How real are virtual powwows in viral times?

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AFP file
AFP file

Physical proximity is the key for a nuanced conversation that is often lost amid the digital embrace.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

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Published: Fri 18 Jun 2021, 10:11 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:17 PM

A raft of new research suggests that Covid-induced lockdowns have been re-shaping our social networks. I, too, fit well into the emerging narrative.

For the past 25 years, I have been a person with no fixed addresses, living in over 10 metros, B-towns, and semi-rural settings in my native India and beyond… and I have a craving for many more.

I am a gregarious person. I like to hang around with my friends and acquaintances wherever I have lived — at least once a week — with unflinching regularity. The nature of hangouts varied from angling in the fast-flowing Brahmaputra or Subansiri rivers in India’s remote north-east to watching a play or a latest Bollywood/Hollywood release in Delhi followed by grabbing a cup of coffee with friends and acquaintances.

All that stopped since Covid struck in March last year. My relocation to Dubai in late-November offered me a welcome break from a hunkered-down existence in Delhi.

Unfortunately, the relief was abruptly snapped following a trip to Delhi in late-April to attend to a healthcare emergency amid the second wave. Lockdown has disrupted my social behaviour and networks as I remain stuck in Delhi.

My world, like most of my ilk, has increasingly shifted online, where the virtual collides with the real. Enforced periods of isolations are altering our social interactions.

The moot point to ponder over is: how long will our loneliness last? It’s an open-ended question that has no easy answers as each individual’s emotional upheaval is at odds with others. I have been among the lucky few to enjoy existing friendships online like never before, and have drawn closer to many folks as distances made our hearts grow fonder.

For instance, I have a friend who lives in Nagaland, and we haven’t been able to meet in person for several years for reasons beyond our control. Earlier, during pre-pandemic times, typically, we used to speak once a week. Now, we catch up online almost daily and at a fixed time. It has become our pandemic ritual.

Both of us have wondered, at times loudly, why we haven’t done so earlier.

I have noticed a discernible change in my online social relationships: only a certain kind of ties appear to have survived the test of time and lack of physical bonding. My ties have strengthened with those who I have something in common with — such as hobbies and mutually-shared passions, coupled with a fair degree of comfort level with digital technology.

Take away these out of the equation and the social fizz goes flat, if not kaput.

However, I have bucked a growing trend: I try not to share any kind of pandemic stress with those I seem to share a bond with.

Maybe this shift is inextricably linked to a contemporary reality and a pandemic learning: I am not necessarily close to those who live in my vicinity; many of my closest friends and acquaintances live in another part of the world, where a physical interaction is, indeed, a pipedream.

However, if truth be told, digital communication lacks the human touch. I cannot laugh out loud, gossip and crack a joke at will during our online social interactions. Many may share my observation: virtual powwows lack subtle emotional outpourings.

Physical proximity is the key for a nuanced conversation that is often lost amid the digital embrace. It’s certainly a downside for social networks that have little room for high emotional quotient.

But that’s another debate that can wait for the moment.

As I cope with the new normal, I draw comfort from Bob Dylan’s evergreen number:

… And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.

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