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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Feel free to unfriend

Do we fight online because we want to or because algorithms make us?

Written by Nishant Shah |
August 9, 2020 6:35:19 am
social media With me or against me: Is Web 3.0 an entertainment-hate complex? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Tay Tay (aka Taylor Swift) sang Haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate), eventually starting one of the most persistent hashtag and meme, she was on to something. Often celebrated as a disregard for what negative people say and think, and following your true bliss (you know, you be you bae), this anthem perhaps is a little bit more than that. It is also a stark reminder that the hater is not just one exceptional person who bullies, trolls, intimidates and abuses. No, if we were to take our social-media worlds seriously, we will have to accept that we are all haters. And we hate all the time.

Because Web 3.0 is an entertainment-hate complex. It thrives on engineering ways of hating each other for the smallest of infractions and imagined insults, and it naturalises our participation in hating. The entire influencer brigade is incentivised to hate like there is no tomorrow, from how people cook rice to how people want temples; from how people want to wear masks to how people override consent. To be online is to hate – to express it, to be the victim of it, to share it in outrage, or at least to witness it in growing glee, as people rave, rant, and rage with all their might.

Nowhere is this culture of entertainment-hate perhaps more visible than on social-media spaces. Every couple of weeks, our fragile worlds get shaken by events that lead to immediate polarisation: from matchmaking shows on Netflix to sexual-abuse threads on Instagram; from dramatic declarations on Facebook to outright wars on Twitter. I was going to make a reference to TikTok but we don’t get to do it on our increasingly-collapsing free Internet. In the absence of TikTok, of course, we can at least shout at each other over whether or not it should survive.

The simple point is that we go online to hate and find this entertaining. It is no wonder then that for most engaged users online, their interactions are a constant negotiation of friending, unfriending, blocking, and following people as trends, patterns, and opinions change. In the last couple of weeks, I have seen multiple declarations of people making their politics visible (because nothing says how woke we are like an Instagram selfie with a political hashtag) and demanding that those who disagree with them unfriend them. The word that is used the most in these declarations is “free”: you are free to have your opinion, I am free to have mine, we are free to co-exist, you are free to unfriend me, I am free to block you… the litany is long, and perhaps startling.

I have never seen so much invocation of freedom to essentially avoid, block, and hate. “Free to unfriend/unfollow” seems to be a much-heralded mantra and quite in digital vogue. However, these freedoms “to be” seem to be expressed in forms of freedoms of “not being with me”. This clash of freedoms, so to speak, emerges because of the granularity of the digital world. Friends whom we have known for decades, get reduced to one specific task, or one idea that makes them loathsome to us. Families that we have negotiated with all our lives, get boxed into a set of identity labels, and become disposable. Communities that have been support systems, even if unwillingly, become foreign entities which can now be ignored. Difference gets amplified to such a large volume that the only option is to exercise a non-corona social distancing, where anybody who is not with us immediately becomes somebody we need to be without.

It is important to emphasise that this granularity of actions – where entire complex people, collectives, communities get reduced to a name, an expression, a belief -is a peculiarly digital condition. Unforgiving in its storage, and unrelenting in its memory, the digital platforms not only foreground but incentivise these clean data streams where you are just one thing. And when you are just one thing, you are no longer a person, you are a thing, and easy to hate. The algorithms of social media favour this because it helps them to put us into databases that machines understand; they shape and engineer behaviour that mimics these machinic models. When we hate online, it is algorithmic hate. It stems from our human experiences but it follows the logic of fragmentation and granularisation that converts people into things.

So, when we think of the freedom to unfriend, it might be a good thing to, perhaps, pause and figure out if it is an actual personal choice or a prompt made by insidious algorithms and platforms that perpetuate this entertainment-hate complex where we are, because we hate.

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