September 28, 2020

The Sadness of our Cyberspace

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

The hurt awakens when the world goes to sleep. It comes leaking in from cracks and crevices held tightly shut during sunlit hours, and, sometimes, it flows with abandon. The waves of this hurt—this profound sadness—crash across minds and hearts and bodies onto plateaus of digital space, and then roll back onto its host carrying crumbs of comfort. The picture is bleak, but it portrays one way I am beginning to view the internet.

I first gave heed to such thought before the world had found itself in the throes of a deadly pandemic. Now, it takes a considerable amount of careful tiptoeing to make way through any space unscathed; to avoid confronting tragedy. But within these very spaces, of course, survive the remnants of individual hurt that struggle to exist unselfishly. If there have always been sources of sadness greater than our own—someone, somewhere, always has it worse than you and I do—where does one go when a singular body is unable to contain it all?

The answer is, quite literally, at the tips of our fingers. Scrolling, liking, replying, reblogging, tweeting, rinsing, repeating: the mechanised haste of such actions almost spells a ritual for many. This routine is exceedingly familiar to those living in an age where an active internet presence is no longer a labour of leisure, but a requisite to survival. Internet users ranging from students to professionals build social capital and credibility through the obtainment of internet “clout,” while even corporate entities take on peppy digital personas to keep up with changing trends. In this era of late-stage capitalism and online hypervisibility, then, it is a wonder that the internet is approached by some as a refuge to sadness and a space for intimacy.

The Gham Hour

On my side of the internet, the public confessions of private sadness betray the arrival of the colloquial “gham hour.” The term traces its roots to social media, particularly what is known as Pakistani Twitter, and most closely translates to “hour of sorrow”—which appears profoundly deeper than any simple “sadness hour.” While thus called, this period is not bound within any specific duration, sometimes occurring early during a day and often encompassing entire nights. As pointed out by Twitter user Nakaamrade, it is not merely an hour but “a mood when you recognise the sadness within you for what it is – sadness. So if you’re sad and you know it, it’s ‘gham hour.’”

For many, the experience of this proverbial hour is tied to feelings of permissible vulnerability. The “gham hour” is known to quietly descend upon you and coax out your deepest hurt and insecurities into the void of cyberspace without fear of reprisal. As it blankets your confessions within its invisible shroud, it offers protection from judgement. The means of expressing your sorrow can vary; you may unabashedly quote verses about heartbreak and healing, share songs that speak out your feelings, launch into threads of self-effacing monologues, or envelope your most morbid thoughts within humorous memes. Attaching the label of the “gham hour” upon your lapel offers immunity; if you can speak out your sorrows and worries without brushing off or stigmatising the label, you remain in control. And if you contain the sadness within the limits of this convenient label, as if locking your journals within a side-table drawer, you maintain a semblance of comfort outside its confines. Twitter user HSBC echoes the same sentiments and says, “Though we may feel sad all the time, we can’t possibly act on it the whole day. So during ‘gham hour’ we usually allow ourselves to confront that feeling. Just loosen our emotional muscles, really.”

A global normalisation of sadness

While the instance I quote is a local one, it does not represent a unique phenomenon. The world wide web hosts a variety of woes within its ever-expanding folds, and a cursory glance through a millennial or teenager’s phone device may yield at least a few saved posts representing some kind of sadness. These may range from niche memes making light of stressful situations to inspirational messages packaged as pretty doodles. It is not uncommon today to find social media feeds curated with “relatable” captions about loss or loneliness; creators and influencers are increasingly talking about fears and failures, while artists are publishing content that encapsulates primal human doubts and expectations. The cropping up and mass circulation, in recent years, of bite-sized comics dealing with mental health issues is one example of the normalisation of sadness within our lives. 

