The internet and the constant appeal to our tribal instincts


We were having a debate about an article about the supposed demonization (not de-monetisation) of male bonding on a Whatsapp group. The article talked about how popular culture stigmatized men who wanted to spend time with their male friends, rather than their wives. Several people objected saying marriage changes everybody’s lives and women spend less time with friends too and just don’t crib about it. Notice what happened here? The debate was about how this applies to men vs. women although the real issue or topic was actually whether people are demonized for spending time with friends, or maybe about the correct balance between spending time with friends vs. family. However, the author chose to paint it as ‘demonization of male bonding’ and instantly got men and women to debate about it on the basis of gender. I don’t know what exactly to call that – click-bait? attention-bait? debate-bait? I’m going with debate-bait- its got a nice rhyme to it.

How does this help the author or the publication? Let’s break down the formula for getting a large audience for an opinion piece.

  1. A catchy headline that will get a few people to pause the repetitive scrolling motion of their finger on a screen.
  2. An appeal to the reader’s sense of belonging to some group – man, woman, liberal, orthodox, Modi fan, non-Modi fan, patriot who wants the national anthem before a movie, people who should go to Pakistan, you know, simple, undeniably mutually exclusive groups.
  3. Content matter that fills the reader with glee, glorifying their group or talking about how they are victimized by the ‘others’ and prompting them to use it in a battle cry and a challenge to everyone else. This of course gets everyone else incensed enough to counter-attack, for which they will probably read the article to look for loopholes or reasoning flaws or maybe just to share it with a derogatory comment about how the author and his or her group is completely retarded and evil or hypocritical (insert any insult that can be applied to a group at large).

Ta-Da…pretty effective right? Of course, most authors are probably not consciously aware of following a formula. It comes to all of us quite naturally, which is why this formula is so common.

We are still a tribal species at heart, I believe. We evolved as a tribal species and we managed to make up institutions and concepts that helped us find a sense of allegiance to very large groups across distances, even when we don’t know all of them personally. We feel a kinship to our countrymen, people of our religion across countries, people of our social class, people of our skin color, and many other such groupings. But there are still tribes, just that they are a lot bigger and fluid. When you are log onto social media after reading the morning news, you’re ready to shit post on behalf of your political tribe. Once you reach your workplace, you belong to the tribe that goes to coffee together. When you’re watching an IPL match, you’re in another, and on and on it goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling kinship on the basis of a shared belief system or ‘fiction’ is actually what sets up apart from other primates and lets us co-operate in large groups without knowing each other personally, a point made forcefully by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’. However, it’s important to realize this, because there are other people who do understand this instinctively and use it for their own ends.

Next time you read an article, ask yourself if it is unnecessarily appealing to your tribal nature. Does every topic or issue that applies to you apply to ‘people like you’ or are you just trying to turn it into that? If at all you have to go with the tribe vs. tribe mentality, try to do it with a little more sportsmans spirit, like sports fans or teams who compete based on the basis of these made up tribes but can shake hands or have a beer afterwards. Don’t let your outrage simmer, because that’s what translates into easy votes or magazine sales at your expense.

Playing the devil’s advocate for Fakebook/Facebook

Recently I wrote a post blasting Facebook, calling it Fakebook and implying that everyone on it was just trying to win a very shallow popularity contest. I would however like to clarify that I do not believe that everything everyone does on Facebook is meant to make themselves feel better at other people’s expense. I do think a large portion of the user base does log in just for that but I think some people genuinely do not, and another significant portion does it without realizing that they are.

There are people who genuinely want to see what their friends and family is up to, see pictures and other evidence of them doing well and genuinely be happy for them. I know a few people like that and I wish I knew more of them but point is, they do exist. You just get overwhelmed by the assholes and don’t notice that they are still around, which is not very encouraging for them I guess. Apart from this altruistic crowd there is also another category of accidental assholes, to which you and I both probably belong. This group is both at the receiving and giving ends of the trauma at different points in their journey.

For convenience, lets take Mr. Pappu as an example (no, not the politician). Pappu fucked up somewhere between high school and college. Or maybe Pappu was born into circumstances that didn’t let him do as well as his peers. Maybe a bit of both. As the days go by, Pappu sees his friends surpass him in every way. That he could still live with, but everyday as he struggles with his demons or to make ends meet, he sees people he once called friends brag about their success, or talking about how traveling fulfills one’s life when Pappu cant even make bus fare. Several of his old friends post about how everyone should follow their dreams, when 1. Pappu needs to pay bills and 2. Pappu doesn’t even know what the fuck his dream is! Maybe he can have one when the nightmares stop.

