Tag Groups are my latest jam

The very reason why I thought an academic career was cool was because somehow I found myself researching digital and social media phenomena and also found audiences or fellow interested people who seemed to think that my questions and interests were important. At least that is how I managed for a long time, to continue researching B- and C-grade Bollywood cinema. It did not make a lot of sense to my parents but I guess even they thought that if someone else deemed this worthy research then maybe it  was? Not just in terms of scholarly interest and especially, having removed myself from the B- and C-grade world (I was arguably too close, too much of a fan to have anything interesting to say about it), the very reason why I found myself researching subcultures was because I happened to dabble in them. Unironically. This was all pre reddit and 4chan so a lot of it happened on good old online fora, mailing lists, later Orkut and then a little bit on Facebook but most of it on Twitter.

Twitter subcultures, especially the hashtagging subcultures (#pwnd) have probably been better written about than other contemporary textual/linguistic subcultures and based on what I can tell, of my lived experience of a decade on twitter, the arrival of gifs hasn’t taken away from hashtagging. Its latest wave would include the appropriation of African-American linguistic cultures (for instance, “spilling the tea” but this wave can be summed up in the rise of “woke” as a tag). What was I doing amidst all of this? My dedication to shitposting only increased in the past decade. Perhaps it is the natural trajectory of someone who does so much wordplay and thrives so much on daily punning that I’ve had real people ask me in a mix of amazement and disgust if I just made it up or have a book somewhere. Passion and personal investment are the foundational blocks of any research, even if it involves studying social media subcultures. You can’t merely be an observer or a lurker. You probably enjoy and understand a lot of the phenomenon to want to write about it. My only research contribution stands in the form of Facebook Groups for social search (as research but also as having started a group that does *this* for 100,000 people). No biggie. Post this group-creation and social group wave, I lost interest in Facebook in terms of its creative, subversive potential as a world. I was also already deactivating and quitting Facebook for long periods of time to wean myself off this privacy-defying monster.

But then one day, in a post-Trumpian world, I was suddenly recommended an oddly funny group, definitely not based on my past activities. Or maybe I saw the group name appear as a response to a post on another group? I don’t remember. That is how I stepped into the world of ‘tag groups’, something that I have been swimming in for the past year now. I suppose certain kind of tag groups are a sub-group of Leftbook or Weirdbook [1, 2, 3] that is a broader umbrella world of pages, polls, events in the flavor of weird. No point me describing these to you, you could just read these articles that give great examples of all of these. What caught my attention after I got recommended my first weird Group (something these articles also note) is that most of them are private. Once you send a join request, *most* have 3-4 questions, almost always about whether you are transphobic and whether you would ever dox a group member or follow them to their private profiles and message them. That probably tells you how niche, sophisticated or queer-friendly Left this subculture is. But once you’ve entered, the topicality is almost never about politics per se. For instance, a sampling of groups that I have been recommended ( I always join all my recommended groups): 1) Now the group will perform the piece “dragging the OP” In C minor. 2) wait a minute this is not flavortown where the heck am i, but also these group names are often then responses to other group posts. People respond to a group post by tagging other groups whose names are the responses to the post (for instance, in response to a post on the “stop with the fucking letterboards” group, someone’s comment will literally be, “stop making that fucking face” or “a lot of words were said but none made sense” and both these responses are groups!). If all of this sounds weird and makes you go “<shrug> okay”, we are after all, talking about…weirdbook. This has kept me returning to facebook whenever I go there to post rental, sublet and furniture sale ads. Why this features on my occasional research reports blog is because I’d love to explore how ‘tag groups’ started, how they came to inherit the same rites of passage (no transphobia, no doxxing…) and how anyone gets their first recommendation of a ‘tag group’. That’s where my interest in Facebook Groups is at 🙂

Keeping up with space

This post comes as a sort of consolidation of things I am trying to write up, things I am reading and things that happened to me recently. These are mostly reflections on cities and affect but also a new framework (and body of literature) I chanced upon that helped me describe how cities mean different things to different people. By extension, technology use and implementation become local and unique because of the spatial experiences, references and needs of their users. In the case of multiple “users” like passengers and drivers, tech design pays more attention to the needs and experiences of one over another.

