HT Brunch Cover Story: Likes, or lies?
Are we sharing our lives, or are we living lives that can be shared?
A millennial mental health advocate says, “I am part of the last generation that grew up without the internet, and the first that’s growing old in it”
By Nikhil Taneja
As a millennial, I am part of the last generation who grew up in a world without the internet or social media. Social media’s formative years were mine too. I remember the thrill of connecting with strangers on Yahoo Chat and ICQ, and the highs of making connections among acquaintances on MSN Messenger and Orkut. When Facebook was founded, I was finding myself and yet losing myself among the many ‘walls’ that people put up, or rather, pulled down on the platform.
Before the internet, my world was lonely and full of limitations. I learnt at home and at school, in no uncertain terms, that the world always operates within parameters and restrictions and boxes and labels of caste, class, community, creed, gender, sexuality and religion. But social media showed that not only does the world work in many ways, but there are also many worlds beyond ours, and many communities you can belong to. Social media was full of possibilities, and helped me feel a little less alone.
It was easier for me to be a citizen of the infinite internet than a captive of the inadequate real world. Before I knew it, I was spending more time online counting new friends, than offline in the company of old ones. Twitter and Instagram then introduced me to the concept of followers and suddenly I didn’t even need friends anymore. I wanted people who’d share my sentiments and retweet my reflections, who’d cheer in the comments when I showed off my accomplishments and loved to like every time I posted my pictures.
Before I knew it, I felt like I was being social offline only so I could share it on social media online; I was trying to live an offline life that could live up to the one my followers wanted online. I started having anxiety about posts not getting enough likes, about not having enough achievements to post, about not having a life every single day that I could share pictures of, about not doing enough, not being enough, not having enough. My mental health was all over the place because the more I was liked, the more I wanted to be loved. The more I was retweeted, the more I wanted to be respected. And I realised soon, that the more followers I wanted, the more friends I needed.
It took me months of taking time off from the internet, of not just a digital detox but a life detox, to understand what social media was doing to me and has been doing to all of us. We are not sharing lives with people we love, but living lives that can be shared with people we don’t even know. We are saying things not because we have something to say, but because something needs to be said. We are adding to the noise, never to the conversation. We are constantly creating content, and yet we are anything but content.
We are the last generation who grew up in a world without the internet, but the first generation that’s growing old on it. As part of that generation, it is our responsibility to ourselves and to the generations that follow to find a balance between our online and offline worlds, so we also grow with the internet. Social media is our most precious commodity to build mental health positive communities, but it can also turn us into commodities and strip us away from community. Social media has undoubtedly changed our world for the better. All we need to ensure now is that it doesn’t change us for the worse.
Nikhil Taneja is the co-founder and CEO of a youth media company, Yuvaa and on the Goalkeepers Global Advisory Board with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Lessons of the pandemic: prioritise family first!A journalist with a dedicated audience on social media reminds us: “Our company was born during the pandemic, a time that reminded us to tend to our mental health”
By Faye D’Souza
After working 16 years in television news, I had learnt some hard lessons. TV news is a medium that has no respect for weekends and public holidays, it is a 24/7 monster that needs to be constantly fed. Fed with the human sacrifice of interns, desk writers and reporters, who are tasked with the impossible job of making each piece of information seem earth shattering, the job of making each hour of news more exciting than the previous. The job is unforgiving, it eats into time with family, it eats into weekends with friends, into vacations. TV journalists are constantly checking their phones out of fear they might miss a message or an assignment or a tip that something important has happened. The environment is high-octane, very often abusive on, and off the air. I’ve seen very talented young people burn out and drop out of the profession because of it.
Two years ago, I switched to using the internet to communicate with my audience. I’ve started my journey as an entrepreneur using social media to inform young people with news that treats the audience and the journalists with dignity. I have a team of seven people now and we are building a culture around what we do. I’m aware that the decisions we make now, the choices of work-life balance and the time spent with family will eventually set the tone for the culture of the organisation we want to build. The seven people writing, editing and producing now will become the team leads and head of departments who will expect from their teammates tomorrow what is expected of them today.
Ours is a company that has taken birth in the pandemic, a time that reminded us of the importance of family and the need to tend to one’s mental health. But the news doesn’t stop and we cater to an audience that expects to be informed immediately and first on weekends and public holidays. So, as an entrepreneur, I made a decision to be able to give my team the weekends off and to prioritise time spent with family over all assignments. Through the lockdown, many of my teammates went back to their hometowns and lived with family while we all worked from home. We informed our audience whenever we needed the day off, and they understood.
