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Digital Platforms in Contemporary India: The Transformation of Quotidian Life Worlds

In: Asiascape: Digital Asia
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Rahul Mukherjee University of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania US

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Fathima Nizaruddin International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies Berlin Germany

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Abstract

The introduction to the special issue on ‘Digital Platforms in Contemporary India: Transformation of Quotidian Life Worlds’ focuses on the ways in which everyday interactions in contemporary India have changed since the arrival of digital platforms. Locating these changes within their specific contexts, the essays in the special issue examine the new circulatory assemblages and representational tropes that emerge through interactions between diverse platforms and their various users. In particular, the essays trace the different ways in which bodies, mobilities, and platforms are entangled in everyday life in an unfolding phenomenon. This introduction outlines the new spatiotemporal shifts catalyzed by the platformization of everyday activities in India, drawing connections among the various essays in the special issue. The introduction attempts to map these shifts as part of a two-way process, which acknowledges that the resulting transformations also have the potential for reimagining the existing logic of platforms.

There is some consensus among media studies scholars that today digital platforms mediate many aspects of everyday life. While many competing definitions of platforms exist, there seems to be an agreement that platforms (ranging from ride-hailing apps, e.g., Uber and Ola, to audiovisual content providers, e.g., Netflix and SonyLIV) mediate multisided transactions (markets) and operate based on algorithmic processing as well as collection, circulation, and monetization of user data (Steinberg 2019; Van Dijck et al. 2018). In contemporary India, as in many other parts of the world, these platforms have significantly changed the contours of everyday life. India has the largest number of users in the world of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube (Laghate 2019; Mandavia 2021; Statista 2021), as well as the second-highest number of internet users, therefore India is a crucial market for platform companies. For a sizeable portion of digital platform users in India, many of the following activities are part of their mundane lives: ordering food online, trying to outsmart the Uber algorithm, creating new spaces for expression on online platforms, exploring romantic possibilities with the help of dating apps, and circulating extreme speech and misinformation that targets specific minorities through instant messaging services. Although some of these are routine activities, others have become part of quotidian lifeworlds1 as a result of the complex ways in which digital technologies and specific socio-political circumstances interact. This special issue of DIAS examines the role played by digital platforms in everyday life in contemporary India by focusing on specific empirical examples. In what follows, the contributors analyze the transformation of everyday life and the new forms as well as social spaces that have emerged as a result of this transformation.

1 Impact of Platformization on Everyday Life

Scholars who focus on India have produced important research in platform studies. In a landmark study, Adrian Athique and Vibodh Parthasarathy (2020) note the importance of studying platformization as a ‘verb’ – that is, as a ‘process’. While maintaining that the mobile phone, as a convergent technology, has shaped platformization (also understood as appification), they highlight the importance of studying the history of platformization in India with a special focus on the interrelationships between platformization of the social, the mediated economy, and the logistics of economic processes. In their introduction to the collection Platform Capitalism, Athique and Parthasarathy (2020) suggest that, because of platformization, the state and corporations have formalized, or at least attempted to formalize, several business and work practices that were previously in the informal domain. This special issue certainly borrows from their insights about approaching platformization as a process, rather than conceptualizing platforms as mere entities. While Athique and Parthasarathy’s focus is mainly on political economy and on exploring the macro-dimensions of platform capitalism, the contributors to this special issue examine how the micro aspects or, still better, the minutiae of Indian citizens’ everyday life shape and are shaped by platforms. Whether it is a study of the quotidian selfie-taking practices of daily commuters on the Delhi Metro (Sharma) or of the ways in which ride-hailing apps use algorithmic surveillance to locate drivers and monitor the body temperature of delivery workers as part of COVID-19 protocols (Raval and Lalvani), what the contributors of this special issue present, are the different ways in which bodies, mobilities, and platforms are entangled in everyday life as an unfolding phenomenon. Platformization, like mediation, thereby becomes a process or phenomenon that emerges from contingent encounters between users and platforms or interactions among users through/within platforms (see also Rodgers & Moore 2020). The essays here also focus on how the platformization of governance and the governance of platforms are dynamically intertwined: for example, case studies in this special issue examine the limitations of the state regulation of platforms such as WhatsApp (Nizaruddin), as well as how disaster relief portal start-ups enact new forms of governance (Eapen).

