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Language Loaned: Strategies of indirect online communication

If you haven’t seen this video, you really should take a couple of minutes and see it. It will reframe you, just the way it reframed me when I saw it for the first time 9 years ago while I was trying to convince my 11-month-old baby girl that it was time for her to stand and run.

I’ve been a fan of Girl Effect and the work they do for almost a decade. Girl Effect focuses on using media and mobile tech to empower girls to change their lives. So, when my co-founder, Angad, was approached by them last year to help them understand girls’ online behavior in lower middle-income families in urban North India, we started planning and thinking about the project even before we formally signed a contract!

We studied more than 5000 girls across 9 states, and here’s what we found:

Borrowed Media: The indirect language of attention

These girls change their whatsapp status two to three times a day in hopes that the status would be noticed by their intended subjects. These statuses are their way of indirectly eliciting conversations, attracting attention or expressing strong feelings.

They use status downloader websites and apps to communicating their emotions — anger at boyfriends, feeling down, hinting at their crushes …

Rather than using their own words, they choose to use borrowed quotes and memes as conduits to express their thoughts. For example, in order to display expressions of love and yearning, quotes from urdu poetry (sher-o-shayari) are selected.

Translation: What sadness has your hatred given, your separation is like a poison that you have made me drink

Translation: Come into my arms again

This happiness may not last the entire night

Maybe in this lifetime

We may or may not meet again


Most girls are subject to some degree of phone activity scrutiny by male family members or by their boyfriends, or do not own the phones they are using. In order to maintain some semblance of privacy for themselves, they engage in strategies of erasure, locking and secrecy.

These girls delete apps, social media accounts and erase their search history on Google and Youtube. They also prefer using apps with a lock function, such as using modified apps like GB Whatsapp instead of Whatsapp. Hike, another messaging app with a lock function, is also a popular choice. For storing of photos, apps such as KeepSafe and Hide are used because of their private gallery feature.

When browsing on Google, the incognito browser is used for private searches, or search history is deleted in order to hide from others the information they were seeking out.

Search engines are used mostly for learning about the self.

Every minute in India, there’s one google search about period sex, and slightly over one per second on boyfriends wanting sex.

Given the taboo surrounding female body talk, it’s no surprise that these girls turn to YouTube and Google to acquire information. These search engines are viewed as non-judgemental sources of knowledge and primary sources of truth for these girls.

Alarmingly, we found that these girls do not distinguish between fake news sites, advertisements, and legitimate content — the first search query tends to be clicked on the most, which are often posts from local doctors or content producers.

In the global conversation around fake news, it is useful to consider that sometimes “fake” is not malicious. Sometimes it is uninformed. In the context of sexual and reproductive health, especially among lower-income girls, the consequences of this can be significant. We will explore this particular area even more over the next few months.

Drop anurag@quilt.ai an email to find out what more we can do.

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