The Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–Open Winner

Living Online
Siddharth Vodnala

Jury Citation
Siddharth Vodnala’s raucous essay is a chatty guided tour of chatroom subcultures. Allusion follows anecdote in this joy-filled ode to the internet, from one of its most loyal inhabitants.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.” – John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead lyricist.

About a month ago, I was chatting with someone on an Internet chat room (remember those?) about how yummy Hershey’s chocolate was. The conversation did occasionally wander into the subtleties of Miley Cyrus’s latest antics and suchlike, but remained admirably focussed on all things non-surreal. This was all the more admirable because that someone had just told me she was a plant.

Quietplant, which was her username, was a “plantkin”, a type of “otherkin”: people who, either partially or entirely, do not identify as humans.

Wikipedia explains: “They contend that they are, in spirit if not in body, not human. This is explained by some members of the otherkin community as possible through reincarnation, having a nonhuman soul, ancestry, or symbolic metaphor.”

One of the other users on the group chat, Karkles, asked quietplant what plantkin she might be. She said she felt like a succulent of some sort, adding that while she still felt human in many ways, she had an uncanny and overpowering connection to plants.

“May be you’re otherhearted?” offered Karkles. “I myself couldn’t figure out my dogkin for a long time. I thought I was a wolf. Hehe.”

Quietplant, whose favorite activity was weaving flower crowns, asked Karkles how he figured he was a dog and not a wolf.

“It was painful. I had to concentrate and try to sense my astral dog limbs.”

Before the birth of the web, it was inconceivable that people who were convinced they were animals, aliens and characters from video games could find a space to interact. The web allows people to express identities and desires that they possibly couldn’t have named a generation ago.

And yet the Internet is also a catalyst for all kinds of allegedly normal activities: emailing, social networking, watching videos of cats barfing on their owners’ faces.

x—x x—x

Everyone knows that the Internet is changing our lives, mostly because someone in the media has uttered that exact phrase every single day since 1993
– Chuck Klosterman

Growing up in the early noughties in India, the web felt immensely fascinating to me and people of my age, while to most people of my parents’ generation, it smelt vaguely sinister. Many a family dinner was spent listening to the perils that lay at every turn on the web for the unsuspecting teenager.

My earliest encounters with the web involved either gazing longingly at false color pictures of space or the usual pubertal preoccupation with porn.

Soon enough, I realized that the Internet was full of possibilities: I could play chess with Brazilian programmers from Salvador or discuss the Da Vinci Code with college girls from Poland. Granted, most of them were looking were actually looking for sexual release: it seems that every ubiquitous technology is first exploited for carnal purposes. But the lesson was that anyone could be someone else on the web. I suspected that everyone I knew nurtured a hidden life, truer to themselves, on the Internet.

I was also obsessed with blogging for a while. The feeling of satisfaction when a crudely overwritten poem was published on My Own Blog naturally gave me a high. But almost no one knew/cared that I had a blog, and the ones that did hardly bothered to visit and comment. I was disappointed. Until I discovered Orkut.

Orkut (explanation for everyone born after 1995) was a “social networking site” that delivered most of what Facebook now provides, but with a minimalism and sparingness that in this age feels almost innocent.

I remember a cool November night about a dozen or more years ago, television humming in the background, delighting in discussing poetry and politics on an Orkut group. Rafi was on TV, singing Khoya Khoya Chand. Hemingway was in my head, solemnly repeating: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” I did not know it then, but that moment was probably the high water mark of my social media life.

On Orkut I wrote poetry that was actually read. I had my first all-night political debates, fuelled by testosterone and high calorie appadams.

There were other beginnings: the first ‘avatar’, the first friend request, the first time I blocked someone, the first time I got blocked. I felt, like everyone on the cusp of a revolution must feel, heady and slightly drunk on the freedom of youth.

The revolution was called Facebook.

x—x

It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations….It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul.” – Zadie Smith.

More than a decade ago, someone logged on to the website moviecodec.com, which usually dealt with things like video file conversion and optimal CD burning speed, and created a thread called ‘i am lonely will anyone speak to me’. Posting with the username ‘lonely’ the person also explained: ‘please will anyone speak about anything to me’.

