I first heard of the Internet from an uncle. As he changed from his formal trousers into a comfortable lungi, he told us – “You’ll be able to chat with anybody in the world”.
I processed the word ‘chat’ for the first time. “You’ll be able to see anybody and talk to them,” he prophesied, even if it would take the world a decade to fulfil his vision. ‘And no need for sending letters any more’. The last statement seemed a little dystopic to me, since my favourite holidays pastime was writing letters – to school friends, pen friends, competition post cards to Disney shows and to Readers Digest for their godawful bumper lottery.
The internet first came into our lives surrounded with whispers of excitement. I remember being thrilled about getting my first email ID – a very embarrassing email@example.com – and watching along the years as the logo on my digital letterbox went from R (Reddiffmail) to Y (Yahoo Mail) to G (Gmail). Since my parents had made it their life’s purpose to rob me of any joy, the Internet was a secret, hidden indulgence.
Much of my early days on the internet were spent in talking to kind strangers. People who had no connection to me in real life, but bonded over cinema, sports or random news items. It was around the time that I began blogging for the first time, and discovered that I could write – when strangers expressed their appreciation for my blogs. It was a strange double life! I would spend my days and nights in shitty call centre jobs, and then rush to the Internet cafe for two hours in the evening, and type out a blogpost. The next day, I would return with another idea for a blogpost, and read through the comments for the previous one. It was not very different from our current social media obsession – only much slower, and a comment literally made my heart burst with joy.
And then came Orkut – the first time our digital and virtual worlds collided with each other. For all its kitsch silliness, Orkut helped me connect to my school crush. As we sent each other scraps, posts and ‘testis’, there was one common aspect to our lives on the Internet – we were all polite and friendly to each other. I don’t remember a single hate comment on my blog from the early years. Orkut did not have people spewing halahala at each other. The internet was a space where you could express your talent, meet strangers, or waste time on asinine hobbies. Like the time I spent as the admin of the ‘I Love Antara Mali’ community on Orkut. Or trying to discuss cricket matches as Sullen Gavaksar and Harsh Bhogle.
At school, the internet was spoken of in revolutionary terms. After the Y2K problem fizzled out, words like ‘e-commerce’ and ‘globalisation’ came into vogue. We were informed that e-commerce would transform the world in every way, and that borders would vanish. That the Internet would change the world in a beautiful way.
Around the beginning of the previous decade, the internet began to get ‘too real’. Everybody you knew in life – however briefly – entered into your corner of the internet. The Internet went from meeting and befriending strangers – to a place where your acquaintances could follow you digitally. And along with the acquaintances came their opinions. Friends began to take positions on opposite sides of ideological fences, and we began to follow people based on ideology, rather than familiarity. And somewhere down the line, the word ‘Internet’ was often followed with suffixes like ‘addiction’, ‘trolling’, and ‘depression’.
As someone involved in standup comedy, movie reviews, and newspaper columns, I have to put myself out in front of the public nearly every day in some form or the other. I tried avoiding it for as long as possible, but the rise of social media as the ultimate tool of advertising cannot be refuted. While there definitely ARE nice people on the Internet, like the Parsis, they are vanishing. Every Friday, when I put up my review for Film Companion, I am reminded that I’m merely a cunt who likes poking fun of filmmakers. On standup videos, I am told that I spread hatred in society.
To expose myself to people on a daily basis, knowing fully well how toxic the internet is, took a toll on me. And that is when I realised something about the Internet. Your corner of the internet is like a tiny little garden. You need to tend to it; weed out the unwanted bits, and nurture the parts of the garden that make you happy. If left unattended, it is going to transform into an Amazonian jungle with vicious creatures lurking within.
It reached a stage where I couldn’t remember what it was about the internet that I had originally fallen in love with. People appreciating my work, and giving me the love and confidence to pursue my passion as a profession. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, my favourite thing about the Internet was the kindness of strangers appreciating my work.
If this was a film, this moment was the scene where the hero has an epiphany! If my favourite thing about the Internet was the kindness of strangers, what was stopping me from being a kind stranger myself?
And so I decided to give back. These days, I lurk around the distant corners of the internet, thanking people whose work has given me joy. And it’s not the musical superstars or filmmakers I’m talking about. These are musicians with a few hundred followers on Spotify, YouTubers passionately making videos without bothering about riches. Bloggers who inspired me to take up writing, and humorists who made me look at the world differently. I went about thanking them personally.
The one common reply I get from them (apart from ‘thanks’) was that it ‘made their day’. I’m on a spree now, and would recommend it to you as well.
If there is somebody’s work that gives you joy, send them a note. Especially if they are not already a superstar asking you to buy Daniel Wellington at 20% discount. If they are a troubled teenager typing away on a keyboard, or a musician creating work that are as far from the mainstream as Mithunda – send them a personal note of thanks.
In your own small way, you’ll be making their corner of the internet a little brighter.
(A sanitised version of this column appeared this week in The New Indian Express. If you live in Bangalore, I’d recommend you subscribe to the paper so you can read the column. If not, well, there’s always this blog, where you’ll find a spicier version of the same column!)