Similarly, many mental health professionals now also maintain social media pages where messages analysing the human psyche are delivered to an eager audience via digestible titbits and infographics. Words like “trauma” and “trigger” are now widely discussed in spaces that seem far removed from the safety and intimacy of a therapist’s office. Within such conversations is an open acknowledgment that most people spend their lives experiencing many negative emotions. This offers a contrast to the popular ideal of always appearing happy. According to a study titled, “Feeling Bad About Being Sad: The Role of Social Expectancies in Amplifying Negative Mood,” human emotions are tied to social expectancies that “set up emotional goals that are hard to abandon”, and are “constantly reinforced through salient cultural reminders of the values of happiness and costs of sadness.” A similar outlook to life is also promoted through mainstream understandings of religion, where feelings of hopelessness are seen in conflict to faith. Maha*, an internet regular, recalls, “My mother always says you’re depressed because you don’t pray.” Within this social context, then, it is remarkable that sadness is now finding an eager audience.

Curating safe spaces online

With the ubiquity of social media, the personal has become increasingly public, and even non-creators often air out their miseries through various media, be they public videos and blogs, closed Facebook groups, private tweets, or personal “finsta” (‘fake’-Instagram) posts. This mass, increasingly democratic, acknowledgment of sadness, both personal and collective, is a remarkable feat the internet has let us accomplish. While private journals or intimate conversations have traditionally been reserved for vocalising personal hurt, modern modes of communication now offer alternative outlets to human frustrations. Poetry, literature and art have historically served the purpose of documenting pain and letting consumers across generations find relatability within them, and continue to do so, but the internet offers instantaneous gratification to anyone with access to it. In fact, it also makes traditional art accessible and shareable.

The element of sharing within cyberspace is what lends to its unique characteristic of collectiveness. “Gham hour” finds itself named and identified as such because it has been recognised and normalised by many. According to Bismah, a Twitter user, “Everyone just kind of knows what gham hour is because they’ve all experienced it, so it’s relatable. And since people post about it, others know they are going through it too, and it becomes more of a collective thing.” 

On the internet, we are not bound within societal notions of propriety while addressing personal traumas out loud, and can take comfort not only in the knowledge that we are not suffering alone, but also that our suffering is seen. The writings of our favourite authors and poets may help us navigate our personal sorrows, but they will not stand witness to them. But if we vocalise our hurt, ball it up and toss it into the horizons of a cyber-sea, it will, beyond doubt, find a recipient. HSBC describes this as “kind of like shouting in the dark with the added possibility that someone might echo back.” Maha* compares the experience to her newly acquired habit of journaling, which “has taken [her] tweeting frequency down a bit.” However, she maintains that “the journal doesn’t make up for this need to have my sadness seen.”

This gravitation towards the internet as a space of expression stems not only from the promise of an audience, but also of convenience and a manufactured sense of security. As opposed to creating consumable art or directly conversing with a friend, little effort is required to vent out repressed emotions onto an Instagram caption or a Twitter thread. For many, such forms of expression also relieve them of the baggage of mutual engagement that accompanies a personal audience with someone. For Maha*, it is convenient that “[she does not] have to wait for someone’s response, and also [does not] have to deal with the fear of them not responding ‘correctly.’” Bismah, on the other hand, “[doesn’t] want to burden [her] friends with the obligation of responding to [her] sadness.” HSBC summarises this by noting, “we’re collectively engaging in this articulation of sadness and grief without having to take much responsibility for the end result.”

In this way, online spaces appear to act as neutral, judgement-free zones where sadness can be housed without guilt, and are hence often perceived as “safe spaces” for expression. Often, a mutual understanding among internet users to not demand context to trauma softens the confessional process, while common strands of sadness help tie communities together with an empathy unheard of in offline spaces.

Attaining liberation through online anonymity

Personally curated audiences on various social platforms also add to this sense of security. Whereas the option of online anonymity eases fear of critical gazes, even identified users often seem comfortable being emotive online. An observable, unspoken rule about not unnecessarily probing one another for details, especially in offline interactions, also attests to a degree of sanctity assigned to online expressions of sadness.

It may seem ironic, or even far-fetched, to imagine a space as unlimited as the internet as a safe space. For many, total anonymity serves as a bulwark against any potential breaches to safety. When asked about feeling insecure on the internet, Nakaamrade confessed, “I do feel exposed and vulnerable, and fear that people may use my weaknesses against me, or judge me for my sadness without recognising that it is only one part of me. That is one reason why I remain anonymous.” 