The first response to that post, since deleted, said: ‘Ok so how are you, are you a piece of pig’s bollock?’

Further responders were more sympathetic however, and saw it fit to share their own feelings of loneliness. Traffic to the site surged after the post became Google’s number one result for the phrase ‘i am lonely’. Thousands of lonely people flocked to the thread to partake in this phenomenon, simultaneously wallowing in their loneliness and comforting others.

‘Are we patheitc(sic) or are we the majority?’ asked a user called onlythelonely56, apparently disbelieving of the possibility that the answer could be both. The thread became the definitive document of loneliness on the Internet, prompting articles in The Guardian and The New Yorker.

Some have argued that Facebook has eliminated this need for posting to a random tech site to assuage one’s loneliness. But is it making people less lonely?

To answer, I have no recourse but to turn to my own life.

Facebook, when I first started using it, seemed only a more efficient and pleasing update to the older social networking sites on the web. I had no precognition of the totality of power that Facebook would hold over most web users’ lives.

There have been plenty of frivolous comparisons of Facebook (and other social media) to drugs, only some of which are valid. People consume drugs for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the possibility of escape.

It is here that Facebook is similarly addicting. Even if your current mood is bored or dismal (and especially when it is), Facebook is structured to goad you into write one more status update (“What’s on your mind?”), view one more photo of your seventh grade friend who you secretly hate, or send one more invitation to Farmville. The escape, whether stated as friendship, love or just happiness, lies in being “connected”.

My attention span started falling precipitously. On Facebook, I was reading things no longer than a paragraph. On Twitter, no longer than a sentence. Instagram and Pinterest did away with words altogether. I suppose my brain simply adjusted.
At no time did I feel this more than when I was reading a good book. When reading books, I found myself contemplating detail, interiority, chasing the sense of muffled words spoken in the middle of a dream into the pillow. Facebook was all exteriority, the carefully arranged simulation of a reality that, by its very staging, defied attempts to realise it.

x—x

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” – Susan Sontag, On Photography

So what does it mean when what you photograph is yourself? What facets of yourself are you trying to own or disown?

The first known selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius , an American pioneer of photography, in 1839. It is also one of the first known photographic renditions of a human being. The picture shows Cornelius staring back at the camera, arms crossed, his eyes focussed at a spot to the left of the lens, his hair ruffled. The staging is very different from the modern selfie which is usually taken from a high angle, visually flattering the forehead and eyes.

When Ellen Degeneres uploaded her ‘selfie’ (which wasn’t actually a selfie) with A-list Hollywood stars after the Academy Awards ceremony on Twitter, she “broke the internet,” we are told. As of writing, it had 3,367,549 retweets and 2,021,620 favorites.

Fans of celebrities are used to seeing their pictures all the time. But the reason this or any other #selfie as visual trope feels raw and personal is that one is made aware of the reality that is being scripted, of the fragments of truth glimpsed between what is revealed and what is obscured.

The history of art is littered with self-portraiture, and since the Renaissance they have been found with increasing frequency in Western art. But the genius of Facebook and other social networking platforms (and there is nothing accidental about this) is the creation of a reality-mediating interface that rewards sharing of your #selfies (and your Self) in increasing proportion to the possibility of selling you things.

When I was on Orkut, a ton of my friends used flowery phrases for names. Some even used characters beyond any known alphabet. Facebook, however, insists on real names, recently going so far as to deactivate Salman Rushdie’s profile and insisting he use his passport name Ahmed Rushdie. There is no money in hosting people with fake names, fake identities.

If there is someone who can answer my faux-philosophical dilemma of Who I Am, it must be the advertisers on Facebook.

x—x
A real friendship ought to introduce each person to unexpected weirdness in the other.”
– Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

I was, at one point in my life, lonely and not averse to the possibility of finding love, or at least companionship, on the Internet. It seemed that finding someone through the alchemy of a high bandwidth and stoic patience wouldn’t be hard. I decided to give my nights to such efforts.
I went to a dating website and registered. It asked me questions:
“Are you a morning person?”
“Could you date someone who was really messy?”
“Do you like scary movies?”
“Is smoking disgusting?”
“Is jealousy healthy in a relationship?”