2 Linking Representational Aspects to Circulatory Assemblages

It would certainly be a mistake to generalize, but, quite often, there seems to be a divide within the scholarship on platform studies across various subfields of media studies, information studies, and cultural geography. That divide separates scholars who study the representative logics of audiovisual content platforms from those who are interested in tracing circulatory assemblages and infrastructure of algorithmic data processing. The contributors to the Global Digital Cultures anthology edited by Punathambekar and Mohan (2019) engage with new South Asian public cultures in relation to digital media as they study aspects of distribution as well as representation, thereby suggesting that the two are both conceptually and empirically related. In the case studies by the contributors to this special issue of DIAS, we likewise find a similar commitment to bridging the gap between studying media representation and platform use. Questions about circulation and archiving through Instagram/Twitter hashtags and YouTube distribution logics remain entangled with the cultural politics of representations in these case studies, whether they examine the aesthetics of selfies through which Delhi’s metro passengers undertake digital placemaking or the visual tropes that right-wing media-makers of cow videos deploy on YouTube. Instead of researching only language and discourse or only circulation and affective connectivity, this special issue strives to bring them together.

3 Locating Digital Platforms: ‘Digital India’ and Smartphones

Scholars (Punathambekar & Mohan 2019) have argued about limitations that can arise when studies on digital platforms focus on a particular country. Although we agree with this argument in part, we believe that it is important to consider perspectives based on specific nation-state context when examining platformization. These perspectives are relevant in the current scenario, in which policies by big technology companies as well as individual states play a major role in determining the architecture of digital landscapes. For example, as two of the contributions in this issue show, the complex entanglements between digital platforms and the violent mobilization in majoritarian Hindutva nationalist politics in India need to be viewed within the larger history of such mobilizations and the emergence of a majoritarian state (Chatterji et al. 2019) under the authoritarian rule of Narendra Modi, the current prime minister. In fact, a brief outline of some of the key moments in shaping the present-day entanglements of diverse digital platforms in the quotidian lifeworld in India is useful for locating the discussions at the core of this special issue within the Indian context.

In late 2016, the telecom company Reliance Jio began to offer 4G (fourth-generation) services, with free voice calls and ‘unlimited’ data-streaming services. This accelerated the concomitant rise of indigenously designed vernacular apps (e.g., ShareChat) and Chinese platforms (e.g., TikTok and Kwai) in India.2 It also fuelled intense competition between global over-the-top (OTT) players such as Netflix and Amazon and local/national video-on-demand platforms such as Voot, Hotstar, and SonyLIV. The mandate of this special issue remains a somewhat contemporary focus on how users engage with and experience platforms. That said, we and our contributors acknowledge the value of situating discussions on digital platforms and infrastructure within the long history of techno-nationalism in India. This includes relating the socio-cultural dynamics of contemporary platformization to layered histories of ‘lives of data’ and of print, broadcast, and electronic media in colonial and postcolonial India (Mertia 2021; Punathambekar & Mohan 2019). The contemporary Aadhar (UID) card experiment in India, which has resulted in the creation of the largest biometric database in the world, can be linked to (British) colonial biopolitical control of populations through statistics (Rao & Nair 2019).3 To provide another example, our preoccupation with thinking about digitization in terms of mobile apps should be tempered with considerations of another crucial story of digital media in India: the rise of cable TV in the 1990s and its consequent digitization in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The rapid platformization in India has been matched and further accelerated by the rise of mobile phones. From the Indian state to tech start-ups, and from policy wonks to digital evangelists – they all see the mobile phone, equipped with mobile internet and apps, as the technological medium/tool that will solve the problem of the ‘digital divide’. Access to digitality (through the mobile phone) is equated with access to government welfare services, mobile payments, and crucial infotainment; hence, the mobile phone plays an important role in the government’s vision of a ‘Digital India’. The government’s Aadhar (UID) project is not merely a digital storage technology (a database of about 1.4 billion users) but also a digital distribution technology. Added to the Aadhar database is ‘India Stack’, a set of cloud-based application programming interfaces (APIs) built atop the database, which makes it possible for private companies to verify identities and offer financial services (Dattani 2019). That said, redistributing access to services, money, information, rumours, gossips, and entertainment (through mobile media and platforms) cannot have merely instrumental ramifications, such as reshaping income and social inequality; it causes cultural clashes and affective ruptures as multiple publics, and shadow economies respond and react to how mediated information, data, and money spread or leak.

