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Urban Chat: The 'subtle art' of knowing just enough

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, December 13, 2019  /  05:21 pm
Urban Chat: The 'subtle art' of knowing just enough

'Everything' overload: Social media offers platforms for anything and anyone, but some people are starting to unplug on the quiet. (Shutterstock/-)

"Not my circus, not my monkeys", and all its permutations that blend indifference and exasperation, has been orbiting around me lately. More and more, this utterance is followed by a deliberately narrowed presence on social media.

So I started asking around, and the answers generally held the same sentiment: Thanks to 24/7 digital media and social media, we're forced to know too much about other people, which has led to increased social friction.

A friend said that he was arguing more frequently with his relatives, now that everyone feels free to declare and pontificate lengthily on their political beliefs. Another complained that what was once a mundane post of her photograph in swimwear on a beach might today invite unsolicited preaching from her newly pious peers.

And an old pal moaned that what started out as an intention to support other mothers ended in a horrific tweet containing graphic, personal descriptions of a nursing mom's areola (yes, you read that right).

People bickered, patronized and overshared long before the dawn of the internet; yet around-the-clock social media has indeed provided platforms that help perpetuate these traits.

Before, people had something to say; today, people have to say something to the world. Before, the world might have known one or two things about you, if at all; today, as long as you keep a social media presence, the world knows all about you – even if neither you nor the world actually want it.

The lines between highly private information (family only), somewhat private information (among friends) and public information have blurred – if not erased altogether.

True, you can technically choose who you follow or friend on social media, but in tight-knit Indonesia, where collectivist culture is the norm across the vast archipelago, you don't always have the choice of walking away.

If your puritan aunt, pesky neighbor or patronizing boss' wife suddenly decides to search for and follow you online, the social repercussions could be greater if you don't follow them back, even if you'd rather that they not know about your private life.

This has led to interesting coping and defense mechanisms. It used to be enough to create an account and keep it private, but that often led to accusations of secretiveness and cherry-picking.

Some of the people I talked to have resorted to creating two accounts: a public one for posting neutral visuals and politically correct messages that follows the people that "should be" followed and is updated scantly, and a private one with more "honest" content for intimate circles that share mutual understanding.

Some people have even gotten a second number to set up a WhatsApp account for their "real" crowd, because the first one is already part of too many trivial WhatsApp Groups (WAGs) they can't get out of without causing an awkward social situation – like WAGs for extended family or for an alumni group from 30 years ago.

Through such means, they say they can avoid being dragged into controversies or cat fights for having attained deniability: "Oh, I didn't check the app that day." 

This is the "Not my circus, not my monkeys" stance.

And these people aren't even celebrities, they're just moderately connected ordinary people. Imagine how hard it is these days to be a celebrity, who must maintain a modicum of connectivity.

However, all that doesn't quite resolve the issue of how some people simply overshare. Describing in detail the color, shape and texture of one's areola on a public Twitter account, instead of via a closed WhatsApp Group, is just TMI (too much information) for me.

Streaming live a funereal purification ritual that includes a close-up of the deceased in a white shroud can also be TMI for some who may want to remember the deceased as they were in life. Another frequent TMI involves parents gushing over their children. Sure your kid is cute, but does the world need to see them vomiting green slime or frolicking happily in the buff with everything in plain view?

The latest phenomenon I've noticed is the overconfidence among posters that the social universe they happen to share is less knowledgeable than they are. This usually happens with people who have recently experienced an "eye-opening" milestone, across the spectrum from conservative to liberal. We're already familiar with the conservative type: those who become judgmental of others' understanding and practice of a particular religion. The liberal type also exists aplenty: those that assume others don't know the joys of wining, dining, traveling and whatnots.

The two types often share similar opening lines, even. For example, instead of saying, "Whoa, I just found out that Sulawesi's waters are gorgeous!", they'll take the know-it-all promo route: "You all thought Bali and Lombok was enough? You haven't lived until you get to Sulawesi!" Instead of rousing the curiosity among those who haven't been there and inviting stories from those who have, they belittle everyone else's experience – or lack thereof.

The funny thing is, when they meet with contradictory information or are given other examples by those more experienced, this bunch tends to get their knickers in a twist and leave, sulking. Some go as far as to proclaim themselves victims of bullying, completely oblivious that they put themselves on a pedestal in the first place.

And text does lack the nuances that facial expressions and oral delivery offer. Even a 15-second video can leave so much to open or wrong interpretation.

All this, compounded by the fine print in privacy policies and compartmentalization standards, have apparently turned many people away from maintaining an active social media presence. 

I also experienced some of the examples above, and although I still keep what I consider to be an active presence on Twitter and Instagram, I've noticed that I've gone rather quiet over the last year, especially on Twitter.

The free-for-all polarization of any issue and the poisonous repartees have indeed left Twitter less desirable these days. Unfortunately, becoming a Luddite is not an option for a writer interested in what urban people are chatting about. Also not on the table for anyone in my profession is not giving a "certain four-letter word", despite the mega popularity of the book on that "subtle art". Hence, I often find myself now stuck between needing to know and not wanting to know (too) much.

So perhaps, in addition to focusing on financially rewarding ventures following my disappointment over politically charged Cabinet appointments, I'll also try to master the art of knowing just enough. (ste)

– Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.

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