You stare at your phone, triumph in your eyes. You have only just dropped it after yet another cyber-bullying session on this ultra-large social network. Yes, some lowlife on Facebook dared to oppose your views on the fuel crisis, and you, aided in part by some of those in your teeming friend list, ran him to ground (virtually at least). He must be wishing that he never ventured to comment on your status; he probably reckoned without your army of voltrons. The e-lynching was brutal like that.
The smug expression on your face soon gives way though, and is ultimately replaced by anxiety. No, not anxiety in relation to an anticipated response to what you and your online friends just did to someone whose only crime was holding a view contrary to yours. You are anxious because you want to ask yourself certain questions: how did social networking become so vicious? When did self-expression on social media become so heated, so fraught with vile sentiments and acidic emotions? How did things get so serious? How did we get here?
It was not always like this, and even you are aware of that. From the early days of Hi5 and Yahoo Chat, it was mainly just about meeting people, catching up with old friends, and easing communication. You were never too keen about this new concept (at the time) of reaching out to people via the internet, but you signed up to these social networks because it felt like the cool thing to do, because you did not want to appear like you still lived in two decades past, because it couldn’t have been so wrong to try it out.
It felt so good when you started out, “Oyibo thing” to put it simply. You put up pictures of the serious and not-so-serious things you did, you innocently stated WHAT WAS ON YOUR MIND, you caught up with old friends, you got easier access to information. It was all so drama-free……
Until one day when you posted a really smart update that earned you 30 likes and 21 comments. That particular status was shared by three of your friends, and half a dozen friend requests popped up. You accepted those requests, afterall, “the more, the merrier”. More witty and intelligent updates meant more likes and more comments, and whenever you commented in a smart or funny way on a friend’s status, a request from a mutual friend was expected. Your friends’ list began to swell. A hundred became three hundred, and four hundred became six hundred.
More social networking sites came into being, and this meant more people to communicate with. From 2go to E-buddy to Whatsapp, one was spoilt for choice. Chat rooms were created where all sorts of topics were discussed, and online friendships quickly translated to real-life interactions, some for business and others for intimate pleasures. Yea, this didn’t come without its hazards, and the case of Cynthia Osokogu readily comes to mind, but the ministry of social networking grew from strength to strength. The fact that some applications and social networks could only be assessed with smartphones did not help matters, and soon enough, owning a smartphone came with its own elite status and prestige. (You remember that group of friends from your undergraduate days known as “The BBM Clique”.) People began to lie, steal and shag their way to acquiring one. Nobody wanted to be left behind, to be perceived as un-cool.
As for you, there was a geometric increase with respect to your friends’ list, and soon you began to live for the likes and comments. You worried when hours passed without a particular photo or status attracting likes in double figures, and you fought to be relevant by all means. You tried so hard to make sure that your posts were usually the smartest or the funniest, even if it meant stealing the posts of others and taking the credit. You got so lost in the attention you got, so consumed in the quest for constant approval, and in time you became an online celebrity.
You studied and mastered the kind of posts that would attract more attention. You knew that write-ups throwing jabs at the opposite gender or generating religious controversy or ethnic tension would attract more comments, and you capitalised on that. The numbers of friends on your list had reached a thousand by now, and you kept entertaining them, stretching their imagination and arousing their curiosity, never mind that you hurt the feelings of others, or that you put your own faith in danger with your words.
You soon forgot that a thick line existed between the internet and reality, so you confused all the accolades for genuine love and admiration. You soon began to go to places you ordinarily wouldn’t, because the “fans” on Instagram had to see that you turned up on Friday. You gradually evolved from introvert to social butterfly, and while your social skills improved, you ended up putting your values in jeopardy too. Your Facebook friends were hungry for exciting stories, and since you had got to a point where you could no longer write without emotion, you got yourself into all sorts of situations. You got intimately involved with strangers due to e-peer pressure, you leaked secrets, you broke hearts, you shattered friendships and on multiple occasions acted like a total douchebag, just so you could find something to post online.
You became so popular that you had to say something on every socio-political or religious situation in the country. From #ChildNotBride to #BringBackOurGirls to #OccupyNigeria, you just had to have an opinion. Even when you wanted to refrain from commenting because you did not have extensive knowledge of the issue, you got tagged in posts, so you had to render your own two kobo. You had to impress, even when inwardly you would have opted for the golden touch of Silence. Besides, you were a star now; your liking of a post was the ultimate endorsement, your comments the ultimate autograph.
This state of affairs of course blurred the lines between e-love and true friendships. You could now afford to not reach out to friends, preferring the company of those online. You alienated a good number of your pals in search for online approval, and if a buddy tried to call you to order owing to the acidic nature of a Facebook post, he/she got blocked! How dare they? “Knowest they not that thou art a celebrity in these digital streets?”
You forgot that more often than not, so many people put up a totally false life on social media, that so many e-lions were kittens in reality. You forgot that in these virtual walls, you were only as good as your last post or photo, and that in the end, many of those “fans” did not care. Yea, they did not care about whether you posted that update with an empty stomach, or whether you even had sufficient battery on your phone. They did not care whether you were struggling with family discord, or whether you just got relieved of your job, or whether you were battling with grades at school. They could not be bothered about whether you were entertaining suicidal thoughts, or whether you even had money to fund the next internet subscription. To them, your life was merely a source of entertainment; you were just another interesting internet user.
You sigh deeply as you put all these in perspective. Your phone beeps again. You check the notification; it’s a post relating to the GEJ-GMB divide, in which you have been tagged. The previous comments on the post are all emotionally-charged, and not without the usual dose of verbal abuse. You simply can’t understand why people in this country are unable to have a discussion on politics, religion or relationships with a sense of objectivity and without resorting to sentiment, without taking things personal or hurling choice words. An editorial or video or manipulated photo circulates, and the responses are fiery, exposing the deep-seated reservations that people of different ethnic groups have about one another in this geographical contraption called Nigeria.
You feel like smashing the phone at this point, but instead you take a deep breath, and decide to switch off the mobile data. You realize that you will still need to make and receive calls. After all, that was what phones were made for in the first place, before all this social media frenzy, before all the addiction, before all the madness.