Continue reading “Playing the devil’s advocate for Fakebook/Facebook”

Why you need Fakebook in your life and how to use it to make people hate theirs

What percentage of your Facebook friends do you actually like? 80%? No come on. 30%? Let’s go with 30% for a second. Out of the remaining 70%, how many would you notice dropping off the surface of earth? 20%? So what exactly is the role of the other 50%? To applaud on cue?

Fakebook-by-Sean MacEntee
CC BY 2.0 Image courtesy of Sean MacEntee on Flickr

I keep asking this question (at least the first part of it) every time a coffee table conversation gets a little dull. The percentages vary of course, but not enough to invalidate the point you’re hoping I’ll eventually get to, which is that Fakebook has a place in our lives, like an abusive boyfriend you never knew you needed before you met him. A little like Edward Cullen in Twilight. Lets break down the reasons:

  1. The eternal wisdom of Sun Tzu/ Niccolò Machiavelli/ Michael Corleone- “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”

You don’t need Fakebook to know what’s going on with that close friend who’s going through a breakup, or the other ones who’s depressed at not getting a job. No, those you hear about, probably more often than you want to. But what about your arch rival from kindergarten who you still secretly hate? What’s that guy up to? Did he buy a new car? That’s the kind of intel you need in order to not be left behind in the rat race.

  1. The Happiness contest 

How do you know you’re happy? What’s that? You would just know? Well if you believe that you are clearly not a very metric driven person. As most of us know, you need some benchmarks for relative grading. The word “happy” is meaningless. You can only be “happier”. And to be happier someone else should be sadder. Just the way it works.

Now, proving that you are in fact happier than your old friends and rivals used to be incredibly complicated before 2006. For starters, you had to work hard at looking better or making more money or both. Then once you do that, you had to let them know you had done it, not an easy task when you’re not all in school together anymore. You needed to attend a lot of alumni meetings and weddings just to let people know how well you are doing. If that wasn’t an option, you sometimes had to figure out which one of your schoolmates are still secretly reliving high school in their heads and get in touch with them in the hope that they will spread the word about your success. As you can see, all this was quite difficult and again had the measurability problem. No feedback loop- no way to find out if it worked or if that little walrus lied and told everyone you’re broke and pot-bellied now.

2006, enter Fakebook. Suddenly, you don’t need to travel across state or national borders to dress up at a wedding. You can attend a local wedding, hold your breath and stand a couple of steps above other people and get a picture clicked. You no longer need that guy who’s trapped in a time loop. In fact, you don’t need to call anyone or send your picture to anybody. You just post it on your wall and act like you didn’t know people were eavesdropping. Real classy. You don’t even need to actually look good or make money. Just starve for a day and buy a coffee at Starbucks and edit the picture. A lot.

Fakebook opens up a whole new battlefield and provides you multiple new strategies for winning the happiness contest, such as:

  1. My mom’s better than your mom:

Pre-2006, it was difficult to walk up to people and tell them that your mom/dad/husband/wife is cooler/more loving/rich than theirs. Sometimes you would go to their homes and you could sense from their smug faces that they thought theirs was better but you had no socially acceptable way to counter it. Now, you can thank yours on their wall for the world’s best anniversary dinner, or use their birthday (and wall) to explain how they make you feel special every day and how lucky you are. Applause/likes are guaranteed from two families.

  1. Airport check-ins:

Self explanatory utility. Potential tactics:

  • Check in at the airport and post a joke about how you thought the Fakebook check in was enough to get on the flight
  • Review the facilities, new terminal, rest room, sugar level in the cafe, etc. Mix it up next time by comparing and contrasting different airports and how each one made you feel
  1. Weekend wars:

There was once a time when the only way to make a single guy or girl depressed about their boring or lonely weekend was to ask them ‘what plans?’ and then make a face. This is one of the few offline tactics which are still effective but Fakebook lets you do it at scale and make a much bigger set of people feel bad about their lives.

Mass reach tactics:

  • Take trophy photos of the steaks and ice creams you hunted down and ate
  • Refer to pub hopping using pictures or multi check ins

The possibilities are endless and I am unable to think of a conclusion to this post so let me end this with a question to the reader. How do you think you can use Fakebook to be ‘happier’?

If this was Fakebook, you could read this and smugly hover over the like button and not click it to make me feel bad about the lack of engagement I got. But guess what. This is my blog and no one knows it exists and I’m just talking to myself anyway so fuck you and your like button.

But you’ll comment right?