‘There was once a time when the pen was mightier than the sword. Today, many don’t even know how to use a pen, let alone allow it to be used to cut through the debris of nonsense and leave a mark. The fingers and the thumbs have retired the pen from its mighty duty.’
Samara wrote and then posted these words on her Facebook wall, feeling quite impressed with herself for her wit and insight.
It is bound to get many likes, she says inside her head. She holds many internal conversations with herself.
She posts a shorter version on her Twitter account and -after saving an image she found on the internet of an elegant fountain pen held provocatively in the mouth of a model- she posts the same lines with this ‘borrowed’ image on her Instagram.
Then, for the next hour or so, Samara keeps refreshing and checking her social media accounts on her smart phone to see how ‘well’ her latest post has done.
Not as well as I hoped, she thinks, frowning at the 12 likes on Facebook, and just seven on Instagram. One ‘heart’ and just one retweet on Twitter.
She starts to feel depressed.
Identifying herself as an ‘award-winning’ writer, photographer, artist, fashion designer, stylist, life coach and thinker (even though there is no award per se but who checks facts on the net these days?), Samara is hoping to gain more followers and become a social media star.
‘What does she have that I don’t?’ she would say, after checking some of the Middle East’s social media stars’ accounts before posting another filtered image of herself here and there with her newly manicured nails or the newest merchandise, or short clips of the latest restaurants and places she had visited via Snapchat.
She has tried poetry, proverbs, comical clips (sultry ones) and even videos from inside a changing room- everything possible she has seen others do- but unlike the ‘others’, she has yet to gain this virtual stardom.
Samara wishes there was a way to become famous fast.
Maybe I need to post more selfies…
In the same neighborhood, in the same building as Samara, and just one floor down, sits Salim in his apartment, staring at his laptop. He has ‘hearted’ Samara’s pen post on Twitter and retweeted it. He doesn’t know Samara, but had followed her after she followed him. He, like Samara, is obsessed with the idea of becoming famous online.
Presenting himself as an award-winning executive, athlete, filmmaker, car racer, horse rider and social media influencer, Salim has yet to ride a horse or race a car again since that single, well-photographed and videoed session he did for the purpose of posting it online.
If I retweet and share enough wisdom from famous leaders, it is bound to rub off, he tells himself. He, like Samara, has many important conversations inside his head.
He spends a great time at the gym, and spends a lot of time trying to find the perfect angles to photograph and show what little muscles he has.
‘Work doesn’t love you back, spend what time you have with loved ones. -#Salim’sPearlsOfWisdom’
He types this out with the latest hashtag that he hopes will trend. He posts this on Twitter, and Instagram, with a selfie of him with friends he hasn’t seen in a year. He does keep in touch via WhatsApp, and has remembered to send his congratulations and his ‘sorry for your loss’ comments to his friends through this app. He can’t remember the last time he actually called anyone.
People will love this latest post! he tells himself.
For the next hour and more, he checks his social media accounts and is procrastinating doing actual work.
Feeling frustrated for getting just one retweet and just seven likes on Instagram, Salim decides it must be a ‘nationality’ issue, with certain nationalities getting more followers in the Arab world.
I will pretend to be a Gulf national, thinks Salim, who is from Lebanon, and is already plotting the ways in which he will present, or rather, misrepresent himself.
‘Who checks anyways, everything out there is fake anyways,’ he says to no one in particular.
Conjuring up whole scenarios in his head, he drifts away into a la la land of imagined conversations and movie-like reels of interactions. Only the sound of a notification arriving to his smart phone has the power to wake him from this trance. His hand immediately reaches out to his phone and his fingers start checking even before his eyes focus on the screen.
Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) would have been amused at today’s form of classical conditioning, where instead of his dogs salivating to the sound of the bell in anticipation of the food that usually follows, human’s salivate (metaphorically) to the blinking light or sound of a message or text.
Bing! An email arrives at the same time to both Samara’s and Salim’s inboxes.
In different places, yet drawn to the same sound and object, they click on this email with the subject line: ‘Become famous online with one click’.
Throwing away the usual caution of opening any message arriving from an unknown user- this one blatantly suspicious as Fame666@gmail.com- they open it, the pull of what it promises too great for Samara and Salim.