Anonymity on the internet seeks to protect not only from unsolicited judgement, but also from more serious offences. Harassment, bullying, and doxxing remain the most obvious dangers to all users of the internet, and disproportionately endanger vulnerable sections of the community with threat of real-life consequences. Despite these dangers, the use of tactics like anonymous personas and hand-picked audiences has allowed unprecedented amplification of voices otherwise repressed within the physical spaces they occupy. Those marginalised within their societies, such as religious or sexual minorities, are offered the means to live out their identities or express their traumas online while remaining in control. They often end up discovering or forming communities of solidarity that are absent in their offline lives.

In 2013, Kanwal Ahmed created an all-women Facebook group called Soul Sisters Pakistan (SSP) because she felt “there was not a single safe space online or offline that [she] could easily access.” Seven years on, the group currently hosts upwards of 262,600 members, and contains regular posts by women, for women, covering a plethora of topics. The option to post anonymously also allows discussions on private or controversial matters without embarrassment or fear. Other popular groups, too, now serve similar purposes on different scales, and testify to the need that led to their creation. According to Kanwal, this has to do with “the way women get bullied in public spaces and how it affects their ability to participate equally.” She states, “Closed communities do make the equation better by giving women the opportunity to express themselves without being attacked.”

With external constraints like restrictive family atmospheres or inaccessibility to professional help, online platforms may serve as a point of collective catharsis. Increasingly, they are also the stepping stones towards recognising personally faced oppressions as structural ones. For example, women who feel symptoms of the patriarchy playing out in their lives as everyday misogyny are able to air out their traumas and find them echoed and validated; those who struggle with religious or gendered expectations in life can voice their vulnerabilities out loud on the internet and diversify the understanding of their own identities. For instance, Bismah feels that it “helped [her] in some ways to know so many women are in similar situations with regards to [life at] home.” She also cites the internet as a place of learning, by stating that “sometimes you can ask for advice on very specific situations pertaining to being a young woman in our society. I feel more comfortable with women online than with any women in my family.”

The recognition of oppression or injustice, whether personal or systemic, and eventually the means to hold perpetrators accountable, comes down to the ability to voice discontent. All discontent, of course, is rooted in unhappiness. While the internet is not the only means of expressing negative emotions and forming networks of solidarity around them, it remains an increasingly important space of conversation for those lacking other means, such as physical mobility. Of course, it is important to note that the internet, too, remains the commodity of a few, and offers its advantages to only those with access to it.

What happens, then, when the internet fails to deliver the security it promises to those who deem it a safe space?

The limits of the internet

Like physical spaces, cyberspace, too, is not an entirely democratic space, and offers more to some and less to others; marginalised communities remain exceedingly vulnerable to incidents of cyber-attacks. While the internet allows many women the agency to speak up about their grievances or take up public space online, it does not always deter verbal or sexual harassment in the form of lewd comments or unsolicited messages. For many, the cost of occupying rightful space online is to police their own self-expression, or to tolerate offensive behaviour. The sense of security offered by the internet favours the majority sections of society at the cost of the wellness of its minorities.

Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, recently released a statement saying, “The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere. But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls—especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalised groups—threaten that progress.”

This statement rings true to all marginalised people on the internet, and evokes myriad personal incidents for those who entrusted themselves to the ostensible safety of cyberspace. Many times, feelings of insecurity can be tackled through personal filters—for instance, Bismah claims to have made different social media accounts in an attempt to curate multiple levels of safe spaces for herself. However, such feelings cannot be completely eradicated. Issues of privacy and online safety remain a concern even for those taking various measures for digital security. Privacy breaches that cause information leakages from private Facebook groups are one such example of online safe spaces not serving their intended purpose. This is usually done through the circulation of screenshots or personal content beyond their intended audience, and often with intent to cause mental or physical harm. 

As an administrator of one such group, Kanwal Ahmed maintains that, “Soul Sisters Pakistan (SSP) is in many ways a safe space for its members.” However, she admits, “As is the case with social media, nothing is entirely secure online, and the lack of tools and proper implementation of cyber laws makes it very hard for people like me, who are leading communities online, to be even close to a hundred percent secure.” As such, strict group rules are used to maintain a culture where members look out for each other.

