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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Social media helps the independent woman find and forge new solidarities

Social media tribes can never be substitutes for family or childhood pals. But then, they are not meant to be. They are a different kind of tribe — an additional tribe.

Written by Zehra Naqvi | Updated: November 12, 2020 8:38:52 am
A woman uses a mobile phone as she sits inside taxi in Mumbai (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

A lot has been said about the screen-addiction of our generation, and how social media is isolating us, “ripping apart” our communities and “tribes”, making us all lonelier. As a feminist, I am inclined to disagree slightly. However true and grave the dangers of social media may be, there is also another side to it.

Loneliness isn’t merely a function of being physically alone, being bodily distanced from people. Loneliness is more often a function of not being able to find people who understand you, people who “speak your language”.

For quite some time now, globalisation and the resulting rush of ideas across the world has meant that we are no longer connected only to our physical tribes. In fact, our generation has seen such great transitions at supersonic speeds that we do not feel connected to our families and communities in the way that the previous generations were.

This disconnect is far more pronounced in women than in men—because men are more inclined to follow the traditional line of thought, especially since that school of thought heavily privileges them.

Independent women who have a voice and demand to be heard, who refuse to bow down to the old world order and refuse to fit in with cultural norms of what a woman “ought” to be like — we were even lonelier in our traditional communities, our “tribes”. We have always been “freaks” and “outliers”, never really belonged.

That’s not to say we don’t love or need our families. We still cherish the network of family and community and neighbourhood. But we also need to be understood. And that’s where our traditional communities fall short. Their worldview is so different from ours that we have spent much of our lives in isolation — an emotional isolation.

The isolation of the modern world that is lamented so much has not been brought on by technology alone, but by the churning of ideas, by the distance between the ideas of the present generation and the previous one. A distance that is created by the present generation rebelling against the injustices of the previous ones.

Particularly for individuals who didn’t conform to normative ideas of social acceptance, traditional communities did not provide much support or emotional nourishment.

There is no replacement for the feeling of being heard and understood that one gets in the presence of people who can empathise, and offer advice that enables you to live a life that you want — not necessarily that which society wants.

Through social media, we are able to connect with people who understand us. Yes, social media is also full of predators and fakes — but then, isn’t the real world full of them too?

Social media becomes a hindrance and an isolator only when you begin to use it as a replacement for real-life family and friends, ignoring their physical presence — when you are glued to your device even in the presence of people around you. Social media is not a substitute for physical networks. It is a supplement. At least, that is how it ought to be. So how do we navigate social media in a way that makes us feel less isolated, instead of more? By seeking genuine and meaningful engagements.

Instead of constantly being in battle mode over politics or religion or the newest debate, we need to attempt to genuinely connect with people at a personal level, at the level of ideas and emotions and empathy. Perhaps, some of those online friendships could translate into offline friendships too. There are various support groups cropping up on social media now, for this purpose. To help people find their tribes, who would understand them and help them overcome the perpetual loneliness that is the bane of people whose ideas are vastly different from the physical communities they are a part of.

Social media tribes can never be substitutes for family or childhood pals. But then, they are not meant to be. They are a different kind of tribe — an additional tribe.

In a world that is increasingly becoming a mix of cultures, a mix of identities and a mix of selfhoods, we need a mix of multiple tribes to get through life.

For better or for worse, whether we like it or not, the world has changed. The notion of tribes and communities needs to evolve as well.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2020 under the title ‘A Digital Sisterhood’. Naqvi is a Delhi-based writer

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