- Vandit Jain
My dear friends at Clubhouse, please don’t see this as a remark on any individual or a group. Instead, this article is just a commentary on a broader CH experience. In this edition, I draw a parallel between University and Clubhouse while commenting on various sub-cultures of the platform.
I joined Clubhouse ( an audio, social media app) in Feb ’21, and since then, it has been quite a ride. Initially, the app was open only for iOS users; CH-India’s audience was limited. But, when during Apr/May they opened the platform for android users, the app exploded. It was as if masses have migrated to the platform with all forms of diverse topics. It felt like CH had a place for everyone. There were rooms around Bollywood, antakshari, socio-political issues, politics, interview formats with celebrities, anti-caste rooms, feminism, LGBTQIA+, current affairs, reactionary rooms, sex, and the usual R/W rooms. CH was THE place to be. Anyone who was not present was missing out on a lot of action. Things were getting so hot that there was news that central agencies are monitoring many political rooms and discussions. Imagine.
Many of us started to moderate rooms, became frequent speakers, host meaningful discussions, and generally organize. The initial days were exciting as people from like-minded ideologies began to come together and discuss various issues at length. It truly felt like a mini-movement taking shape, and it was just like the initial days of our university, where the comradeship was the highest among our peers. We would all accept each other, have a friend-for-life attitude, the hangouts would involve 20-25 people, and we all kind of liked each other. In addition, there were all-night satire rooms where people were genuinely funny without being problematic. A lot of us don’t remember laughing this hard in years. Many of us felt an improvement in our mental health by being part of such communities and cultures. It is also important to acknowledge how CH helped organize issues of concern like education fundraisers for people from marginalized communities. Many people went above and beyond for the cause. CH became like society and family many people were seeking, a place of belonging.
Slowly, the honeymoon period was over, and reality kicked in. The rooms with 300-400 people were reduced to 150, and people started to find their safe space with a group of 5-10. Unfortunately, the differences between many groups also occurred, and many unfortunate incidents followed. People were poking fun of or mocking people, refusing to share rooms with many folks, calling out people for their unacceptable behavior, and disagreements grew. Slowly, the clashes turned to bitterness and eventually hatred. The CH was further divided, and many of us were trying to find belonging in this new division. People would be identified to which group they belong, and hence the treatment would follow. Many of us were left wondering where we truly belong, where our home is, or is there any home in this virtual world that we created, which once looked like a fitting place. CH wasn’t the same place anymore; it was any other space with people whose dynamics were at play. The disagreements are now fights and nasty fights with often below-the-belt remarks. People were doing what they do when their image is in danger, people canceling other people, and daily gossips of who said what.
The shoot your shot mega rooms with 500+ people were now ‘who is your CH crush’ room with less than ten people where leg-pulling would happen if a friend’s crush would enter a room, just like those days in college. Late-night conversation in a private room was also a common sight. People with partners (like me) would be found chit-chatting at 4 am about some topic of politics or history or general life lessons and still somehow retained our relationships (‘somehow’ being the operative word LOL). Many people shared deeply intimate details about their private lives in such a closed setting, which speaks a lot about how safe they felt in the company. Some news events may disturb us for days, and we knew we could find a place at CH to grieve. Just like those two best friends at college, we made who would hear us no matter what.
Then, those groups of 10 would hang out daily in a private room, like a ‘adda’ or a ‘spot’. These groups also had a similar dynamic at play. First, one or two group leads would set the group’s tone, and eventually, the rest would follow (nothing wrong tbh that’s how it happens everywhere). Often there would be 1-2 folks in the group of 10 who are ‘unwanted’ but still, the group would ‘tolerate’ them because they are ‘relatively better’ (LOL). My guess is as we expose our inner selves in these groups, our acceptability quotient decreases. Our personality slowly replaces the digital identity we have assigned to us (also nobody likes us anyway/darkhumor) . Finally, only 2-3 people remain who will accept us no matter what. That is how friendships form. I often search for these 2-3 folks I can take forward in life and call my home. This reason is prima facia; I am at CH these days.
This also brings me to my next point, the herd mentality. The definition is the tendency for people’s behavior or beliefs to conform to those of their group. As various groups popped up on CH and friction between two groups was a common sight, I couldn’t help but notice an exceptional degree of herd mentality kicking in. During any disagreement, people would look into the issue from their group’s viewpoint, and ‘us’ and ‘them’ were defined accordingly. Even the most rational people I know would fall for this behavior. They would never even question the cluster’s attitude towards a particular issue, even if on an individual level they may disagree. Probably it was the fear of being disowned or being labeled or just being canceled or just the sheer will of being accepted that drove this behavior. Also, the group leads are typically such strong personalities with so much clout and influence that one may fear crossing them. Whatever may be the reason, the bottom line is that most groups were often wrong (not completely and always) and utterly oblivious to challenging viewpoints more often than not. This creates enormous mini echo chambers within a central large echo chamber that we all are part of in social media. Peak university behavior at play.
