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The University of WhatsApp

Frederick Noronha

On year back at roughly this time, I was only a very reluctant user of WhatsApp. In fact, I would hardly access it. Friends who sent me messages through this online messaging service would quickly realise that I was not even reading the same.

Today, I’ve turned over a new leaf. While there indeed are some serious problems with all the online networks, it seems that such tools also offer a whole lot of potential benefits which we are only beginning to understand. Leave alone harvest.

(Talking about risks, friends from the Netherlands have just sent a message calling on netizens to join the ‘first ever global Facebook user strike’ from May 25 to June 1, 2018. Their message simply says: “Facebook has disrespected our personal data and disregarded the spirit of our user agreements. To demonstrate our collective power as users, log out of Facebook and Instagram May 25 – June 1. #facebreak2018 #newpower “)

But coming back to the positive side of the picture….

Like nothing did in the past, the new forms of social media are helping to link people, to share knowledge, to promote initiatives, and to open up new potentials. I can hear sceptics say that these technologies also make it very easy to send out rumours and fake news, to manipulate elections, to indulge in cyber-bullying and online sexual harassment. Or even to promote cyber-fraud and a whole lot of other ills we didn’t even know existed.

True, true.

But it is also possible that both these realities can be valid at the very same time. The dangers of our cyber-realities go hand in hand with the potential of the field, and there’s certainly no contradiction in saying that.

Since I had to deal with a number of young people of late, I was pushed into using WhatsApp. Earlier, it seemed like a useless medium, clogged with Good Morning messages and other futile information, one that needed a huge smartphone memory to keep up with its own many demands.

But if used suitably, WhatsApp can indeed play a useful role.

I know quite a few youngsters who were quite bi-lingual. Plus, there seems to be a crying need for options to study Konkani online. So, one thought of mixing the two needs together. With the help of a few friends, a Konkani Poetry Group was set up.

From its start, there were just two rules for this network – no off-topic posts, and no impolite posts.

The concept of off-topic is something most people who are new to cyberspace fail to understand. For that matter, many people who use cyberspace as a means of simply flooding the world with their favourite topic (or their own writings) also fail to appreciate this point too.

Off-topic simply means a topic which is not on the agenda. For instance, if you are sitting in a school class for Geography, you would be surprised if the teacher suddenly started teaching Mathematics. To take it further, on a group meant to discuss organic farming, I would not expect messages telling me which party is the lesser evil in the Karnataka elections. (Unless, of course, politics has some link with organic farming.)

Some friends argue that everything in the world is connected. They note that “if a butterfly flips its wings in one part of the world it is able to cause a storm in another part!” Shouldn’t this Butterfly Effect mean we should be taking everything into account on all the networks?

Such arguments can distract attention from the need to keep discussions focussed. But, if one regularly violates this rule, then surely you can expect readers to get bored and soon start dropping out.

A wide range of poetry enthusiasts, including some very good ones, quickly got on-board and began sharing their work. It opened up communication in a space where there was little. (Facebook does have some active, Mangalorean-run Konkani poetry groups, and maybe others too.) It drew attention to the end-of-the-month Ugtem Molob Konkani poetry meet, already held in Panaji on every last-Saturday for the last 140 or so months running. This network helped us to familiarise with different variants of Konkani, in its spoken form, in its diverse scripts (the Konkanverter website allows easy transliteration from one script to another today, even if with some problems), and in its dialects. A network like this could help non-speakers learn a bit more of Konkani, and Konkani writers to get their work noticed, or even translated.

Of course, we are still early in the day and only time will tell how realistic such expectations could be. In the meanwhile, I’m wondering whether such groups on WhatsApp could be useful to other professionals, hobbyists and common-interest communities. It would make sense, for instance, to network those interested in libraries and books. Or young students involved in a job-hunt and keen to find some work of their linking. Journalists in Goa already have groups of their own, in some places interacting with politicians too, and thus sharing the word.

But there obviously is a lot of skill and talent in a place like Goa, where we have crossed targets in basic literacy but need to do really a lot more to actually get ahead. On the one hand, there are so many skills sitting untapped and unutilised. On the other, there is a crying need for knowledge sharing and information to reach where it is badly needed.

Of course, it is also true that people swamped with too many messages with start complaining of ‘too much mail’. This used to be the case in the days when email reigned supreme too. But, if everyone exercises some restraint, and only posts messages on topics relevant to the particular group, there should be less chance of this happening.

In the past, groups like the Computer Society of India (Goa chapter), or the Botanical Society of Goa (founded, if I’m not mistaken, at least in part out of the Dhempe College) had their own cyber-networks. As long as these were active, they served as a good means of sharing useful information and knowledge. Politicians have used cyberspace for their own interests. Today, every professional and hobby group, and individuals who have something to contribute should think of using means like WhatsApp for some good. These can be a medium to learn.

On a personal front, I would be happy to help take forward such a dream in any way, feel free to WhatsApp me on 9822122436. Goa could gain from enhanced communication for a cause. Whatever it is.

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