Last summer as an intern at Xerox, I was researching Facebook groups popularly used in Bangalore and some broadly in India. I was invited to the research project because of my founding and moderating roles in Put Me in Touch (a 100k+ member Fb group) but then I was sent to observe and interview a popular moms’ group. A running thread through these groups that we struggled to articulate was the sort of, instinctive geographical limit – these groups weren’t explicitly meant for Bangalore, they were started when their founders lived in Bangalore. But me, I had soon moved on. The mom group founder was a recent migrant to Bangalore. Both of us, through our communicative, information gathering and sharing work had become peculiar experts on Bangalore things. It’s also very interesting because tensions about who really belongs to Bangalore or knows the original stuff, how newcomers discover the city on need basis – all these still regularly play out in all Bangalore anchored Facebook groups. As a side, the paper didn’t get published and it matters because personally I think we were just not able to articulate how these Facebook groups are rooted in place (via Lefebvre, Vertesi, Dourish, Harrison) but also crucial tools for mapping Bangalore as immigrants, young professionals, women, mothers away from their support networks. The trouble was, at least for one group, that it had grown way beyond Bangalore and has a significant population from other cities too. But given Facebook’s restrictive policies, it’s hard (even if you resolved ethics) to mine the information that we all collaboratively produced. In that sense it was self-reinforcing: more Bangalore members came through Bangalore friends in the group who had spent time collecting information on Bangalore. Some said it’s also because Bangaloreans have historically produced more city related resources for online consumption, in turn making the group more useful for those attuned to online spaces in India for local information.

Coming back to Bangalore – it’s been an interesting seven years in and out of the city. This summer I finally, actually lived on Vittal Mallya road, meaning I stayed where those born in old money, silver spoon types live. It’s also fading as the center of Bangalore, the recent startup boom has been shifting young night life and socializing activities to Koramangla and Indiranagar for a while. But to say that I live near U.B City (a luxury mall) automatically tells someone who you are in the city (happened on a bus ride where a gentleman couldn’t process why I needed to alight near this road because he never thought I could live there). For context and humor, I started out in Taverekere/Koramangla, went to Indiranagar, then Marathahalli and eventually Queens/Lavelle road interspersed with exits to Delhi and California. If you can read these roads as experience against the work I do, they mean solid upward mobility (albeit temporary).

A sort of favorite pastime among urban Indian types is to ask “which city do you prefer?”, most answers include two or three big cities and some small. Mine were Bangalore and Delhi. Until and especially because of last summer spent in Marathahalli, I had a bittersweet relationship with Bangalore. I lived broke as a student here, it brought the sinusitis out, the festivals never matched, it was harder to find decent north Indian food in parts and the linguistic hostility. Plus Bangalore to Gujarat is 30+ hours by train. Delhi is greener in the South, it has distinct seasons, the language, the hustling, I had full time jobs and stipends. It’s a night train away from Gujarat.

Cutting to spatiality per se, as Brewer and Dourish via Urry suggest, mobility might be the key animating metaphor rather than society [in 21st c sociology], it’s a fascinating provocation. Questions of navigation choices, passenger expectations within ridesharing, time and place related driving strategies – it’s not enough to say that the urban form of Bangalore plays a role. It’s not just space then. It’s space animated, traversed and occupied by certain groups of users, their leisure and work needs juxtaposed against poor infrastructure, frustrating traffic, combined with driver motivations and self-preservation within kind of unprotected work that makes mobility choices and behaviors so complex. Talking about historical and social meanings of place as well, drivers and passengers have utterly different landmarks, making the collaborative work of meeting each other and completing a ride laborious.

Hopefully some of this will be published so I will stop here. But, in both the Facebook study and the recent stuff, as Brewer and Dourish say: “Both mobility and technology are deeply embedded in particular ways of thinking and imagining the world and ourselves”. In my current writing also, I am trying to think through how passengers and drivers reimagine the taxi space post-ridesharing, choose one company over another etc.