The second impact is the nature of the news. We had a problem when dealing with the information of endless bodies floating in the rivers, the funeral pyres that burnt all night and the phone calls we received from desperate families asking us to help them find oxygen for loved ones. Members of my team started to struggle with their own mental health, suffering from nightmares and anxiety. I remember tearing up once when reading the news, something I personally consider unprofessional. We had to find ways to protect ourselves and each other while still doing the job. It also gave us a sense of the impact this information would have on our audience. It led us to become more sensitive, to put out information in a way that doesn’t aggravate the anxiety of our audience.
I hope to build an organisation that values people, their physical and mental well being. I hope this is a journey our audience takes with us.
Faye D’Souza is a TV journalist who started independent broadcasts on social media two years ago, and is a much respected news personality today.
“If you are trying to be an influencer without real life capabilities, people will doubt your competence,” says the chef
By Saransh Goila
A few years ago, whenever someone on my social media said something like, ‘Arre, he’s always here, how do you imagine him cooking?’ I would get into a heated debate with that person.
But in the last few years, I have made peace with the fact that being an influencer and being a restaurant chef are separate professions and I’m living two lives that combine both my passions. I’m a chef who uses his chef-ness to be an influencer. Cooking is fun. So is being an influencer. Both food and content are things I can share with others. It’s a natural progression. If you are simply trying to be an influencer without capabilities, people will doubt your competence.
I felt the pressure to run my own physical kitchen because of self-doubt created by questions on social media. While it did hurt my ego as a trained chef to have to prove it to the world,
I started Goila Butter Chicken so that people could taste my food in real life and not just via video recipes.
If you let self-doubts remain, they start to influence your creations. This happened to me a year before the pandemic. I felt completely burnt out. I was lucky then to have people defend me or ask me to not engage with those who posted negative comments.
Now, I let go of negative comments because I realise the people who post them don’t understand the perspective of my journey and profession. Age has shown me that it’s not the title that matters but what I’m doing with it.
There will always be people who find something negative to say. That’s the price popular artists pay for sharing their work on social media.
Saransh Goila is a chef, entrepreneur and social media star, whose butter chicken is as big a hit IRL as are his videos online.
(As told to Karishma Kuenzang)
Two dozen tweets a day to zero!
A serial tweeter turned therapist professes: “You can have thousands of followers and become stuck in an endless cycle of reactivity
By Gayatri Jayaraman
You can have a verified social media account with thousands of followers and become stuck in an endless cycle of reactivity. Or you can have a limited following and build an organic community of mutual support, sans trolling. Social media, overrun with the agenda armies much like the larger world, is about doggedly navigating your way through it. The trick is to prioritise your own purpose.
The problem with the things that need the most drastic fixing is that everyone expects everyone else to change. It’s like those guys driving to work who grumble about traffic forgetting they are traffic. Everyone else needs to tone it down, chill a little, get an offline life and be nicer to each other. The outward gaze is a pointed finger and it is always accusatory and self-righteous. Worse, when we give as good as we get, we not only mirror those we disagree with but we become puppets to their provocations and reactions.
We can change the way we participate in these artificially-constructed worlds that determine the tempos of our days by their algorithms. We aren’t completely at the mercy of external factors. We have an internal response that is in our control and by which we can cut short these cycles of reactivity. We can undistractedly improve the atmosphere around us, tweet by tweet, post by post, and interaction by interaction. God give us all the determination of a housing society aunty determined to make the world a better place with her good morning messages.
You have two beds in a garden. One has seeds you want to grow. The other has no seeds. The one you water, weed, fertilise and expose to sunlight i.e., shower your attention on, grows. You already know this. But the one most of us nurture is the one that has nothing we want. We don’t want negativity, outrage or brain fry. So, why we do we spend all our energy watering, weeding, and nurturing the bed of nothing we want?
Clarity of purpose is finding what you want more of in your life and giving it all your resources. If we have limited attention, one would imagine we would give it to that which enriches us. We aren’t obliged to reap harvests we don’t want because it is someone else’s agenda that we do so. Empowerment is setting your own agenda.
Gayatri Jamaraman is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Anitya: How to Make the Most of Change and Transform Your Life. She once had 25k followers but doesn’t anymore.