Rabeea, the founder of the all-women Facebook group, Girl Power at LUMS, maintains similar guidelines. Inspired partly by larger groups like SSP, her group caters to a smaller, university-specific community. More recently, the group became a vital point of communication during a resurgence of the “Me Too” movement across educational campuses in Pakistan, with many female students using the group to share personal experiences of harassment or abuse. “The scale for it was so magnificent that none of us could have ever predicted something like this happening,” says Rabeea. However, despite  the private status of the group, it was observed that “some screenshots were being shared without consent of the posters.” This compromised the anonymity of many women, and, in some cases, even led to threats of legal defamation charges by men who had been “outed” for their various misconducts. Such instances of insecurity and intimidation exemplified the need for caution even within an ostensibly private online community.

The fallibility of online safe spaces is witnessed through many such examples of cyber-security breaches. However, the less-spoken-of safety breach on the internet remains a very human one.

The internet as aggressor

As a space meant to replicate and enhance human interactions within a virtual space, the internet reproduces IRL (“in real life”) conditions of marginalisation within an online setting. An example of this is the use of internet spaces to curate hateful material against vulnerable groups. A personal instance I quote here, from April 2019, is of a private Facebook group of university students that hosted violent, offensive, and sexually explicit memes targeted towards the female population of the university. As a witness to and participant in its exposure and aftermath, my perception of myself as a woman in relation to the internet underwent a transformational journey. In dealing with the legal and material aspects of the ensuing disciplinary case, many glossed over the lived experiences of women who were affected most by the incident for weeks to come. The trauma surrounding the event manifested itself through various means on the internet; while the main source of distress remained the group and its contents, it gave way to further breaches of online security in the form of account hacking incidents, laborious online debates, and hostile commentary. The mental and emotional costs to this breach of online security were such that many affected women suffered mental breakdowns and completely distanced themselves from social media.

Sheher Bano, one of the women targeted during the time, was subjected to a Facebook hack that used her account to infiltrate an all-women online group and share graphic images inciting violence towards women. While that incident remains long-gone, Sheher Bano continues to be inactive on Facebook and uses social media in a limited capacity. About her relationship to online spaces, she says, “I am fearful of larger spaces on social media, such as Twitter, because they make me feel exposed. I don’t even use Facebook anymore because it doesn’t make me feel safe.” In comparing online and offline spaces as sites of expressing personal grievances, she declares them equally unsafe yet prefers to mainly operate offline.

The failure of the internet as a safe space routinely becomes evident during isolated instances of aggression fostered online. A recent incident saw a heated interaction between Twitter users where one person expressed an opinion deemed antithetical to the country’s dominant religion. This spiralled into the mass harassment of the person through hashtags calling for criminal charges against him. In this scenario, the user was forced to wipe his identity off the internet, and abdicate the online space that he rightfully occupied. Moreover, the consequences threatened towards the concerned user transcended cyberspace and breached upon his physical security, hence establishing the internet as the instigator of offline distress. This event also spelled harrowing realisations for other spectators on the internet, many of whom were forced into anonymity to ensure their own safety. 

Imagining safe futures

It is during such conditions, then, that the status of our internet as a safe space needs to be reckoned with. It is true that for all its vices, the internet has truly lent an unprecedented amount of freedom to its users, including the freedom to express unhappiness and dissent. While a replacement neither to professional help nor to on-ground collective action, cyberspace offers impressionable young people the first platform towards acknowledging sadness and injustice. In shedding the shame associated with sadness, social media allows new generations to candidly address questions of oppression, cruelty, illness, or plain old ennui.

Yet it is apparent that even within the shimmery plains of cyberspace, security and ensured accessibility are concerns to be continuously struggled with. Many turn to the internet as a haven for the sadness of their material realities, and will likely continue to do so. As one, ever-expanding, platform meant to host and amplify diverse voices, the internet must be maintained as an outlet to our distress, rather than its cause. This cannot truly be achieved until the internet offers its advantages to all, without discrimination, and empowers those who enter its folds seeking respite from the inequalities harboured in spaces offline.

The future is digital; it must be safe, and it must be for all.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Written by

Zainab Mubashir is a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. She has a Bachelors in English Literature from LUMS, and holds interest in issues of social justice, evolving online behaviours, and popular culture. Her writing areas include cultural commentary and creative non-fiction. She tweets at @zainabmsheikh

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