The screen of their smart phones becomes blank for a moment, before reverting back to its normal screen. The email disappears.
‘Strange,’ murmurs Samara, who checks nothing else has disappeared. Salim does the same.
They both soon forget about it as they notice more interest in their latest posts from someone out there in the virtual world. It doesn’t matter that they may not recognise the name or handle of the user reacting to their post; it just matters that there is a reaction.
Samara checks the accounts of some of the famous figures she follows. God! Her breasts and lips are so obviously fake, she says to herself, while posting a heart and a comment to this particular ‘fashionista’, ‘Wow! Looking beautiful as always.’
At the same time, Salim is checking a celebrity’s account.
If I had millions, I would also be loved by all these beautiful women, he says to himself, as he scans the accounts of the female users leaving comments on this celebrity’s latest post.
Salim leaves his own comment, ‘Nice shirt and boat!’
The two spend their evening checking, commenting, following, unfollowing, scanning through headlines of posts and liking and unliking posts and so on. Before they know it, it is 1 a.m, and both crash on their sofas with the TV on, but not before plugging in their smart phones to be recharged.
Samara wakes up and immediately reaches out for her phone, even before her eyes have a chance to adjust and focus. She notices hundreds of notifications on all of her social media accounts.
Heart rate racing, and feeling giddy with excitement, she checks.
Salim wakes up and before he even opens his eyes, his smart phone is in his hand. He opens his eyes to see the hundreds of notifications linked to all his social media accounts. Rubbing his eyes and feeling ecstatic, he checks.
‘Wow you are so jealous!’
‘Have you had a good look at yourself in the mirror?’
‘Sad that some women can’t be happy for other women’s success…’
Comments like this were all over the place in reaction to Samara’s comments, which, to her shock, were changed.
In place of ‘Wow! Looking beautiful as always’ were the words, ‘God! Her breasts and lips are so obviously fake…’
Each of her written comments were replaced by her inner most thoughts and reactions to that post.
‘God, not another baby photo!’, ‘I can see you had put on a few pounds’ and ‘Oh please, I said that before you, you copy cat!’ were in place of: ‘Awww what a cutie!’, ‘Looking great and fit!’ and ‘Wow, so wise!’
‘Oh my god! This can’t be happening!’ Samara yells at the smart phone.
‘Botox not working as well as before, eh?’ was in place of ‘looking fresh and beautiful!’. ‘He deserves a better and classier wife’ came instead of ‘Congratulations to the newly engaged couple! Many blessings.’
Samara’s ugliest and uncensored comments were out there for the entire social media world to see.
Desperately she types in, ‘I was hacked, I didn’t write any of it…’
But as she presses enter, the comment changes to, ‘It is all true, this is what I truly feel and think.’
Horrified, she tries to delete the latest post, but can’t. The delete button is frozen. Some of her rudest posts were posted on her closest friend’s account, almost choking her up.
She tries to delete her accounts, but no luck there either. The screen just freezes. She frantically types out in WhatsApp groups, ‘Guys! I have been hacked, don’t believe anything you read from my accounts.’
Again, as she presses send, the sentence transforms to, ‘Guys what I really think and feel is finally out there, enjoy meeting the real me!’
Salim freezes as he reads the comments to his posts, which have also been rewritten to reflect his truer thoughts and reactions.
Instead of ‘Nice shirt and boat!’ were his envious sounding ‘If I had millions, I would also be loved by all these beautiful women.’
‘What a douche bag!’ was in place of ‘Wow dude! way to go!’ and ‘Hope you lose!’ in place of ‘Good luck man!’ and so on.
His best friend sent him text messages to his WhatsApp, ‘What is wrong with you? How can you leave such negative comments all over the place?’
Salim replies to his friend, ‘I have been hacked! I didn’t write any of these!’ But the same as with Samara, the writing changes as he presses send, ‘These are my real feelings and thoughts, I am finally truly honest in my responses.’
The horror as he sees this and his friend’s immediate reply, ‘never knew what a real jerk you are.’ And offline he went.
Salim tries to delete all his accounts, and even tries to delete WhatsApp as messages from angry friends flood in, but remains as unsuccessful as Samara.
He does the only thing he can think of, he turns off his phone and his laptop. He sits there in the silence of his place, with only the rattling sound of the old fridge in the corner for company.
