Linking people and interests… through cyberspace

hands on smart phones - a group of friends using mobile phones sitting at the table

Frederick Noronha

It has been called the WhatsApp University. Without a doubt, this term is almost always used negatively. It is a way of pouring scorn on information emerging from WhatsApp. It is seen as always unreliable, misleading, and manipulating. But, is that really the case?

Cyberspace is like a knife. It can be mischievously used, to spread false news. To promote misleading political propaganda helping one party. To create turmoil and trouble, even riots and murders, riding on the back of rumours.

But, my experience tells me, that, like the knife, cyberspace (including WhatsApp) does also have its own positive purposes. It all depends on (i) how efficient we are in deploying it and (ii) what is the motives of those using it.

Let me explain why…

During this lockdown period, bored like everyone else and getting consumed by negative thoughts, one decided to venture into setting up some initiatives that could build cyber communities. Over the years, we’ve read so much about this, that one begins to wonder whether such groups really work.

So what better way than to test it?

There’s nothing new about such ventures. Others are being run quite efficiently. During the pandemic, a group of activists set up Cover-19 People’s Voices. This network played a useful role in discussing the issue from a grassroots perspective, and in highlighting concerns of the citizens. It came up with some useful suggestions, which were also converted into press notes circulated by the newspapers. The Navhind Times included.

Another group which has been running well for some time now is the GITP, or the Goa IT Professionals.  Many of them are young techies, educated in Goa but exiled in other cities due to the persistent lack of policies to build a successful IT industry in Goa. You can trust groups like this to build a long-term agenda about IT in Goa. While there is some jostling and disagreement among the perspectives put forth, at least you know that professionals like these mostly have the best interests of the State at heart.

There are other groups too.

One village group that I’m on, acts as a useful route to share information about what’s happening. If there’s a power failure, people are checking up with one another. Suddenly there’s no water supply in the midst of the monsoons, and word goes out that a mains pipe has burst along the highway.

It’s not only village inefficiencies, but also local information – items offered for sale, how to spot a comet, civic concerns, promising coconut saplings for sale, and so on.

Surely, there must be other groups that can, and have, played a positive role. For some reason now, the younger generation has moved more into WhatsApp and Instagram. One of the limitations of WhatsApp is that it creates closed islands. It’s not easy to find an existing group (unless someone tells you about it).  Then too, if you join a group late, there’s no way of accessing its archives, and the discussions that went on before you arrived.

WhatsApp doesn’t allow for pre-moderation of messages. This means that it’s easy for one or two mischievous members to ruin a whole community. In one case, an attempt to build a network of librarians came unstuck, after a “friend” decided to post some irreverent and irrelevant material there. Till this day, some of the group’s former members who left in a huff believe this was an attempt to draw them into a trap of insults. They are yet to forgive me.

Perhaps you need just two rules – firmly implemented – to keep a WhatsApp group on track. No rude posts, no off-topic posts. The latter simply means that if a group is about technology, you can’t post religion-related matter there.

In principle, this rule should be easy to understand. But some feel rather offended when reminded that they are straying off the point for which the group was set up. It’s like sitting in a geography class and having to hear from the teacher how her husband has been treating her badly at home! Probably true, but clearly out of place…

There is another problem with online communities. Most members believe that these don’t need nourishing, and feeding. Unless some useful information is shared through such groups, why should people join? Or stay on?

Some tend to believe that they can take a passive role, and the group will somehow thrive. Others are more self-driven. They see an online community mainly as a space to either promote themselves or collate useful information while sharing little of value themselves.

Like a crowded bus, an online community too can cope with some such dead-wood. But if the load gets too heavy, it will simply all come crashing down.

One hopes that cyberspace will not make us in Goa into passive consumers of information, but also producers of it. Hopefully, the younger generation and their teachers, who are now being pushed into more e-work, thanks to the pandemic, will realise its full potential and benefits. Such tools can also be used creatively. (As stated above, there is admittedly a flip side too. Techies have warned about the risks of technologies like WhatsApp and Facebook, and have suggested Diaspora or Telegram instead.)

The other day, one noticed students from a group set up to informally encourage some university alumni to get information about available jobs, take up to doing something positive in cyberspace. They announced a plan to collect donated, used, donated smartphones for school students needed these.  Ideas have a way of spreading, whether positive or negative.

During the lockdown, some modest attempts at building online networks dealing with composting, a virtual seed-exchange, bands in Goa (mentioned last week), music teachers, even to share popular history links and agriculture tips, had a good take off.  Some fared far better than expected and created their own leadership from within.

Which is why I’d not write off Goa’s potential in building cyber communities in a hurry….