Confessions of a WhatsApp teetotaller
Over the last six months, I was quite prepared for the awkward looks of disbelief when I explained that I did not use WhatsApp 'for personal reasons'
I have been clean for six months.
I mark this personal milestone even as Facebook Inc. gets set to launch its WhatsApp payment services in India as early as next week. For half a year now, I haven’t been part of the tribe of more than 200 million Indians who use it—we Indians, in fact, have taken to the messaging app with such fervour that The Wall Street Journal carried a page 1 story this January (The Internet Is Filling Up Because Indians Are Sending Millions Of ‘Good Morning!’ Texts) on the phenomenon of odd-hour outages in Silicon Valley because our morning greetings come with a side of high-resolution .jpegs of suns and roses.
There were many reasons that led me to finally junk the habit. A couple of years ago, I had commissioned three interns to do a digital detox for a week and write their diaries, and been most amused by their horror at being given this assignment, and even more amused by their accounts of “rolling over in the middle of the night to reach for a non-existent phone to check Instagram likes". Foolish iGeneration, I thought. But I realized I wasn’t too different. There were times I found myself waking up to check for updates on a pan-time-zone WhatsApp group. There were long car rides with friends and family with all of us on our phones (sometimes messaging the same group while sitting next to each other). This time, last year, I was so completely dependent on WhatsApp that I even wrote in this space about the app’s “absolute takeover of my life"—set off by a Lounge columnist who was on vacation and wanted to do column edits over WhatsApp.
No one can deny its easy appeal. It is the new-age Big Fat Indian Family bond-maker, like watching Chitrahaar was in the 1980s. It is the group chat enabler, connector of faraway people, an efficient multi-media vehicle. Also, let’s not forget its rapid use as a tool for professional communication. Which is why, over the last six months, I was quite prepared for the awkward looks of disbelief when I explained that I did not use WhatsApp “for personal reasons". On the other hand, there is something to be said about the many notes of congratulations I received. “This is just the inspiration I needed" has been a general theme. It appears that people talk about wanting to give up WhatsApp in the same tone as their ongoing efforts to give up dairy and red meat.
As a journalist, being off WhatsApp shields me not merely from overenthusiastic senders of press releases but from a barrage of spurious forwards. Journalists could do without another source of fake news. As could everybody. We know how political parties are making up truth via WhatsApp, and this is likely to get even more toxic in the lead-up to the general election in 2019. While WhatsApp is threatening the political compass in India, in another populous country, Brazil, WhatsApp has had serious repercussions on public health owing to misinformation circulated about its yellow fever outbreak, Wired reported earlier this year.
My tipping point, though, was a heated argument with my husband on spending quality time—interpret it as you will—together. For a while, we had both been grumbling about its time-killing qualities, the annoyance of too-active groups, and the peculiar sense of entitlement and access that this messaging app seems to bestow on people, which is absent in email or text message exchanges. We collectively crowned Netflix and WhatsApp as the villains keeping us out of bed. The first was impossible to cut off (he cited professional reasons), so we both deleted WhatsApp from our phones in one hot minute.
The downside of missing out on a few invitations and fielding complaints about what is looked on as eccentric stubbornness or outlier behaviour is worth it. Spending less time muting groups during the Indian Premier League, amongst other things, has added hours to my day. Email feels charming. Text messages appear patient. And imagine using a phone to make a call instead of picking the right emoji. And to say “I love you". Double-tick that.
Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose