My mother became addicted to WhatsApp when her mother passed away in the winter of 2013. She used it, she said, to “fill up a vacuum,” numbing her grief with the mindless banter of a handful of WhatsApp groups. In that endless stream of forwards she sent and received — the memes, the banal humor, the viral videos, the “Good Morning!” GIFs, and the hoaxes — my mother found solace.
It didn’t take long for her early interest in WhatsApp to turn into obsession. She rekindled dusty relationships and joined at least a dozen groups, including a family group, a group for work colleagues, a group for school friends, a group for organic farmers, and another for environmentalists. Soon, my mother was spending half a dozen hours each day glued to her dinky Android phone, blasting her WhatsApp groups with forwards, and watching almost every GIF and video she received.
Many of these forwards ended up in my WhatsApp too. Sometimes, I got them twice because there were some groups we had in common. At first, I skimmed through, replying with a quick :) . But their volume increased so rapidly that I was soon forced to stop replying entirely — there were simply too many. A few months later, my father called. “Your mother is sulking,” he said. “You haven’t been reading or replying to her WhatsApp forwards.” I was taken aback. Mom and I had been talking at least a couple of times a week on the phone. Still, she perceived me ignoring her on WhatsApp as a sort of personal affront.
“I’m emotionally invested in WhatsApp,” Mom explained when I called her to apologize. “And I was hurt because you ignored me there.”
WhatsApp is now an inextricable part of India’s culture. The app has more than 200 million users in the country, and it's nearly as large as Facebook’s Indian user base itself. And while it's widely used by millennials, it's really older Indians — people like my mother, her friends, and extended family — who've embraced it with striking passion and sincerity.
“To my parents, WhatsApp isn’t just an instant messenger,” said Devang Pathak, a 25-year-old writer from Mumbai. “It’s an entire social network. It’s where they catch up with family and friends, it’s where they get their news, and it’s where they watch a ton of videos. They use it so much it scares me.”
Digitally savvy millennials in India post Stories on Instagram, share memes on Facebook, watch videos on YouTube, keep up on Twitter, and chat with each other on Facebook Messenger. But older Indians have incorporated the most compelling features of these platforms right into WhatsApp. Vacation pictures don’t go on Facebook or Instagram, videos don’t go on YouTube, and jokes and wisecracks don’t go on Twitter. For older Indians, WhatsApp is the ultimate social network.
“Honestly, Facebook is a little complex for me,” said my mother. “And it’s not a place where I can reach everyone I care about at once like I can do in a WhatsApp group. And it’s also not, well, private.”
An aunt, who is in her late sixties and who began using WhatsApp about six months ago, is now a notorious serial forwarder. But she likes it for other reasons as well. “It’s my music player,” she said. “People I know send me so many music clips on WhatsApp and I don’t know how to play music on my phone.”
“My generation didn’t really have a lot of contact with people outside our immediate social circles for decades,” said another aunt in her mid-fifties. “I got hooked on WhatsApp because it was fun to see how friends who I hadn’t seen in probably 20 years looked.”
Unlike some of India’s urban and affluent millennials who grew up with desktops and the internet, most older Indians largely leapfrogged desktops and went straight to smartphones as their primary computing devices over the past decade or so.
“They are not digital natives like us,” said Shobha S V, a 33-year-old media professional based in Delhi. “So there’s still this childlike wonder about technology.”
Jayman Pandya, a 32-year-old UX designer based in Mumbai who is currently struggling to get his 60-year-old father to cut down on his WhatsApp use, said he thinks older Indians are hooked because WhatsApp is their first taste of being social on the internet. “My father refuses to drive these days because he needs to look into his phone all the time,” Pandya said.
Plunging into WhatsApp’s world of GIFs, videos, and messaging has both liberated and enabled older Indians. But there’s something of a learning curve, particularly when it comes to digital etiquette. Emboldened by WhatsApp’s simplistic interface and unshackled by the limitations of SMS, many older Indians send dozens of forwards to their WhatsApp groups every single day — and some young Indians say it’s getting on their nerves.
“Using WhatsApp with my family is no longer about using it to have conversations,” said one such person who declined to be named. “It’s just about wading through an endless stream of forwards. I talk to my parents on the phone.”
When I tweeted, “Are you a young person pissed at how many forwards your parents send on WhatsApp?”, young Indians flooded my mentions and Direct Messages.
“The constant pinging on my phone is really annoying,” said Shobha. “Remember how we used to forward email chains back in the day? This is their version of it.”
Rohan Deshpande, 22, works in the hospitality industry in Chennai. He said the problem with older relatives who use WhatsApp is that they don’t really understand the concept of spam. “I get it because I’ve grown up with the internet. They haven’t,” he said.
When confronted about their WhatsApp use, older Indians seem unruffled. “I share because I feel like it’s the best way to tell people how I feel or think about something,” said my mother. “I share because it helps me express myself.”
“My job is to forward good content,” said a 62-year-old grandfather of two based in Bangalore who didn’t want to be named. “It’s OK if you don’t respond or reply.”
What constitutes “good content” is, of course, subjective. WhatsApp groups in India are rife with jokes, sexist humor, and viral videos, but hoaxes and misinformation forwarded through the app have also become an engine for India’s own fake news crisis. Last week, an older relative forwarded me a false conspiracy theory claiming Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, joined forces to shore up India’s plummeting GDP. And a few days ago, my father sent a helpful forward that advised me to massage my belly button with coconut oil to improve my eyesight. When asked about this, multiple Indians I spoke to had a standard answer: “It’s true, I saw it on WhatsApp.”
“I think older people trust the credibility of news and published information more than younger people in general,” said Shammas Oliyath, the Bangalore-based cofounder of Check4Spam, a website that focuses on busting viral hoaxes and urban myths spread primarily through WhatsApp in India. “I think they’re used to putting in a certain amount of trust in old media, and that sort of carries on to new media too. And they’re also more unfamiliar with things like photo and video editing software, and concepts like clickbait.”
Shashwat Mohanty, a 20-year-old journalist from Mumbai, was so frustrated by fake forwards in his family’s WhatsApp group that he designed a newspaper front page full of bogus headlines to share with the group. “They totally believed everything!” he said. “I’m actually worried.”
Anagha Pathak, a 51-year-old academic from Pune, said she’s become more conscious about forwarding things on WhatsApp if she suspects they’re not accurate or factual. “My primary reason to forward things was to alert people I care about or warn them about something, and unfortunately, a lot of those things ended up being hoaxes.”
This is precisely why experts think fake news spreads easily through WhatsApp. “WhatsApp is a very intimate form of communication, and if you receive information that leads you to believe you’re at danger … you probably balance the pros and cons of sharing it in your head,” Kate Wilkinson, senior researcher at fact-checking organization Africa Check, told Poynter earlier this year. “If there’s a chance someone could be hurt, I should probably pass it on.”
Pathak still sends forwards, but she now types a caveat at the end of each one: “Forwarded as received.”
Others, like Jayasree Mukkilmaruthur, a lawyer from Delhi in her late sixties, say that the problem of fake news and misinformation spreading through WhatsApp forwards is so widespread that they don’t think anyone can stop it. “[Even if I stop sending forwards,] I can’t control it; I can’t stop people from sending them,” she said. “I really don’t think my opinion here matters that much.” (“I couldn’t disagree more, of course,” said Durga Sengupta, her 27-year-old daughter.)
“News was news when our parents were growing up,” said Deshpande. “The concept of content everywhere didn’t exist for them, and I don’t think they can fathom that anybody has the time or will to create misinformation or fake news just so that they can share it.”
Above all, older Indians have embraced the app for the same reasons that young people around the world are hooked to other social networks: for validation via instant feedback, and a sense of community of a more intimate sort than that found on Twitter and Facebook.
“I won an award at work last month and I didn’t want to blow my own trumpet on Facebook,” said a fiftysomething aunt who declined to be named. “But I put it in my WhatsApp family group because that’s the only circle of people I care about telling it to anyway.”
That’s actually not very different from why millennials share on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. We curate our identities through the links, videos, GIFs, and pictures we share on the half a dozen platforms we frequent, while older people just do it all in a single place. We’re as likely to overuse and overshare on social media as older people — even Facebook has warned about the dangers of passively scrolling through your News Feed for hours every day. But we consider our social media addiction as normal, even trendy, while perceiving theirs as a bewildering annoyance.
There are signs that things could be changing, however. Pathak, the academic from Pune, said she’s had conversations with her children, both in their twenties, about sharing responsibly on WhatsApp and cutting back on the time she spends on it. “We had definitely reached that point,” she said. “They were not happy.”
And a few months ago, Mom and I had a conversation on the phone. “I think you use WhatsApp too much,” I said. “I know,” she said. “I am addicted. I am sorry.” The forwards didn’t stop, but gradually, they reduced to a trickle. A few days ago, she sent me some selfies wearing a stunning blue sari. And last week, she pinged me on WhatsApp just because. We spoke about how her day was, and what she ate for lunch. It was beautiful. ●