The pressure to perform
A viral sensation on what happens after you’re suddenly a social media star, and the slum and expectations that follow
By Priya Varrier
I had nothing to do with my content going viral. The audience put me on a pedestal overnight and at the same time, after a couple of days, there were trolls and memes about me as well. It started with one or two trolls and then people went crazy. When they are being funny, trolls and memes are, to an extent, alright. But when they personally attack or aim to dishearten you, it does have a toll. I was just starting my career and had no idea how to handle this. The only thing I consciously did was to keep working towards my goal and staying grounded. I made sure the hype didn’t affect me. And so the slump that came later didn’t either.
After you go viral, there is pressure to perform. Every time I went to events or even did ads for brands, they wanted me to do the wink or do the gunshot in the end. I really got tired of it. And even when I did something different, the wink clip had set a standard that I had to maintain. People wouldn’t accept anything less than that.
I ignore hate comments because I don’t have the time or patience to go through negativity. After I upload my content, I don’t check the likes or comments or interactions unless the brand needs me to say something. That helps me a lot, mentally.
Anyone can go viral today, thanks to social media. TikTokers and Reels makers are getting quite famous. But you have to complement luck with hard work. Fame and recognition is short-lived. You have to show growth and consistency.
Priya Varrier’s “wink video” went viral in 2018 and she was apparently the “most searched social media star” on Google in India that year.
(As told to Karishma Kuenzang)
The best mental health pages online
If you’re dealing with anxiety issues and affirmation, here are some pages you can navigate to, to help your peace of mind
By Tulsi Kapoor
As someone who lives with anxiety, it’s been quite a journey, especially through this pandemic. Everyone has felt so isolated, it’s no wonder that mental health has been in greater need of support than ever. While I always recommend being diagnosed and treated by a professional psychotherapist, I have had the opportunity to create an environment that helps me cope with anxiety on a regular basis. This includes creating a support group or circle of friends or family that I trust and feel safe with in my worst moments. I also practice certain techniques like deep breathing or meditation, because they help me unwind, especially if I’ve been overly anxious or had an anxiety attack. Keeping a routine helps me stay grounded and predict what’s next in my day. This reduces the uneasiness or paranoia I feel about an uncertain future. Small habits make a difference and help me coexist with anxiety better.
What has also helped me is the content I read online. I read articles, blogs and follow social media accounts that not only offer support but also information about mental health, self-care, and different mood disorders. Increasing my knowledge on what so many of us struggle with helps me feel less lost and alone. It’s incredible how many people around the world are struggling with similar fears and are now open to discussing them. I can relate to a lot of shared content and that makes my mental health recovery less lonesome.
When I look for a social media account on anxiety, I look at the handle’s credentials, to see if the information is verifiable. If they are motivational blogs, I look for positive affirmations that can help me soothe my anxieties. I also like to read about personal experiences, so I follow a few personal blogs. These don’t necessarily have to have a positive spin. Sometimes it’s important to hold space for our feelings as they are, in the moment. I think it takes a lot of strength to share yourself without frills or filters. To see people do this gives me the courage to keep working on myself.
Tulsi Kapoor is a Mumbai-based singer-songwriter, musician, educator, writer and mental health advocate. She is also the granddaughter of the late Shammi Kapoor.
A YouTube superstar on her journey to getting help due to anxiety and pressures brought on by social media… (and it worked!)
By Sejal Kumar
I started uploading videos on YouTube when I was 19 years old and people have seen me grow from a bubbly kid to who I am today at 26. But many people have told me that they don’t like the new me because I’m not ‘bubbly’ anymore. Comments like this play with your head because they are about me as a person and make me scared to grow and evolve.
Content creators often suffer anxiety because based on what people say, you could literally lose a job.
When you’re younger, seeing other people getting 1k likes or followers makes you envious. At the same time, you’re told that envy is a bad thing. So, you take this conflict out on yourself because the system is designed that way. There is a video I saw recently in which someone rated the creators she met in person out of 10. It made me question why I was giving anyone the right to rate me as a person!
I have struggled with anxiety since 2016. Over the last five years, I’ve tried things like reading, being positive and meditation. Finally, five months ago, I started therapy.
Therapy is crucial, because it shows that what you’re going through is not in your imagination. This is vital, because in India, we’re encouraged to bottle up our emotions, which leads to more issues.
