Tamil Twitter Spaces provide engaging and entertaining conversations for people amidst lockdown

Having confined people to their homes, the pandemic has only propelled people to explore newer ways to connect with the outside world.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Amit Bandre)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Amit Bandre)

CHENNAI:  Uravugal thodarkathai, unarvugal sirukathai… The living room of 29-year-old Arulmozhi echoes this Ilaiyaraaja classic from Aval Appadithan (1978). Quite unusual for a weeknight. His father, Chengalvarayan, mother Banumathi and sister Devi join in, singing and completing the verses of the beguiling melody. “I don’t remember the last time we all got together like this. But for almost a month now, at least twice a week, our house has been like this filled with music,” enthuses Arul, a Broadway resident.

Far from Broadway, in Kodambakkam, Faizal Basha sits with his 25-year-old brother Amjed*, who recently came out of the closet, listening to the lived experiences of people from the LGBTQIA+ community. The Viscom student shares, “I wanted to learn more and be a better ally. It’s important to me that my brother feels safe and heard.”

Miles away, in Tirunelveli’s Ambasamudram, Suparna, a UPSC aspirant diligently takes down notes as she listens to Lok Sabha MP Thol Thirumavalavan eloquently dish out the history of Dravidian politics. “It is not often that you get to hear leaders like him talk about the movements’ history in such detail. These are conversations that otherwise don’t happen during political meetings,” she notes.

Geographical boundaries, diverse interests and varying ideologies may have kept Arul, Faizal and Suparna apart for so long. But, with its latest feature Spaces — a voice-only chat room, Twitter has strung thousands of users from #TamilTwitter together by enabling them to engage, revel and discuss anything and everything under the tropical sun.

A cradle for conversations

Having confined people to their homes, the pandemic has only propelled them to explore newer ways to connect with the outside world. This open-mindedness has amplified the new audio feature’s reach, it seems.

From music to memes, cinema to caste, mental health to menstrual hygiene, food to feminism, and politics to pop-culture, over the last month, the Tamil Twitter’s Spaces has become the cradle for ephemeral voice conversations. Is it healthy, cathartic and constructive or laced with toxicity, animosity and spiteful hate an unfortunate and inescapable tone synonymous with all social media platforms is a matter of case-to-case judgment, say Tweeples of the Tamizh land, who have been using the platform.

Shahin, a Literature student, who’s been a Spaces host and an active listener, calls the platform a double-edged sword. “Initially, a group of people used to host an intimate Spaces and listeners would join in to hear them discuss arbitrary topics. But eventually, people realised its potential and this transformed it into a place of discussion for important and sensitive topics right from Dalit feminism to caste politics,” he explains, mapping the feature’s evolution from a trivial space for banter, a promising platform for wholesome stories, a podium to express views and an echo chamber to vent trepidations of the lockdown.

For Ashameera Aiyappan, an independent film journalist, Spaces provided a respite, albeit temporarily, from the reality of the pandemic. “When the feature was rolled out, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But when I saw Spaces being hosted, I decided to join one and it turned out to be wholesome. I was happy listening to new voices and being a part of it. Spaces made sense to me during a time like this. It made the mood lighter,” she shares. Drawing inspiration from the Spaces that offered joyful conversations, soon Ashameera decided to host a few. “I thought I could add value here by hosting wholesome Spaces and that’s what I did – I stuck to topics that are fun and light, something that would help people unwind after a long day,” she offers.

Stand-up comic Karthi Durai (KD) of Comicstaan fame too seems to be zealous about the concept of creating ‘wholesome’ Spaces — the ones that are devoid of hurt or hate and full of hope. “One of the first Spaces I curated was on stories of gratefulness. The anecdotes that were shared on the platform were inspiring, healing and hopeful. I feel this is the need of the hour,” he notes.

The brighter side

One of the most appealing features of Spaces has been the accessibility it provides users to learn and interact with the participating celebrities, personalities and leaders. Being regular listeners of these Space sessions, we couldn’t agree more! It’s not often that we get to hear music composer Santhosh Narayanan engage with his fans and casually use an otherwise colloquial phrase, Uttaan paaru udansu; musicians Pradeep Kumar and Sean Roldan sing renditions of their songs along with their fans; an inimitable playback singer and #Metoo movement crusader like Chinmayi Sripada take song requests and patiently share personal anecdotes till the wee hours; leaders like Arulmozhi throw light on women in the Dravidian movement; or an international cricketer like Ravichandran Ashwin nonchalantly discuss his most memorabl e cinemat i c experience.

