What’s on your mind? The words stare at you from your Facebook page. The question welcomes you to share your thoughts. It seems to say, “You’re witty and you’re wise”, and invites you to share your troubles and speak about your concerns. In an atmosphere rife with disapproval and rigidity, you feel you have found a safe spot to be yourself and tell your story. So you take a sip of some hot tea, settle deeper into your seat, and start typing.
But wait. Don’t be misled by the simplicity of this question. All is not as pristine as it looks. Every word that you type can have a ripple effect. If you are speaking up for Malala, why aren’t you speaking for the other girls deprived of an education? There must be a conspiracy. How come you are flocking together for Shahzaib’s cause and not for countless others before him? You must be elitist. Why are you so enraged about the Quetta bombings and not the hundreds of previous horrific attacks?
You must have an ulterior motive. La Tomatina? Tauba tauba! One incident after another, Pakistan’s social media landscape shudders with mistrust, disdain and paranoia. No reaction is honest. No opinion is free of treachery. Each comment adds to a cauldron of brewing suspicion and cantankerous debate.
On the one hand, Facebook and Twitter have expanded our reach and given us the ability to connect with all sorts of people around the world. On the other, as social media becomes bigger, our window of understanding and tolerance constantly seems to shrink. There exists an atmosphere where everyone who states an opinion about anything gets shot down. Like petulant righteous brats we scoff at any statement brought to the forefront. We sniff for mischief, accuse of malice, and consider each statement to be a direct and ideological attack.
So, you think, best to stay away from all this. Best to keep it simple and keep your circle of friends selective so you can openly share your deepest, darkest thoughts. That, of course, negates the point of social media, but who cares about the ideology of Facebook? Alas, social media is like that potion Alice took, which once consumed will make your friends list grow bigger and bigger. Whether you like it or not, friends, relatives, colleagues, all must be lent your timeline. No one must be ignored. Annoying workmates must be added, and all uninteresting pictures must be liked. Undoubtedly social media has made the occasion of offense easily and frequently accessible.
“You always comment on her status, but never read mine!”
“I know you were in the vicinity of my house, and you never stopped by.”
“You had a party and I wasn’t invited?” As your friends list expands, it becomes the survival of the fittest. The test is how well you know the site’s privacy controls. You duck, you dodge, and you learn how to hit virtual curve balls. Existence on social media becomes a dexterously choreographed dance navigating privacy settings and easily injured sentiments. One false step, and be prepared for dirty looks and silent treatment to follow you into the non-virtual world.
Slip ups in status updates are not the only thing to beware of. Social media can also prove to be a source of intense dissatisfaction with your life. As you browse through your news feed, you get a picture-perfect view of the lives of your acquaintances and feel your life to be quite colourless and mundane in comparison. You begin to doubt your purpose and achievements, lurking somewhere in the corner, when in fact the feeling might be mutual among your Facebook friends.
What to say to all such friends is no easy decision then. You sink deeper into your chair. All you had wanted was a pleasant, relaxing hour or so getting updated and having conversations. But now it begins to feel like pretty hard work. You must be represented on social media because that’s what the times demand, but it’s just a vague, hollow representation of your thoughts and life. And while you think you are connected to 500 friends, 700 friends, 2000 friends, you might in fact be at your loneliest (and lowest) moment. And the irony of it all lingers in the air as Facebook asks you “What’s on your mind?” and you really can’t say.
Nadia Zaffar is a TV Journalist from Karachi formerly with DawnNews and BBC Media Action. She is currently working with Bol Network.