In thinking about political subjectivity in relation to ‘Digital India’, we do not want to keep harping on existing government power structures that question and watch citizens, because that would not do justice to the diverse polity and multiple publics that make up the Indian population (Udupa et al. 2020). We also need to examine how mobile-mediated digital participation has re-energized urban civic movements, farmers’ protests, and women’s groups, as well as Dalit and Bahujan (‘lower-caste’) voices that have challenged historical marginalization and caste discrimination. Some examples include the use of digital platforms in the protests that erupted after the suicide of the Dalit PhD scholar Rohit Vemula (Thakur 2020), the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) struggle against sexist regulations on campuses, and the protests against the Modi government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslims (Bhatia 2021). The dizzying list of platforms and apps and their interactions with citizens’ subjectivities, freedoms, aspirations, and bereavements are too immense to discuss, and in no way does this special issue try to cover the full range of issues concerning platforms in India.4

4 Core Themes: Contributions in This Special Issue

This special issue presents four core themes that recur in various case studies. The first is the regulation of platforms as nation-states fail to align their goals with platforms’ networking effects. The second are the material and ‘soft’ infrastructure (including conventions, standards, and protocols) that help maintain platforms. The third are the performative subjectivities shaped by selfie cultures, dating apps, and YouTube video uploads, which are at once ‘personal and intimate’ as well as ‘social and public’ (Kumar 2021). Fourth are the unique sociotechnical systems that emerge as a result of interactions between existing social infrastructure and new modes of exchanges and expression that are facilitated through the introduction of diverse digital platforms. Together, the essays in this special issue also indicate that nation-states and big technology companies are not the only players that determine the spaces and configurations to emerge from the interaction between digital platforms and everyday life in contemporary India.

As the article on the use of Instagram by commuters on the Delhi Metro shows, individual users create new spaces and affective ways of navigating the city through their use of digital platforms. Sharma demonstrates how Instagram accounts that were part of the experience of mobility enabled by the Delhi Metro became important sites in sustaining and expanding such experiences after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The question of space-making practices is a central theme in this essay; it adds important insights to discussions on digital geography and elaborates on the role played by the digital in producing geographies (Ash et al. 2018). However, in an India that finds itself in a cauldron boiling over with Hindutva hegemony and market-driven techno-nationalism, the social spaces that emerge as a result of how mobile phones afford users with the ability to reformulate complex everyday interactions also include streets where rioters communicate via mobile instant messaging platforms. Information and rumours cut or leak across a variety of digital media platforms powered by the cellphone, thereby mobilizing affect and multiple sites of attachment. Ravi Sundaram (2020) calls these phenomena ‘event chains’ in a ‘distribution engine’, an engine that is an affect machine and a crisis machine, dependent on the habitual micro-actions of likes and forwards.

The precision of this distribution engine made possible by various actors across diverse digital platforms as well as grassroots mobilization plays an important role in electoral competitions as well as sectarian riots. Two of the articles in this special issue discuss how, under an authoritarian regime, the circulation of Hindutva majoritarian view become part of the everyday. They also explore how specific platforms are used to sustain this circulation. Farooq’s article examines how videos uploaded on YouTube celebrate mob vigilantism in the name of protecting ‘cow mother’ (gau maata). He examines the long history of the use of ‘cow protection’ as a trope for consolidating a majoritarian identity by positioning minorities, especially Muslims, as the slayers of the so-called sacred animal. This examination provides the context for understanding the present-day manifestation of this trope in YouTube videos and the role these videos play in framing cow vigilantism as a routine aspect of everyday life under the rule of a Hindu majoritarian government.

Similarly, Nizaruddin’s article uses the context of violence in northeast Delhi in 2020 to examine how mobile instant messaging platforms (WhatsApp and Telegram) are used in the so-called Hindu-Muslim riots, in which majoritarian Hindutva rioters target the minority Muslim community.5 She argues that the platform companies contribute to the impunity with which the rioters act because, despite stated moderation policies, the rioters can use specific platforms to co-ordinate and commit acts of violence.

The mobile media and data revolutions have not only helped to spread communal discord and riots but also reconfigure modes for expressing and sharing desire. Social networking sites and digital platforms (including dating apps) offer young Indians opportunities for ‘virtual intimate connections’ (Dasgupta & Dasgupta 2018). These perceived boundless freedoms of dating apps and social media platforms have been accompanied by the dangers of online surveillance, risks related to the sexually promiscuous ‘cruising cultures’, social stigma surrounding LGBTQ experiences in India, and both the liberating and problematic uses of digital anonymity.

Navigating some of these concerns, Debolina Dey explores the phenomenon of catfishing in the South Asian context and how it complicates our understanding of desire, identity, and affect. Instead of looking at catfishing, which involves the creation of a fictitious online persona for romantic scams through a cautionary lens, Dey approaches it as a field of possibilities that can lead to intimacy transcending the limits set by social taboos, sexual mores, and individual expectations. They argue that these possibilities become all the more pertinent in contexts such as that of India, where romantic and sexual encounters in everyday life are heavily policed based on notions of caste, class, religion, and sexuality.