How can we not talk about cancel culture in between all of this? While cancel culture on a mainstream level is different, cancel culture on a micro-level is very different. We need a better word that can separate the two. While mainstream cancel culture is a lot about de-platforming and taking the ‘mic’ away, at a group level, it is more about collectively disassociating with a particular person.
I want to discuss two situations: one where an apparent offense was made, and people were violent with words—the other where the violation wasn’t clear to all but an unpleasant situation occurred between two individuals in a group.
In the first situation, many personalities rightly deserved to be canceled as they have said highly offensive and unacceptable things, which has caused a lot of harm to people from marginalized communities. These folks could have been different with their understanding of various forms of exploitation and oppression, but they still choose to be violent. I have heard people crying and grasping their breath because ignorant people instigated their trauma in the act of being assertive/dominant. Most offenders came from dominant groups, in fact, all from what I can recall. Words cause violence, and I believe that. To expect to make peace with one’s oppressor itself is an act of ignorance and violence. There is no obligation in continuing to communicate with someone who harms you, and unfollowing or canceling them is a legitimate move. This culture is primarily driven via public call-outs. Here the group settings vary from 25-150.
The second situation is what needs a broader discussion and introspection. Just for the record, this happens in ALL GROUPS, and even I am too very much privy of this. The second type of cancel culture travels through word of mouth and in chats, backchannels, and small spaces. Here there is no significant offense at play, but a mere unpleasant situation between two people, one of them can be an important figure to the group. The group can vary from 10 to 25. The interesting part about this is that while the group may ostracize the person, the communication continues at individual levels. Many don’t believe the other person should be canceled, but they are too timid about expressing it in the group, probably because of being canceled themselves.
A mini CC wave is situation two would go something like this – some person would demonstrate behavior that would be not aligned with the idealism of the group lead, the group lead would declare that person as ‘problematic’ or start avoiding them. Then, depending on how much you trust the person, you would take the required action (unfollow them / stop inviting them to rooms). A group-level cancel culture cannot occur between two equals. For it to occur, one of the two parties should be a dominant force. This is just group dynamics at play and happens everywhere. What I see as a challenge is a loss of rationality that follows in the group. Often, people go by the word/narrative of an influential figure of the group without objectively discussing if we are missing an angle or not. If, after accommodating diverse viewpoints, people conclude that the best course of action is to disassociate with someone, I would call this rational decision-making. Otherwise, this is just herd mentality at play.
Lastly, the identification of the enemy or the ‘other’ is unambiguous in CH. It is evident and apparent. So you can easily spot the opposing force, and if you are lucky, you can spoil the fun for them by becoming a speaker in their panel and calling them out. I never participated in the R/W rooms only because I know they will use ignorant language that will eventually make me uncomfortable. I cannot change them (harsh lessons by spending enough time at family gatherings). I prefer to fight oppressive forces in a very local setting, between a group of friends and family members, or through my content. But I understand that many people did want to fight R/W (or some other dominant force) and vice versa for many reasons but still none (#deep). Still, I hypothesize that people do this because they believe in their ideology, and they feel these actions bring some change (good luck to them). However, on a very grand scale, I think people only change if they want to, no amount of lectures or evidence sharing can change them. People follow a particular ideology because of numerous reasons. Their experiences, the value they give the topmost priority in life, the hypocrisy of the other side’s, herd mentality, media they consume, and a group identity they associate with the strongest and the stories of heroes and villains they hear often ( also propaganda). It is just a combination of various complicated factors. So while pushing back an extreme form of ideological dogmas is essential on social media, the real change happens on the ground. For many at CH, I found their social media is their entire personality, and you take out this aspect of SM, and their lives will appear bland suddenly.
I saw many close relationships develop. Through CH we could find a space to interact, find a community, express freely, and find a place where we didn’t have to worry about where we come from or our identities. I have seen people crying in a closed setting in CH while revealing their deepest traumas. I have also witnessed people being there with people and choosing to stay together no matter what. I have also seen people leaving people for the smallest of misunderstandings. CH became so much to many of us, and still, it was just an app.
The thing about online friendships is it becomes so personal, so quickly one doesn’t realize it. It comes all of a sudden, in the most unexpected times of our lives. It catches us during our worst phases and accepts us with open arms. I feel happy with the friends I meet; I feel heard with the friends I talk to, but I feel understood by the friends I text. Like all other relationships, it also comes with an expiry date, and for the time we spend together, in long chats and late-night calls, in fights and in laughs, it was memorable.
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Did you hear the latest Lights | Camera | Azadi episode?
Disha Ravi was on the podcast, and we talked about climate change, environmentalism in India, climate education, and justice.
Check it out.