But therapy is expensive. Only go when you are comfortable mentally and financially. I started it late because I didn’t understand that what I was going through was crippling anxiety, and because I was saving up for it.
It’s nice to know that none of what I feel is only in my head. It feels as though you’re standing up for yourself. And you have a guide through the process.
Sejal Kumar is an Indian YouTuber since 2014 and has over 1 million subscribers. She released her first original song Aisi Hoon in the project, Creators for Change.
(As told to Karishma Kuenzang)
Followers do not equal fans
Most of my followers are fans who are inspired by my work or appreciative and supportive of it. But sometimes, people who don’t even follow you, leave nasty comments on multiple posts
By Sakshi Sindwani
Most of my followers are fans who are inspired by my work or appreciative and supportive of it. But sometimes, people who don’t even follow you, leave nasty comments on multiple posts.
This is part and parcel of social media. I now find trolls funny.
Of course some comments tap into insecurities that you already have about yourself. If you read these on a bad day, they could affect you. But I have a rule for negative comments that keeps me sane. If I cry about them, it will be only for an hour or two and then I will let it go. I have to experience the pain and validate my own emotions because I am human.
Often the people who leave hate comments say that I talk about inclusivity and diversity because I am obese. They say that I am promoting obesity and making bigger bodies normal and that I need to go die because I’m making unhealthy habits normal. Sometimes people call me ‘bhains’ (cow). Others say I am too ugly to be a content creator. On my swimsuit pictures, people leave comments on different parts of my body. There are comments about my parents and boyfriend too.
Anxiety runs in my family, so I know that if I suppress my feelings, I will have panic attacks. I have had panic attacks several times since I’ve been on social media.
So sometimes, I call out trolls and try to understand their perspective, but most of the time, I don’t indulge them. If I see something truly bad, I draft a respectful response which is empathetic to the person trying to spread the hate because I know that’s coming from a place of hurt and unacceptance in their personal life. Often these people are fans who want to talk; they send hate comments for attention. Trolls now inspire me to make content.
Knowing a post could offend some followers is a real stress factor for me. I have a recurring nightmare that I’m at a meet-up, surrounded by many followers, and something really bad happens and I fight with somebody and the entire thing is posted online blows by career to sh*t. Social media creators are not really allowed to have human moments in public. Being a public figure has its own set of responsibilities. But you are still human and bound to make mistakes, so people need to be more forgiving. If we make mistakes, tell us, confront us. But don’t cancel us. Cancel culture is really depressing.
Sakshi Sindwani is one of India’s first plus-sized fashion content creators, who appeared in HT Brunch on May 9, 2021.
(As told to Karishma Kuenzang.)
Thick-skinned, but happy!
If you are absent even for a few days, then you will quickly be replaced, says the social media superstar
By Bhuvan Bam
The only armour against trolling is to quickly develop a thick skin and escape the illusion that any influencer is indispensable—including you.
If you are absent for a few days, you will quickly be replaced because there is no shortage of content or creators. Log do din baat karenge, and then they will follow someone else. Even algorithms work this way. YouTube for instance, will stop recommending you if you are inactive for a while. This is how social media works, and this is why mental health is so easily affected.
Another thing that affects mental health is that in our attempt to push creativity over a 9-5 job, we forget we have to churn content 24/7. In February 2019, I had overworked myself so much that I was forcing content. So I took some time off, but before doing so, I shared a story on Instagram with my audience telling them not to expect content from me for a month. I do this when jab koi dil ki baat bolna chahta hoon. It was important to do so because I didn’t want to take my audience for granted, but I also needed the time off to rejuvenate.
On social media we have set up a kind of base to function from, which dictates that if you have X number of likes or followers, you are worth something. This allows people to make it big in three months or even two days. But as a content creator offering his or her craft to audiences to watch and enjoy, you have to think of the long run. The long run requires you to be thick-skinned. It requires you to let go of baseless comparisons that will never stop. You need to believe in what you do and you need to polish your craft continuously. Without this faith in yourself and attention to your work, if you seek validation on social media, your mental health will take a hit.
Even I cry sometimes when I feel attacked by trolls. But I soon realise that I am allowing myself to be negatively affected by the callous words of a few people when instead I should be focused on the hundreds who love my work.
Bhuvan Bam is a comedian and actor, and one of the foremost social media stars today.
(As told to Aashmita Nayar)