In addition to examining how digital platforms have reconfigured everyday lived experiences in India, this special issue explores the possible ways in which platforms might be transformed as a result of their interactions with the socio-political contexts in India. The conditions that make India the home of the second-largest internet user base in the world and the biggest market for several major global platforms could also create possibilities for new imaginations around platforms that work outside the logic of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019). The big technology companies that control most of the pathways of our digital interactions often operate based on the logic of data extraction and surveillance capitalism. Eapen’s article indicates the emergence of imaginations that can work outside such logics as well as the limits they face. He examines Keralarescue, a unique portal that emerged during the Kerala floods in 2018 and became an integral platform for rescue operations. Eapen explores how voluntary efforts and a logic of care make Keralarescue different from platforms that are designed to prioritize profit motives. His article shows momentary figurations of a platform mode that could be part of the future of digital platforms; these futures could be different from the existing ways in which the dominant global platform ecosystems function.6

Whereas Eapen delineates how the quotidian presence of social media and location-based applications contribute to the emergence of unique configurations such as Keralarescue in the face of a natural disaster, Raval and Lalvani outline the modes of everyday negotiations by workers to deal with their precarity in the gig economy. Raval and Lalvani demonstrate that migrants and informal labourers entering gig work bend the formal logics of the platform economy through their existing socialities, kinship networks, and value systems, thereby creating the potential for evading algorithmic capture, at least partially. Although this potential might be severely limited by the imbalance of power between the workers and the technology companies that hold the reins in the architecture of this gig economy, these limitations do not prevent the range of influence that workers’ practices can have on the future of the platforms that fuel this economy.

5 Future Research Trajectories

This special issue extends the arguments against the centre-periphery approach in which the centre is framed based on Eurocentric notions. Because India has one of the world’s largest internet user bases, the specific situations that arise in India as a result of the digital platforms’ operation is bound to have implications that affect the future imaginations about digital platforms. Several articles in this special issue focus on global platforms owned by big technology companies, however, the dynamic landscape of digital platforms in India is dotted with regional platforms that have a more local or demographic-specific reach and appeal (e.g., a Bengali subscription video-on-demand service such as Hoichoi, which is popular not only in the Indian state of West Bengal but also in Bangladesh). More empirical work is needed to ascertain the role of regional platforms in iteratively interacting with the quotidian in the country.

Several of the articles examine the regulation of platforms by the Indian state as well as the limitations of internal content moderation or worker management by platforms, such as YouTube, WhatsApp, and Uber (Farooq, Nizaruddin, and Raval & Lalwani). That said, a more capacious conceptualization of platform regulation should include case studies of the public antagonism between the Indian government and Twitter over the latter’s alleged failure to comply with the government’s demand to take down accounts that supported farmer protests critical of the state or summons issued by the Indian government to Amazon Prime Video executives because of right-wing protests over the purportedly objectionable depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses in a show such as Tandav (2021–) (Daniyal 2021; Shukla 2021). Beyond these individual controversies, case studies of platform regulation should also focus on the shifting rules governing platforms in India, such as the ‘Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code’ and self-censorship by several platforms.

In assembling a special issue on platformization and everyday life in India amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we realize that humdrum quotidian life is scarred by crises and the traumas left in the wake of disasters. Amid the failure or, rather, collapse of government health-care infrastructure in the second wave of COVID-19 in India, it was ordinary Indians who organized the crowdsourcing of medical aid (information about hospital beds, oxygen cylinders). Some of this organization happened through co-ordinated efforts such as the partially closed WhatsApp COVID-19 relief groups that publicized or broadcasted on open social media platforms such as Twitter (Prabhakar et al. 2021). This inter-platform co-ordination as part of on-the-ground relief efforts suggests the potential for care made available by them, even as these same platforms, at the same time, remained carriers and chambers of misinformation and chaos about vaccines and oxygen cylinders. Decisions made at a moment of crisis leave lengthy impressions on everyday life. One such decision was the Indian government’s ban on about fifty-eight Chinese apps, including TikTok, in June 2020 during escalating border tensions between India and China. A group of working-class creators and influencers who had found a venue for sharing their short video performances on TikTok could not migrate successfully with their followers to Instagram because they never felt at home with Instagram Reels. More empirical studies are needed to map the full extent and scale of the aftereffects of the TikTok ban in India, as journalistic accounts argue that the ‘textured, complex’ and a somewhat inclusive depiction of everyday life, including ‘unvarnished, but joyful, depictions of village life’ in India on TikTok was replaced by curated ‘bland’ images of ‘aspirational’ middle-class lifestyles on Instagram Reels (Sharma 2021b).7

