The apps went down and the atmosphere cleared – just for a bit, just enough to breathe in what it feels like to be without them. Unless, of course, you were hyperventilating from a crucial message not going or coming through, desperate for a dopamine hit from a photo you posted, or feeling suddenly bereft of a tool that reliably distracts you from all the things you don’t want to think about. But for me, the global simultaneous outage of Whatsapp, Instagram and Facebook felt… nice. It meant that what was going to be a Whatsapp voice call became a Zoom video call instead, and the space of that personal conversation was augmented gently. It meant that there were less places to scroll in the blue-lit darkness of insomnia. It meant that I could indulge in the fantasy of what it would be like to just not have some social media platforms around anymore, and despite the obvious losses of certain photographs or words, I found I liked the thought.
Everything was back by the time I woke up the next day. This was, of course, a relief to millions. The small bubble of finding myself breathing easy in that transformed atmosphere was a privilege, a highly subjective one. During the hours that this mega-corporate was down, those who depend on its platforms for mental health reasons were affected. So were those whose livelihoods require them (nope, no sympathy for the billionaire who owns these entities). Loneliness and fear must have risen. Despite my own unpleasant feelings towards social media, and my sense of security that I could still reach anyone I needed or wanted to reach, I was glad the outage was over. People need connection.
The elderly, the unwell or the struggling aside (I know, I know – rare is the person who wouldn’t self-identify in the last category these days), the relatively-doing-alright who felt frustrated or inconvenienced over truncated casual chats or random scrolling have an opportunity to reflect – specifically, on what life in places that experience Internet shutdowns is like. When fundamental rights to communication and access are clamped down on, there are major impacts on everything from timely medical interventions to educational and professional opportunities to basic safety and sustenance needs. The horror of not knowing what one’s crush was typing before the outage doesn’t compare to the horror of not knowing if one’s loved ones are safe or even alive.
There is much we don’t know yet about what caused this massive outage, and theorists have stoked the flames intriguingly, firing questions on capitalism and power. Still, it doesn’t really matter what happens to these or similar platforms. What matters is only what happens to us, IRL. Sometimes the world feels like it’s contained in our palms, sometimes the world feels as suffocatingly small as a screen. Both of these are distortions. It’s a privilege to think about what it means to be online, and to distinguish it from what it means to be connected. If we have that privilege, as I strongly felt I did during the outage, it’s important to not forget it now that the apps are back.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 7th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.