Samara does the same with both her smart phone and laptop, with no sound at all in her apartment except the loud thuds of her heartbeat.
‘I must be in a nightmare. Wake up! Wake up!’ she shouts as she slaps her face, pinches and bites her arm. No change. She is still there on the sofa, with the only links to the virtual world off.
Unused to being so ‘disconnected’, Samara feels anxious, and for the first time in a long time, she looks out her window. She sees pigeons cooing away on the ledge of her window. Looking down at the courtyard downstairs, she sees a stray cat strolling away while two young children shriek in excitement following this nonchalant kitty with all the might of their short legs.
‘Cat! Cat!’ they yell, and their mothers, who are sitting on a bench, glance over before continuing their conversation.
A delivery man parks his motorbike at the bottom of the building. He glances at two attractively dressed women who are leaving the building as he enters it. There is a whole world out there, and with no electronic distractions. Samara feels she needs a walk outside to clear her mind, or rather keep herself busy, as she is not used to silence.
Salim feels the same kind of anxiety, struggling with withdrawal from that instant gratification of getting a reply to a text or getting a notification. He can’t decide what to do, and is grateful he has never actually invited any of his friends over as, who knows, they may show up at his door demanding an explanation and an apology.
He decides to go out for a walk, and a solution may appear itself somehow, he thinks.
He heads to the elevator, and presses the down button. He doesn’t have to wait long. The elevator is already on its way down, with Samara in it.
As he steps in, he checks his phone on reflex, as he always does whenever he enters the elevator. But alas, with no phone in hand, he is forced to actually look inside the elevator, around him.
He notices Samara, who is looking at him looking at her, and both quickly pull away their gaze.
They both look disheveled, and both wish they could just tell the other what they have gone through. But instead, smile awkwardly as the doors slide open, and Samara goes out first, followed by Salim.
She heads for one of the benches, and he for the other. Both are sitting across from each other, each lost in their thoughts.
That same overly confident stray cat wanders over first to Salim, and tries to rub against his leg, but he moves his leg away. Insulted by this, the cat leaves Salim and strolls over to Samara, who, appreciative of any company at this point, extends her hand to the kitty. Purring away, the cat feels victorious.
‘You made a new friend!’ quips Salim to Samara all the way from his bench.
Samara, who would usually ignore any comments from a stranger, smiles as she replies, ‘Well you were unfriendly, so it came over here.’
Hesitant at first, Salim, who had gotten used to talking, or rather typing to, women he meets via apps and online forums, feels rusty in real life.
‘Er, well, I will try again and make amends,’ he says, walking over. He bends down to pet the cat, that by now is in petting heaven.
And here we leave Samara and Salim, who may fall in love after the small talk, or they may not, and just become friends, or not even that. What matters is that what happened today was real. It was a real interaction between two young people, who for the longest time lived inside a rechargeable box.
When they both next check their emails, they will find a follow up from that suspicious email:
‘How did you like fame?’
In the body of the email will be written: ‘Well, infamy is the fastest way to fame. And remember: The world’s strongest prisons are those made of thoughts.’
Let me relate an old, short tale to you: There was once a pen, which was cursed with the curse of honesty. Every time someone held this pen, it betrayed what was hidden, and wrote down what the pen holder truly thought and felt. A man would intend to write to his lover a line from the heart, and would find, instead of amorous words, this scribbled down by his own handwriting, ‘I am bored of you.’
This cursed pen was dumped by every user, each terrified of its powers to reveal what is hidden. It would be found on someone’s table, on the floor and even on the counters of official buildings before it would get thrown again.
Then, one day, no one bothered to pick up this special pen that had the power to cut into the very soul of its user. Pens became obsolete.
But fear not, it has found a way to come back.
Those gifted with this temporary curse, where their true feelings and thoughts are exposed, need not worry. In today’s world of ‘instantness’ and short lived attention spans, the cursed users and their transgressions will soon be forgotten by the majority (with some perhaps not as forgiving), with the virtual world and its followers moving onto the next ‘viral’, big thing.
Tomorrow all will be well, and users will believe they were hacked, and will change their passwords and go back to what they did best: follow.
Only you will know what lessons you learned about yourself through your honest thoughts posted up.
All the best,
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist and author based in the UAE.