By Rattana Lao
It was sometime ago that the New Yorker featured a cartoon that went something like this: “With the internet, you can be a dog behind a computer and nobody knows.”
That’s my thought on the internet in general and social media in particular. Behind the masks of perfectly manicured life or perfect make up, there are multiple truth, reality, flaws and imperfection.
I joined Facebook when I was doing my Masters of Science in Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science – far away from my hometown glory of Bangkok, Thailand. Although I have known about Facebook from my highschool roommate when it was only accessible for IVY League students, I was not quite excited about it. I thought to myself “who in their right mind published their lives to the public?”
During the same time, the One Laptop Per Child policy was popular. I remember attending several public forums whereby tech savvy professionals tried to convince low-tech Development experts that the internet is powerful and through it we can end world poverty. Something like that.
Being an outgoing and outspoken introvert, if that makes sense, I signed up for FB with an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, I wanted to keep in touch with my friends and family from afar – to let them know how I was, what I ate, where I travelled to. On the other hand, I was scared and anxious of the unintended consequences. Well, given that my BFF called me “the most intense meaning making machine,” I was not sure I could cope with the outflow of comments from strangers about my life.
As a writer, I travelled a lot and carried multiple devices: cellphone, iPads and computers. I have several notebooks in my bag for different thought and things. I lived in 4 cities in 10 years for school and work: London, New York, Hong Kong and Bangkok, so FB was my tool to store my pictures, poems and proses. I posted some on public, mostly I kept them private. In another word, FB was my cloud.
My posts had rarely been LIVE. I posted multiple things: narcissist selfie, obnoxious jokes, sentimental poems and love songs. Sometimes I rapped, some other time I put my stream of consciousness out there as if I was meditating. A lot of time, I created a dialogue as if I was writing an Opera or Broadway. I was thinking of Pavarotti and Philip Grass.
You see, I am a messed: Fifty Cent x Evita, Phantom x Avenue Q.
Despite my skeptism about privacy bleached, I was also very naive about the danger of FB. I did believe, at one point, “technology can empower lives, internet can end poverty.” Well, if you read Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty and Amartya’s Sen Development as Freedom without criticality, that’s what you get: go-getter, saving the world and innocent lamb lost in the Wonderland. Or you better try with prof. Anis Bajrektarevic, who –on the topic– offers a first rate (post-industrial) Hegelian thought: Highly mesmerizing, although (for the sake of magic) disguised in the Matrix movie’s Keanu Reeves post-punk character of Neo – modern, fast, lethal, decisive.
My nativity is best manifested through my five years experience of art project in Thailand. Being a fresh of the boat returnee from oversea education, I thought of putting development theories into practice. I did think that Thailand, given its excessive interest on “children” and “education”, everybody would be on board with me.
Together with students from around the country, we carried out 15 art projects in various parts of Thailand for different groups and audience. We went to the most remote area of Thailand such as Loei, Lampoon and Lopburi. We brought art supplies and created free space for students to express themselves. Last year, we went to four regions and asked students to paint “Happy Birthday Our Princess” cards to wish our princess a healthy and happy life.
Some of these were funded, mostly were self-funded. All of us in the team called “UNITE Thailand” sacrificed things that we have to create garage sale so that we are financially independent from donors.
It is what a degree in Development Studies at the LSE has taught me.
Since I have friends from all over the world, I was optimistic that if I posted these beautiful Thai silk from Surin, cotton from Lampoon and leather bags, someone out there would purchase them. Good try. Not quite. Only one highschool friend from Nepal, Salina Giri, bought my mother’s Prada bag for 500 USD. Although it was the only act of kindness, that meant the world to me and 300 other children in Loei.
The ramification of “sharing my ideas” online was worst. Day after day, I woke up and saw the quotes I put on to promote the projects being hijacked for political, personal and private purposes.
Again, being Buddhist, forgiveness.
I had hated FB for quite sometime for that it interrupted my peace. It allowed strangers to send me hate speech and there was a point, I got several messages that could have put me behind bar. Not British bars. Jail to be exact. Some people have mistood my Coco necklace with Communism and they misunderstood my initial R with Radical.
Perhaps my political sarcasm had gone too far, perhaps my English vocabulary has confused many. I have gone through the missteps again and again in my head and finally I had the epiphany. It was me who was stupid.
No one in their right mind would type Chekov “The Story of Nobody” right after “Anna K” story – Nobody – would put “Evita” right next to “Alicia.”
Well, I did.
If all the degrees I hold did not prevent me from self-destruction and public humiliation, I would like to dedicate this piece to all the children out there to“DO NOT BE LIKE ME,” who think they can SHARE their works, who believe that FB LIKES are REAL and who wait for INBOX from somebody to take them to the Empire State.
No one knows that behind the happy hello kitty profile picture of a go-getter oversized cheerleader, I had just survived the worst Asthma attack and breathing in tears, in the depth of the Thai forest.
If Development is Freedom and if Sen was right, allow me to free myself from the chained cruelty of Facebook. I didn’t deactivate it, I threw my phone in the river and said final goodbye.
*Rattana Lao – is a lecturer at Thai Studies, Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University. She is also the author of “A critical Studies of Thailand Higher Education Reform: The Culture of Borrowing,” which was published with Routledge in 2015. Contact her under: amp.lao(at)gmail.com , read her: www.amplao.com