details get shared without her consent or knowledge. In becoming the image for the movement, she sometimes gets forgotten and the emotional and physical labour that goes into coping with this unrelenting viral attention is ignored.
The problem with internet survivors is that what we consume is digital networked data stream that needs three things: updating, attention, and shareability. All these three digital processes are dehumanising. The need for constant updating results in survivor stories getting forgotten or falling between clicks if there are no new updates. Digital attention demands that the survivor be subjected to intense focus, often intimidating or silencing through the full frontal gaze turned on her. Sharing economies entail that the survivor story fits into a simple, easy-to-share, dramatic narrative that fits into the aesthetic of shared digital cultural content. And any survivor story that does not lend itself to easy meme-making bears the danger of quickly being forgotten.
The survivor, in the digital web, is not recognised as living. We forget that these women didn’t just survive, they suffered. We ignore that they are not just surviving, but also living and have many different facets to them. The digital survivor is a flattened image that stays in memory only as long as the image is in circulation. #MeToo has started as a movement of these digital survivors. But in order for this political momentum to continue and sustain we are going to have to stop reducing these survivors to flattened pixelated images and start building strategies where we go back to recognising them as living.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.