The day social media blacked out

By Malavika Varadan

Published: Thu 14 Oct 2021, 7:24 PM

It had crept up between us as light as air, like the scent of something wrong.

It had been there long enough for us to not notice it anymore. And then, for just a few hours it went away. And everything felt just a little different.

The outage. The day Facebook went down. The day the blue ticks disappeared. The Monday evening in Dubai when everyone picked up their phone, squinted at it, refreshed, refreshed, refreshed.

Checked another app.

Restarted their phones.

Checked again.

Then put their phones away.

I don’t consider myself a phone addict. I always thought I checked it only a few times a day and used it to get ‘work’ done.

Truth is my hands didn’t know what to do when Instagram stopped. For weeks, months, maybe years now — every time I had a few minutes between this and that, I picked up my phone and lost myself in the black hole of social media. Sometimes, I look down at my phone and it’s 9pm; when I lift my head up again, an hour has gone by and I can’t tell you ONE concrete thing that I have learnt or discovered or even thought of, during this time.

Sometimes, I am looking at a TV screen and my thumb is unconsciously swiping stories to the left.

I imagine many of us, living our lives alone in our concrete cubes, and simultaneously letting in to our most private spaces — influencers, cooking videos, cats, filtered faces and dances to songs we know only 20 seconds of. What is this bizarre reality we live in? How is it that in the traffic jam of my mind, already buzzing with work and family and finances — we allowed so much space for so many inconsequential bits of information?

The truth is, we, as a society, are more distracted than we have ever been before. Nothing has our full attention — not ourselves, not our partners, not our work, not our children. Not as long as these apps are in our vicinity.

Checking social media has become my generation’s equivalent of opening the fridge door to check what’s inside, when you know very well there isn’t anything to eat, and you aren’t even hungry.

What’s worse is that somehow, we have all become storytellers, marketers of our own truths. At any given moment, one third of our mind is doing the thing, one third of it is comparing it to everything else we have seen on social media and one third is building the ideal narrative around it — complete with a punchline and sun-kissed filter.

The same day the apps went down, I watched a 60-minute interview with the Facebook whistle-blower, Frances Haugen. She spent an hour telling the interviewer, from an insider’s point of view, what Facebook was doing to divide us, making us feel angrier and more insecure about our bodies. And I had no reason to believe what she said was not true.

It seemed to me from all that she was saying — that we had somehow let the most destructive drug of our times enter our homes, our relationships and our children’s lives. And now we’re hooked. I imagine we will look back at this time in history, 30 years from now, and wonder how we ever let it happen. I meet young people every day and I can see it in their social anxiety, in their difficulty in dealing with people, in the way they look at themselves when they pass a mirror.

It took only six hours for the world to pause and think. Six hours, when I put my phone away, and for the first time in a long time — slept. I slept without scrolling, without once checking what the world was up to or what news was making headlines. It didn’t really matter. And the next morning nothing had changed, and no one had missed me.

I took a decision that day. That I would be leaving my phone to charge in the living room when I went to bed, and dare I say it’s one of the hardest things to do. But I am trying, and I think so should you.

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