Social media rose to help a rain-battered Chennai. But it was also used for tasteless self-promotion, writes AKILA KANNADASAN

The floods gave rise to three kinds of people: those that immediately jumped into the field for relief work; those that used social media to help the affected; and those that took part in relief work just so they could look good on social media. The third kind worked tirelessly over the last one week to document every act of kindness they did, and put it up on Facebook for the world to see and ‘like’.

Facebook was abuzz on December 2 — despite the gloom cast by destruction all around, it was heart-warming to see people use social media to reach out. It was employed to reassure, warn, motivate, guide, brainstorm, organise… ‘My faith in social media has been restored’, wrote a friend on her Facebook wall. A lukewarm user of Facebook, I too watched with interest.

It was overwhelming — humanity suddenly seemed flawless. How selfless people were! Putting themselves out there for those in need; spending endless time, money and energy… wait a minute. Why were they telling me all this? Suddenly, it all fell apart; at least for me. “I assisted a team that collected food and blankets to be transported to Chennai,” recalls a volunteer from a nearby city. “We packed relief material in cartons all night. It felt good to be of help to someone. But the next day, the place was in chaos. People stood around the cartons taking group photos to be put up on Facebook… some were even taking videos. I turned on my heel and left right then.”

One can argue that this is all to keep track of what’s being done and how much is sent. How else will those who donated know if what they gave away has reached the right hands? But selfies? It’s fascinating how some minds work. What happened to the good-old saying, ‘What one hand gives, the other shouldn’t know’? Branding happened cheekily alongside rescue work. Company T-shirts, NGO banners, political party symbols and hashtags were brandished in our faces from flood-affected sites and social networking platforms. It’s no secret that those in power hijacked relief material that was painstakingly collected, sometimes from people living hundreds of kilometres away.

The feeling of ‘I did this’ unfortunately reached many heads. Kindness, it seemed, was best when shown in front of a large audience. But what about those who trudged through knee-deep water to pull out an abandoned dog, and chose not to talk about it even to their closest friends? What about fisherfolk Maari, Kalyani, and Murugan, who silently turned down help because they felt that there were many who needed it more than them?

In interior flood-hit Cuddalore, medical college students from Thanjavur are working without a wink of sleep as you read this. One of them, a volunteer says, has taken it upon herself to sit her patients down and talk to them. “I don’t even know her name… she cleaned wounds on an old lady’s feet, telling her that everything will be alright,” he says. “There are so many youngsters here doing good work; who are working like one entity, their individual identities suspended, just for the time-being. They’re not making a big deal out of this. Since when did giving a hand to a fellow human being become a commendable act? It’s in our nature to be kind.”

The situation has made heroes out of many. But the most important thing to bear in mind is that the real heroes are mostly always invisible.