Before he committed suicide on July 31, 14-year-old Manpreet Singh is reported to have shared one final picture of himself on social media. For adults who see platforms like Facebook and Instagram only as a way to pass time or share vacation photographs, this might seem macabre – but there appears to be a clear gap between their casual approach to social media and the near-constant curating and sharing of moments by those who go through life scrolling through an Instagram feed.
India has the world’s second-largest population of smartphone users. Its social media addiction has been compared to alcoholism, linked with depression. The largest number of people that die trying to take the perfect selfie are Indian. As phone screens begin to consume ever more of our time and attention, Scroll.in spoke to three young people who spend several hours of the day sharing vulnerable aspects of their lives on Instagram – to learn the rules of navigating the internet with self-esteem and sanity intact.
Dual lives, dual Instagram accounts
Mohini Ki Almari is an Instagram account run by a 21-year-old bisexual person in Lucknow, who asked for their gender and identity to be kept secret. Their family has no idea about their sexual orientation, so Mohini Ki Almari is where they feel they can be their most authentic self. The account, with over 1,600 followers, is a carefully curated feed comprised of LGBTQI-friendly art, photographs and memes. Mohini uses Instagram Stories, and camera feed to reveal as much as possible without compromising their identity. On the day of Lucknow’s pride parade, Mohini streamed the march live.
Mohini’s Finstagram (as Fake Instagram accounts used by those who lead dual or multiple lives online are called), is less populated and active than Mohini Ki Almari. “[The Finstagram] has nothing related to the LGBTQI community, and I’m very picky about who follows me,” they said. “That’s where I post things about my ‘real life’.”
Even though Mohini ki Almari doesn’t specify their gender on Instagram, the name means people assume the account is run by a girl. “I get direct messages soliciting me,” they said. Most public comments appear to be positive, and when they are not, Mohini said, “I don’t take it to heart.”
A bit much now
Tanya Maheshwari, a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, uses Instagram to show her art, for which the medium is her body. Her presence on the platform has grown consistently since she joined in November 2014, garnering over 1,600 followers. Among admirers of her work are famous photographers like The Sartorialist.
Instagram is Maheshwari’s internet – she uses it to find new artists, designers, and at times even current events. She learnt about the spate of lynchings, including young Junaid Khan’s murder on a train, and followed the #NotInMyName protest through her friends’ Instagram feeds.
Maheshwari photographs herself constantly, but the pictures aren’t exactly regular selfies. Instead, she uses her image along with everyday objects to create conceptual art (along the lines of French artist Gina Pane’s Art Corporel). Body hair is addressed through an on-going series in which she glues colourful threads and black wires to her armpits. In another series aimed at de-stigmatising menstruation, she uses tampons as accessories.
The comments on most photographs are encouraging, albeit in emoji-speak: a fire emoji, a laughing face with tears, hearts with cherries and a red rose.
But validation is not always the mainstay of the experience online. The picture she shared in September 2016, in which she wore tampons as earrings, garnered harsh words in the comments section:
“Dude, are you autistic?” a commenter asked.
“I’ll show you the horrendous messages I get in my direct messages [folder] sometime,” Maheshwari said. “They can bring somebody’s self-esteem down like, wow.” She’s been told she is not beautiful enough, had her work described as disgusting and ridiculous.
An older person’s reaction to the messages might be to ignore them and move on. But Maheshwari insists on engagement. “I feel compelled to reply to these kind of messages,” she said. “Like, I don’t want to deem these people as sexist, or ignorant, or whatever. You can just educate them rather than belittling them.”
One time, a stranger messaged to say she should stop sharing “controversial photos” because she was “such a pretty girl”. Maheshwari had a detailed exchange with him about her art and the body as a canvas. It was an engagement, she admits, made possible by the fact that there was little chance she would meet the man (or most people who follow her online) in real life.
“I do my best to explain, unless they get really aggressive,” she said. If the exchange becomes abusive or starts going in circles such that the person refuses to see her point of view, she stops messaging.
Whose lens is it anyway?
Aamir Wani stumbled into social media stardom a few months after he joined Instagram in September 2015. His posts – pictures and videos of everyday life in Kashmir – have earned him over 31,000 followers.
“When it comes to Kashmir, people only see the extreme,” he said. “What I try to do is to show and write about Kashmir as a common citizen.”
While his audience responds well to this softer side of Kashmir, Wani also tracks current events, such the recent attacks on Amarnath yatris on his Instagram. On July 10, he posted a picture of the sprawling Gulmarg Valley, purple Delphiniums lining the edge of the photograph.
Images of Kashmir that highlight social issues get the most engagement from his followers, he said. “That’s when people comment more and not just social, but also about their political views.”
But when he posted about Mohammed Rafiq Shah, who was wrongly imprisoned for 12 years, during which time Shah alleged he was tortured and sexually abused, the comments included people thanking him for speaking up. Also in the mix were statements like: “Why you Kashmiri youth earn money by throwing stones at Indian army. Why? You Kashmiris are still supporting Pakistani terrorist and give them shadow in your houses. You. Whoever you are. It’s cause of people like you who spread the wrong message. I am sorry. But I am against you.”
He said he has been threatened “from both sides” – by Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris. If a post appears to be causing too much trouble, Wani does remove it. Constantly plagued by commenters who ask him on every post why he doesn’t talk about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir, Wani recently took a walk through Haba Kadal area in the Old City where several Kashmiri Pandit families once lived. As he panned his phone camera across abandoned buildings, he told his audience: “The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits had a deep impact on our society, and I feel Kashmir isn’t complete without them.”
Still, Wani’s family discourages him from sharing his opinion on politics or current events. “I know it’s only because they don’t want me to get into trouble,” he said. “I have received messages asking me to take down a post or else the persons would come to my house. That shook me, because they knew where I lived.”