Scope for improvement

But besides these bouquets of joy, Spaces seems to have received its share of brickbats too. “Like every good thing, this too has its drawbacks. As much as I enjoy talking to fans, answering their questions; I’ve also had to pick my words wisely every time I speak. This constantly makes me edgy. But since it’s an audio-only feature, I have been able to mask my inhibitions well. I have seen chaos break in Spaces after the host or a speaker says something politically incorrect. I don’t think people can mask their flaws well. But isn’t that what makes us human? Don’t we all deserve a chance to unlearn, learn and become better? In the process of calling people out, the avenues for learning and the space for introspection are being clobbered,” says a creative from the entertainment industry, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Concurring, Swarna V, a special educator, says, “Some Spaces that host debatable topics are certainly not for the fainthearted. We’ve had ugly instances in the past where the speaker or host had to deactivate the account following the repercussions of their discussion. Even the smallest of things can get blown out of proportion.” Concerns of first-timers not getting a fair chance to speak has become another topic of discussion.

However, the proceedings in Spaces are not metronomic and don’t follow a pattern, counter Twitter users who’ve been leading some sessions. “The hosts usually get requests from listeners and it’s up to them to bump them up as speakers. Since the feature is still fairly new, it is laced with several glitches, there are times when the host cannot see all the requests on their list; the Space often crashes too and we have to create a new one. We are all learning every day. Twitter itself is taking cues from such incidents and trying to better its product. What can we, mere consumers do?” asks a host, on condition of anonymity.

A promising platform

Mulari Nannan*, a 35-year-old who identifies as a queer person, has been treading a tightrope while exploring the Twitterverse. While some Spaces have turned out to be a haven for those from the community, some have been nightmarish, he informs. “I’ve not come out yet. On the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, I attended a Space where people from the LGBTQIA community came forward and shared their stories. It was a cathartic experience. It made me feel validated and empowered. After the session, many reached out to me offering emotional support, but there were also instances where homophobic slurs were thrown at people from the community. Such situations can be triggering and add to the existing trauma, and have to be dealt with carefully,” says Nannan.

But peeling the layers of hostility, Nannan observes that at its core, the platform has the potential to be gratifyingly insightful. “There was a Space by a young female lawyer on ‘Sexual Harassment in Higher Educational Institutions in India’. The session presented the legalities about the issue and the judgements so far. This opened my eyes to the existing rights, UGC regulations and so on. It’s never late to learn and Spaces has been enriching in that sense,” he shares.

Setting boundaries

With news-serving platforms multiplying, the intake of information too has increased exponentially. Though people all over the world flocked online to access these sources, a 2020 report projected that India saw the highest intake of news among major countries, amid the pandemic. Sharanya Moorthy, a psychologist, emphasises the mindful consumption of information as it can get overwhelming. “Despite being a mental health professional, I found the ripple effects of some Spaces to be emotionally disturbing. It’s good to take a break from Twitter if it’s overwhelming or if you feel it’s encroaching your personal space,” she suggests, pointing to the fear of missing out and peer pressure to attend such Spaces, becoming an increasing concern. “Since a lot of Spaces happen at night, many have reported that their sleep cycles have gone for a toss. After the pandemic, more teenagers have become active on the platform too. These are their prime years and if they get exposed to a lot of negativity, then that can prove to be dangerous,” she cautions.

Resonating with Sharanya’s views, journalist Sonia Arunkumar, an active voice in the Spaces community, adds that it’s become a tool of disruption. “Disruption can be both good and bad. In some cases, the bridge between people and their idols have shrunk, ideologies are being exchanged, some Spaces are giving people new opportunities, talents are being discovered, victims of abuse and assault are coming out with their stories. Through this, judicial intervention and government intervention could even happen. Everything has a flip side, especially social media. Adhoda vara sabam adhu (It’s a curse that comes with it). But we have the choice to plug in and out. I see the bigger picture, where people now have the space and chance to show dissent for issues that matter, engage with each other and exercise their right to speech and expression,” she says.

As our vulnerabilities become deeper and more fragile in a world that’s increasingly polarised on its take on everything significant and mundane, will Spaces be nurtured into a safe and palatable platform to build an engaging and meaningful universe? We’ll wait this one out.

*Names changed

What is Twitter Spaces?
Twitter Spaces is an audio drop-in feature available to both iOS and Android users. Similar to Clubhouse, a voice chat room-based social media app, Spaces too enables live audio conversations.

How to identify an ongoing Space?
With Spaces, when someone you follow starts or speaks in Space, it’ll appear at the top of your timeline as a purple bubble for as long as it’s live. When you join a Space as a listener, you can react to what you hear with emojis, tweet or directly message the host, or request to speak.

How does it work?
Twitter Spaces has three main participants the host, speakers and listeners. The host (Twitter users with
600 plus followers can host a Space), can create a Space and provide an avenue for their followers to share their views on the topic of discussion, one at a time or engage in a group discussion.

From its origins as a trivial space for banter to its explosion as a podium for socio-political discussions, users of Twitter’s Spaces feature are divided about its prospects does it nourish or crush conversations and controversies?

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The New Indian Express