Into the Secret Online World of Truth or Die

Cyber

Into the Secret Online World of Truth or Die

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

“P

ap for like,” my phone beeps.

I quickly check the message. The ASKfm app I had recently downloaded posted this request which in ASKfm speak means “Post a Picture and I’ll give you a like.” “Likes” are the currency in these neck of the woods – they signify both popularity and influence and Nayonika Chaudhary, my guide into this dark world, has both.

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The 15-year-old is sprawled across her bed as she tells me more about this question-based teen social networking app that is the rage among the country’s posh school kids. Nayonika, who is a child of the online generation and part of the “popular kids of Instagram” movement, has some 2,000 fawning followers on Insta and about 15,000 likes on ASKfm. When I ask her about the app, she twirls her scarlet-tinged hair and gazes into the mirror as she delivers the verdict. “It’s the worst,” she says. “It is full of haters who tell everyone to go kill themselves. And I heard someone actually did.”

The conversation about the online lives of teenagers has suddenly, flippantly, turned to death. Nayonika’s room has all the trappings of adolescence, the pastel curtains, the touches of pink that will soon be deemed embarrassing, and that most telling sign of a fast-fading girlhood – an army of soft toys presiding over the conversation.

But the occupant of the room shows no such signs of youthful un-sophistication. The statuesque, willowy teenager in her sleek, monochrome ensemble and perfectly manicured nails, painted a glistening black, had signalled she was ready for our chat with a nod of her head. That’s more swag than I have ever been able to muster in my 30-odd years.

If you go by her Instagram feed, Nayonika’s life seems straight out of Gossip Girl – just swap Upper East Side for the lanes of Lokhandwala, the pincode of choice for Bollywood’s B-list. It’s all pouty faces, pictures of parties attended by other equally well-manicured teenagers, group hugs hashtagged Squad, chilling out on beach chairs with the sun framed precariously between their shimmery limbs, and all the shoes that they bought.

But on ASKfm things get real.

“Haters” were the first settlers of the world wide web but the vitriol on ASKfm is surprising, especially as it is a zone where adults are hard to find. I first heard about the website just a day ago, even though the popular social network had gained its first few million users in India by 2013. Most of the information revealed in the 320 questions on Nayonika’s page is benign and the exchange can often be validating (“You are the prettiest girl in school”). But it takes no time to go downhill from there. “Can’t weight to meat you,” is another comment to which she replied “Why are you being mean, I like being thin” and many leaned toward what can only be labelled bullying or outright slut-shaming – “She looks like she will open her legs and her mouth real easy.”

But beyond the hate, “TBH for like” is the most devastating part of the ASKfm experience: It’s a deal with the devil. TBH or To Be Honest invites you to share a revealing truth on the internet in exchange for likes. A secret crush, the identity of your boyfriend, your bra size. An anonymous asker can dare you to share anything and your answer can leave you devastated. TBH in this online world is a contemporary cousin of that old slippery slope called Truth or Dare from our college dorms.

I crossed the threshold of teenage years ago and I’d had my share of Truth or Dare. I was sitting in a truth circle with an empty beer bottle pointing towards me. I knew that a dare would involve an inebriated, unsavoury kiss with someone in this circle, so I chose “truth” but I was not prepared for the question that followed.

“Do you want to fuck him?” my tormentor asked, pointing to the guy who was huddling with my best friend, her long-term boyfriend and my long-nursed crush.

I was like a deer caught in the headlights. The truth was impossible. It would result in a lost friendship, many whispered accusations, or a full-blown catfight, and yet it was the imperative of this game in which everyone already suspected the answer. I lied at that time and got away with it because I had nothing at stake, no likes to ask, no public viewers to mollify. But on ASKfm, I would have been called out and put down for this transgression by any nameless, untraceable entity who would shame me in public view. Back in the day, my shame was my own or at worst, restricted to a few close friends.

Every picture posted was met by comments on her “tight pussy”, “clev so deep” and an “ass that I’d anal right now”.

That’s not what happened to Shanaya92, Nayonika’s friend. She has not been on ASKfm for a year but her story has become a cautionary tale. She goes to the same school as Nayonika. She lives in the same posh neighbourhood and follows the same people on Instagram, but her ASKfm account is disabled now.

It all started last year when Shanaya turned 13, and as usual, it began with a boy.

A WhatsApp conversation between Shanaya and a classmate about a boy with a “dragon d” (dragon dicks, for the uninitiated) made its way to ASKfm as part of a “like for TBH” deal. The post got 935 likes in just an hour. The whole school knew and they all weighed in. The comments were anonymous at first, the ones which branded her a slut, followed by others which were lewd propositions or told her that she was just a fat bitch.

Then the gloves came off and she found herself faced by a gang whose names and faces she knew from school. She had the backing of her friends and ASKfm became the venue for a long-drawn battle.

She was still posting OOTD (outfit of the day) posts as the “dragon” scandal raged on. Every picture posted was met by comments on her “tight pussy”, “clev so deep” and an “ass that I’d anal right now”. After a few weeks of this, Shanaya gave up and logged out for good. But her page, with the remnants of that bloody turf war, is still there for all to see.

Much of what would have previously been reserved for a diary, teens now regularly share on Instagram and Tumblr and ASKfm. Among the things anyone with an internet connection can learn about Shanaya is that she went on her first date three years ago, who her best friends are, that she’s proud of her “Punjabi ass”, she is turned on by tall boys in white t-shirts, and would name her daughter Kiara.

Kids like Shanaya and Nayanika thrive in this parallel universe that has its own strange pressures and codes and can turn against them at any time. Their parents are oblivious. They do know that about Instagram and ASKfm but nothing about how badly they can backfire. Nayanika’s mother insisted that I meet her daughter at home, instead of a nearby coffee shop but had no clue that her daughter had to block boys asking her if she was down for a “hookup” every day on ASKfm.

My ASKfm alter-ego with long hair with a heavy fringe that obscured half her face, did not make it past the first few questions. She was not as tough as the Shanayas and Nayonikas of this secret universe.

She pressed delete.

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