The relentless energy of amateur online sleuths

Pray for a life without plot, a day without narrative,” wrote the poet Derek Walcott. The week like this last one would make that advice appealing even to the non-religious and adventurous. From the data trove about the apparently colourless, odourless, nameless (and now banned) electoral bonds have come tumbling so many plots and sub-plots, each so chockful of characters, I commend not just the dogged work of journalists and activists who pierced the shroud of secrecy, I commend the plotters too. As I have occasionally asked before in the context of habitual sexual harassers, what is the secret of their energy?

The electoral bond drama in India overlapped online with the “where is Kate Middleton?” drama. The British princess has since been located and is, we are told, undergoing preventive chemotherapy for cancer discovered earlier this year. Before the video of her sitting on a park bench talking about her diagnosis arrived, for weeks the speculation ran rife that she was dead, betrayed, committed against her will in a psychiatric institution or that she had run away from a cheating husband. Back in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, Mr Bennett And Mrs Brown, that the desire to read the characters and fill out the private lives of strangers from minimal clues is an art that young people acquire as a life skill. Older people do it only when they need it and don’t get any real enjoyment or adventure from it, she said. I wonder what Woolf would have made of watching hordes of people around the world combine the skills of a couple of online generations to imagine the inner workings of a very public marriage.

The first set of skills are those that people have acquired from being true crime aficionados. Amateur online sleuthing has reached such critical mass that there are currently two different American parodies on air that make fun of the true crime obsession. How much critical mass? For instance, the hilariously named online forum, the Reddit Bureau of Investigations, is focused on finding missing people. It has over 700,000 members. In 2021, Naveen Cherian, “one of six voluntary RBI moderators”, told The Guardian that they “look through newspaper articles, use the internet Wayback Machine (an archive of the web), archaeological tools, genealogical websites, image enhancement and colour-correction tools” to solve crimes. And this is the kind of energy that was brought to the missing Middleton when she was an absent presence and when Kensington Palace seemed to be sending out electronic lollipops, aka photoshopped photos, videos with royal lookalikes and so on. Sleuths “found” bruises on Prince William’s neck on the day he was absent from a funeral. AI was used to analyse the photos. The photos were attributed to AI. The RBIs like the zoom tool like Sherlock Holmes liked the tobacco in his Persian slipper. Chinese sleuths found in photographs of Prince William’s purported mistress’s home what they claimed were Qing dynasty artefacts looted from China. Decolonising the original true crime.

The second skill Virginia Woolf would have been interested in is the tendency to analyse public relationships as pieces of pop culture. And if you wanted a demonstration of these two skills combined, you had to see a response to the announcement of the split between influencers Sufi Malik and Anjali Chakra. Twenty-something, queer Americans whose families come from the subcontinent, Malik and Chakra made an exceptionally attractive pair whose coupledom has been followed avidly around the world for its warm and cheerful vibes. When they announced last week in colour-coordinated posts on Instagram that Malik had cheated on Chakra and their wedding was off, it created an online earthquake. Malik was castigated, Chakra was mostly sympathised with. The couple of detached observers who pointed out that it seemed a bit excessive to throw your partner to the online wolves while saying you wish no negativity to be shown towards her were immediately pilloried. Speculation ran rife about the identity of the third party and whether Malik’s actions finally vindicated the shaming of bisexuals as cheaters.

At this point, I just want to say that I don’t know about Woolf but older people who were following the story are likely to have just felt relieved that they are not on the influencer treadmill where life and monetisation are seamlessly joined. (Very little sleuthing is required to find the couple’s long list of links inviting donations—for everything from holidays to IVF.) Kate Middleton is likely to know exactly how these two young people feel—the realisation that the public expects higher and higher production values. Even as people sympathised with her cancer diagnosis, there were thousands of remarks online asking why her husband left her to make this announcement online and thousands of others saying her brother-in-law Harry would have been there holding his wife’s hand in a similar situation. The California spin-off understands how to do it.

Wedding photographer Vinay Aravind wrote recently in the Outlook magazine about being part of a cohort of photographers who brought the candid to the wedding album (where there was once only the family lineup variety or your miniaturised mother in your father’s palm special effects variety). The “quieter documentary style”, he says, lasted a brief while before being overtaken by the big, spectacular and expensively lit genre. “Wedding photographs are no longer spontaneous or intimate,” he says but they are “very carefully staged to evoke spontaneity and intimacy”. Even so, we have had over a decade of viewing and producing relationships with plots and sub-plots online. Colour-coordinating your splitgram violates the aesthetic that viewers expect—an authentic that somehow treads the line between “ick” and “plastic”. And they expect this from both love and crime.

Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.

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