A short history of Pakistani Twitter trends

Published: June 10, 2013
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Pakistani Twitter trends, at least in my opinion, are a fascinating experiment in the creation of culture.

There are many reasons to like Twitter. Most of them have to do with the fact that your extended gharana is not on it, no one asks you to play Zyla Slingo or Farmville, most people you admired for their intellect are revealed as being quite boring, and then of course, there are Twitter trends.

In fact, trending topics are a concept that is unique to Twitter. Witnessing one develop can be an exhilarating experience, as you watch it emerge organically and suddenly begin to snowball to gargantuan proportions. Factor in the usual outrage and the trolls, and it’s like watching a text version of an exploding supernova.

Pakistani Twitter trends, at least in my opinion, are a fascinating experiment in the creation of culture. As you may already be aware, there is very little in Pakistan that is organic to the whole nation. Most of the country doesn’t speak Urdu as their mother tongue, not everyone likes cricket, and while almost everyone is Muslim, they spend a lot of time declaring just about everyone else as not being one.

Yet at the same time, the vast size of Pakistan’s population means that even tiny drops are significant. For example, the number of Pakistanis using Facebook is insignificant relative to the total population, yet it is also about the size of Switzerland’s population. Similarly, you could empty out Chicago, fill it up with Pakistani Twitter users, and while things would be bizarre, population-wise they would be roughly equal.

Of course, these analogies are not statistically rigorous, but you can see how vast the proportionally ‘tiny’ population of Pakistani internet is. And so, when Twitter trends (particularly the creative ones) get going, they end up producing nuggets of contemporary culture that can have a profound influence.

Before Pakistan had its own Twitter trending page, a common technique used by local tweeters was to modify existing global or regional trends, usually by adding “Desi” to the hashtag – a practice that still exists. And then there are evergreen trends, chief of whom is the #OnlyInPakistan type trends, which are often rebranded and relaunched as #GreatPakistanisms and such.

Perhaps the most iconic trend in Pakistani history is #FAT, AKA Fashionistas Against Talibanisation. The trend has its own Twitter account, Facebook page, and most reverentially, a full feature in the New York Times. The NYT appearance was a bit ironic, since foreign newspapers doing ‘soft’ stories on Pakistani culture has been the birthplace of many trends, and indeed, #FAT itself.

In fact, foreign newspapers have been responsible for many hilarious trends, often because they end up projecting Pakistan in such an absurd, reductive manner that the jokes just write themselves. A recent example of this was an article which presented the now standard cliché of,

“Hey, Pakistan is a crazy, Islamo-fascist nuclear state, but check it out, some of them do stuff that goes against our lazy stereotypes!”

The headline was a ridiculous: “In Conservative Pakistan, Everybody Must Get Stoned”.

Cue the #InConservativePakistan trend.

It began with people lampooning the western view of Pakistan, and as most of these do, morphed into just making seemingly cynical observations on our society. Of course, since this is the internet, outrage is never far behind. Many people unaware of the context of the trend started a counter-trend, #InLiberalPakistan, responding to what they thought was liberals ridiculing non-elites in Pakistan.

In this case, it was easy to at least quell the confusion. But there have been other ones where it becomes harder to do so. Two classics that come to mind are #NewNamesForPakistan and #PakistaniPremierLeague.

If I remember correctly, # NewNamesForPakistan was inspired by another foreign piece, but it quickly began to provoke a lot of consternation amongst those who felt it was deliberately insulting the country. The second, #PakistanPremierLeague was less ambitious when it kicked off, but soon morphed into commentary as well.

 

As the last tweet above pointed out, such trends are a great way of venting political frustrations – and for politics geeks – impressing upon the depth of their political knowledge.  Both are also fascinating in how innocuous sounding topics can become the medium for sophisticated, shocking, or simply hilarious commentary.

That said, with Twitter’s demographics increasingly changing and becoming younger, the overtly political nature of trends continues to diminish. The trend that inspired this post – #QaimAliShahIsSoOld – was a response to the octogenarian being elected as CM Sindh. And in the aftermath, many people were upset at the fact that a public figure was being ridiculed simply for being old.

Yet, in my opinion, it wasn’t that. Almost none of the tweets attacked or even addressed Qaim sahib’s personal details or his politics. Many of those tweeting were vaguely aware of who he even was. Moreover, the jokes also weren’t about old people.

So what were they about?

As you can see, the best ones manage to take in the concept of a person being old and meld it with local contexts. And the reason we do this is because of the fact that our generation, and our society, has had many fake sources of unity pumped through propaganda, while the real legends, styles, tales and jokes that define our multiple identities are forgotten.

This concept, coined by Safieh Shah, can be termed ironic love. It’s a concept explained in detail here, but to put it simply, there is no overt satire in case of ironic love since the subject of the trend is not being critiqued or even evaluated. It is rather the ability to express joy in a manner which is apparently cynical – a celebration of our own caustic sense of humour.

Perhaps I lost you with that.

Tell you what, forget it ever happened and spend some time instead finding out which topic was trending top in Pakistan when Nawaz Sharif was taking his oath. I’m sure you’ll laugh and be outraged in equal measures.

Follow Ahmer on Twitter @karachikhatmal

Ahmer Naqvi

Ahmer Naqvi

Ahmer is the Brian Lara of his generation - he's a genius but his team usually loses. He tweets as @karachikhatmal (twitter.com/karachikhatmal)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.