Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pak-India Social Media Mela 2012

I attended the two-day Pak-India Social Media Mela this Friday and Saturday, a wonderful conference that illustrated how Pakistanis are using social media, integrating it into culture, politics, activism and education, amongst other disciplines and areas, in a positive and constructive way.

The highlight of the weekend was meeting the guests that were invited from India, who were able to attend thanks to (former) Senator Rehman Malik's personal influence in getting them visas. I met a cricket writer, a journalist, an educator. One of them had even read my novel. We compared notes about Karachi and Bombay. Social media, as they said, knows no boundaries or visas, but meeting our neighbors in the flesh was incomparable to anything else.

I also had the chance to participate in a panel called "Fight Club: the Rise of the Troll" on Saturday morning. I've been trolled viciously over the last six months, ever since I wrote a blog post for the Express Tribune called "Nudity, Niqab and the Illusion of Free Choice". The organizers of the panel invited me to speak in view of that experience. So I presented some research I'd done on the psychology of trolls in the hopes that we could all get a little more educated on the subject:

1. Trolls relish the anonymity of the Internet; it allows them to lose their inhibitions. In social interaction face-to-face, we try to be polite, we refrain from interrupting, we listen carefully, we try to stay civil. On the Internet, anonymous and isolated from others, we lose our inhibitions and break those unwritten rules. This is why you'll see people who are vicious online but meek and almost unable to speak in real life, for the most part.

2. We think that it's only anonymity that fuels trolls, but it's actually the feeling that there will be no retaliation for their words that inflates them and gives them the courage to launch their attacks.

3. When online, anonymous and isolated, trolls lose their sense of their individual identity - called deindividuation - and instead take on a destructive group mentality. This is why you'll see one person start to troll, then others join in, and before long a whole baying pack is participating in the abuse.

4. I'm not of the opinion that trolls necessarily have psychological problems, although for the most part I find them to be insecure and powerless people who gain psychological relief from their attacks on other people. What I do think is that the isolation, anonymity, and group mentality of the Internet creates the conditions in which people lose their humanity and transform into trolls. In the end, trolls strike me as unhappy people.

Dr. Abdul Majeed Abid, me, and Rab Nawaz at the panel
Despite the heavy subject matter, there was a complete current of hilarity running through the panel thanks to the antics of Mohsin Sayeed - who claimed to be a joyous troll, who tried to engage with trolls to understand why they do what they do, and generally stole the entire show with his take-no-prisoners attitude. He said many unprintable things about Imran Khan, Muslims, homophobes, and other touchy subjects with a daring that left most of the audience and fellow panel members in fits of laughter, not the least because of the pained expression on our moderator Raza Rumi's face. Audience members shouted out from time to time, "But what about Kashmir?" and booed us, which was accompanied by graphics of trollfaces and cartoons about trolls.

All in all, a very enjoyable experience. I'm grateful to the organizers for giving me the platform to speak about this phenomenon to a wonderful audience.


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