After I answered and the website had seen through my soul, its algorithms rumbled into action. I was shown over 500 “matches” in a radius of 50 km. The application asked me to choose three of them so it could pair me up, no doubt backed by its powerful image processing software, with more matches of “my type.” And only after this began the unlikely pursuit of love.

But that pursuit is hardly easy in the country.

Offline, couples sitting in parks (for they had no where else to date on a budget) were thrashed. Politicians pontificated on staying true to “our culture” and “values”. Morality was being applied widely, like Amrutanjan balm to our collective immoral foreheads.

I felt the city around me to be full of stolen glances and secret admiration. For many people, potential love stories ended prematurely with someone getting down at a different bus stop, or being too shy to ask for a phone number.

Online, the problem was the opposite: abundance. Far from being hard to contact someone, it was hard, even after impressive data mining by dating websites, to find the right person amidst so many choices.

Internet dating is founded, of course, on the negation of ambiguity. While in most offline encounters, romantic attraction might take months or at least weeks to be confessed, the very premise of online dating is the frank acknowledgement of desire.

I slept poorly. I was wary of my darkened room, filled with the ambient light of my laptop screen, the silence only punctuated by the occasional ‘ping’ that led to nothing. As I sat browsing through the profiles and waiting, the numerous failings of the night washed over me in that room or suffused my dreams in the early morning hours.
There were occasional “connections”, and a girl who liked French New Wave films as much as I did. Unfortunately she had a penchant for bringing every conversation back to her profound hatred of everyone around her. I slowly withered in my attention for her. Then gave up entirely. For weeks afterward she kept sending me hateful messages couched as recriminations, until I deleted my account. I sometimes dream that she’s still pelting messages across to some version of me, stuck in a parallel Internet matrix, blasting out her sadness into the desolate vastness of cyberspace.
x—x

The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.”

– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

In his essay ‘On a Book entitled Lolita’ (later published as an afterword to the novel) Nabokov writes that the “initial shiver of inspiration” for Lolita was prompted by a newspaper story about an ape living in the Jardin Des Plantes, a botanical garden in Paris that also houses a small zoo. He writes that the animal, after “months of coaxing” by a scientist produced the first ever charcoal drawing done by an animal. This drawing “showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I keep thinking that this was a Zuckerbergian moment, a point in time in which the Self disintegrates to show the outlines of its chains. The Internet provides us immense powers of actualization; we faithfully trace the contours of our vulnerabilities.

Trying to imagine that charcoal drawing, for some reason, reminds me of another picture, one that I uploaded on Facebook.

I am standing next to a train, hands in pockets. Dawn makes itself clear in the shadows, long and languid. There is a frown on my face, consistent with being awake at ungodly hours. There are power lines stretching over the train, loping into the distance. A friend stands next to me, looking more presentable and less bleary, staring forthrightly into the camera. The picture-clicker is lost to memory. Trees frame the edge of the photograph, with the singular shadow of a man staring dead straight from the other side.

I often wondered, for no particular reason, why I uploaded this picture. Did I think it made me look good in a spontaneous, rugged way?

Or had I tried, like innumerable others everyday, to portray an immediate visual sense of cool? The train signified travel, wandering. Did I want to people to like me in the picture or secretly desire them to hate themselves for not being on the road (or the rails) like me?

Did this picture hold some clues to the larger discomfort and disaffection that people feel on Facebook? A discomfort that may be a subterranean response to stimuli (read: my picture) that ask not just for adoration but for a kind of envy that wishes for people to “unlike” their own condition.

Or may be it was just a stupid picture.

In either case, it was a flop. It has 0 likes and 0 comments.

x—x

I am part of everyone I ever dated on OKCupid.”
― Slash Coleman, The Bohemian Love Diaries: A Memoir

My old dating site sent me an email the other day. It told me, inexplicably, that my personality was “really great”. It exhorted me to take my dating duties seriously: “You should answer more questions”, it said, since the more I answer the better my “matches” would be. Just as I began to sulk at being chastened by junk mail from a dating website, I saw that whoever wrote this also tried to cheer me up. At the end, on what the author probably assumed to be an encouraging note, the mail said:

‘How bad people want you: so bad’

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