6 Conclusion

The contributions to this special issue respond to the broad call to consider South Asia a site for examining the various forces and trajectories that shape the contemporary landscape of global digital culture (Punathambekar & Mohan 2019). The decision to focus on India, instead of all of South Asia, was prompted by the impetus for a nuanced engagement with the particular history and socio-political conditions in the country with the second-highest internet user base in the world. Like many other parts of the Global South, India is a crucial place to take into consideration in a discussion about the future of digital platforms. The present mode in which these platforms function could change radically in the near future. Issues ranging from the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media platforms to the precarious working conditions in the gig economy show that the current way in which many global platforms operate may not be sustainable in the long run.8 Any rethinking of these issues will need to consider how platforms interact with everyday life in India – one of the largest markets for many of these platforms – and the forms that emerge from these interactions. This special issue is such an attempt, and the contributions here use empirical examples in India to argue about the possible ways in which the existing contours of platforms can be reimagined to limit their use in spreading divisive narratives as well as to expand the space for resistance, collective action, as well as self-expression that they can engender. We hope that, together with other similar attempts, this collection of essays can expand our understanding about the complex way in which informational capitalism (Cohen 2019) shapes the lifeworlds of large groups of people around the world.

Acknowledgement

Fathima Nizaruddin would like to thank Anugyan Nag for organizing the panel on South Asia in the 12th Annual NNC conference at Lund in December 2019. Some of the contributions in this special issue were initially presented at this conference.

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1

The use of the term ‘lifeworld’ here is informed by a phenomenological understanding of the term that acknowledges the influence of bodily as well as communicative domains in the process of creating meaning (Rasmussen 2014).

2

Many have touted TikTok as responsible for creating ‘lower-caste’ influencers in India and finally giving rural women their due online recognition, even as these new rising stars of Indian social media are on the receiving end of trolling by bigots, misogynists, and so-called expert gatekeepers, curators, and commentators (Christopher & Bansal 2020). Citing threats of data security and data privacy, Chinese apps, including TikTok and Kwai, were banned by the Indian government in July 2020. Thousands of Indian content creators who were enabled by these platforms lost their followers and earnings.

3

For discussions on the issues around state efforts to link Aadhaar with the delivery of social security schemes, see Drèze et al. (2017) and Andrade (2019).

4

The entanglements of digital platforms with millennial India (Udupa et al. 2020) and diasporas and literary worlds (Risam & Gairola 2021) or the changing sexual mores (Das 2019) are just a few of the broad themes that need sustained scholarly analysis. Over the years, Radhika Gajjala has produced nuanced writings on cyber-ethnography, technocultural agency, and gendered nationalisms found in both online and offline worlds (from internet-enabled usenet groups and bulletin boards to WhatsApp conversations), in both South Asia and South Asian diasporas. See Gajjala (2002) and Gajjala and Verma (2018).

5

Telegram is a key app in relation to WhatsApp because, like WhatsApp, it affords horizontal communication and chat groups in which one can chat, organize, and recruit. That said, unlike WhatsApp, Telegram offers broadcasting through public channels, which, like YouTube, can have subscribers. Following proposed shifts in WhatsApp’s privacy policy, Telegram’s popularity in India increased, and news reports claim that it is the biggest Telegram market (Sharma 2021a).

6

‘Portal’ as a concept is close to that of ‘platform’, but for some the difference is important. For Amanda Lotz (2017), subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Hulu are internet-distributed television portals because they continue earlier television content based on internet protocols and curatorial expertise. Lotz differentiates such SVOD portals from platforms such as Facebook and Google. In India, as Eapen notes in his contribution to this special issue, ‘portal’ (or portalization) is part of a digitalization discourse that suggests that earlier slow and time-consuming bureaucratic operations/services are now more efficient and transparent via digital web sites and interfaces, called portals. According to the Indian state, digitalization of governance takes the form of e-portals.

7

Although TikTok gave visibility to youth across castes and class in villages and small towns, which very few platforms have achieved, due to lack of rigorous moderation, some of the content was disturbing, even misogynistic (see Nishtha 2020).

8

Recent reports that in India, in comparison to its operations in the US, Facebook did not invest adequately in safety protocols (Zakrzewski et al. 2021) show the need to address the issue of lack of adequate accountability in the current way that big technology companies function.

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