Sociologically speaking laughter or humour is a social relationship where there is a connection between the self and the other. However the modern pranking as a form of new humour is more or less a forced connection between the prankster and the victim or target that makes it a power relation (barring the scripted ones). Sociologist Jonathan Wynne defines pranks as a deviant act aimed at breaking the norms for a short period of time. Pranks are the perilous and lowest form of comedy and mostly the ones that are vulgar in content are taken as a new cool and as a new swag by the younger lot which makes it a thriving business. We are living in times when digital identity has become the public identity and the content production for humour or fun is now a motivated business where joking relationships have been redefined from known to unknown and no consideration for any moral boundaries or sense of originality for that matter is considered because to pranksters it is pure business and a window to overnight celebrity fame. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine calls pranks a playful terrorism and believes that pranking has shaped insecurity and intimidation in the public space today.
Anybody can harass anyone now in the name of a prank and get away with it by saying 'it is just a prank bro', chill! Such a liberty causes anxiety and problematic behaviours within the community and even shapes the normalisation of bullying, crime, abuse, harassment, vulgarity, obscenity even molestation with impunity, etc. There are scores of incidents in India and the world when a prank went wrong and caused harm even death. It reflects apathy; epicaricacy or what is best described as schadenfreude-the German term that means taking pleasure or enjoying suffering or misfortune of others what prankster love today.
Indian pranking is not progressive at all; it is regressive in nature, language and content. Though global or more precisely western influence is substantially there in Indian pranking, however, Indian perspective of pranks is somewhat unique given its articulation of copying foreign jokes and humour but presenting it with an indigenous touch by putting it in the local context with added flavour of regional humour and local/regional slang. Such a pranking is nothing more than the dark humour produced out of a forced participatory culture. It becomes a typical mixture of laughter, violence and assertion of power where practical jokers dehumanize others.
Pranking as online or on air practical joking has virtually ended the polite forms of humour, fun, comedy and entertainment to a considerable extent. It has ceased to be the critic of brute power, irony, satire, parody or sarcasm of the evils of society and only remained a new crazy and innately vulgar form of fun at the cost of peoples' dignity, privacy and sense of honour.
On air prank culture as a crude localised humour is flourishing very fast (thanks to FM channels and the RJ era) and has become a youth obsession given an army of youth aspiring to be social media celebrities and media influencers thus creating anything as content to come to limelight and earn money without needing much as investment. Pranksters are only after views/shares/likes and Pranks manipulate if not views but surely the collective mindset of the masses to get views. Pranksters compete amongst themselves for these views and after carefully observing a number of such pranks; it became clear that every prankster tries his/her best to get more and more views in their subsequent pranks.
The social currency in the present times is treated higher than the actual currency. Pranking as career generally reflects that technology and digitalization of life is much faster than the society itself. For traditional movie stars it was a hit movie that gave them fame but now it can be a small viral video that can make someone into a social media star or a micro influencer with huge following and fan base (The recent Pakistani Pawri girl). Such a nuisance motivates youth to try everything that fetches them fame.
Pranks are turning more distressing, some busting privacy of people, some destroying relations, some scaring people to extreme and some spreading the culture of abuse online. The pranksters play their irresponsible part, earn money, people enjoy but what about the victims of such pranks, they count nowhere. Online Humour is a far cry from the fun offline. Being abusive, rude or flirty and bullying is seen as a new vibe and a new cool especially by the millennials on social media platforms. Apathy is a new swag now and this new normal of earning out of anything and cheap fame overnight is a motivation behind prank culture.
The same happened recently in the valley and the victim was a differently abled but highly professional delivery boy. In the age of posting, sharing and tweeting, practical joking is somewhat close to online/on air trolling and has gone much beyond the normal conduct of social experiments. Mostly pranks go unaccounted for and unregulated with drastic ramifications in our context and therefore such a menace needs to be regulated as we live in times when anybody can be a content maker with easily accessible platforms and plenty of cheap data available to upload whatever the stuff! Therefore a system of stringent checks and balances need to be imposed, to curb such heinous and outrageous pranks and prevent them from permeating such a rapidly proliferating culture that is taken as a new vibe by the youth and is getting normalised and mainstreamed day by day. Indian government has finally brought OTT platforms or digital content under the ambit of Information and Broadcasting Ministry but will it cover the rising offensive prank culture needs to be seen.
On one hand, pranksters produce the content and upload on YouTube and social media platforms/FMs, etc, because as per masses such platforms now hardly care about what they call 'community guidelines' or delete the vulgar content uploaded or take any action against those who flout policies. People on the other hand readily consume this stuff because it is easily accessible through Facebook and other social media and YouTube like platforms, besides being cheap and affordable given the fact that a lot of data is available to people now to be consumed on daily basis. Also what motivates pranksters to create more and more content and upload it because it is not so costly and doesn't require many resources today when there are finest resolution cameras in smart phones only. Prankster can easily afford the equipment needed therefore keep shooting in public parks usually or on roads. Besides, it is also true that people take pleasure in watching stuff rather than reading now Sociologically speaking, this new found prestige, status, fame, money, career and in a sense mass approval has made it worst and there is a shift in motive from having or producing mere fun to looking for a career in this area and more importantly getting observed to be picked up by Bollywood, reality shows, TV shows, etc, for future roles. Thus the very process of making videos and later seeing them go viral is something that has become a new craze and has slowly mainstreamed and normalised this whole phenomenon.
The outrageous digital humour is a political strategy to provoke anger for both momentary and monetary advantages but the erosion of public trust in one's fellow citizens that has lasting consequences. Although when we argue that a system of stringent safeguards needs to be imposed to prevent normalising invective, we unintentionally cross over to the realm of advocacy, rather than a detached scientific objective analysis. Unless we are prepared to outline such a system without much governmental intervention and simultaneously demonstrate how to protect free speech, charting suitable way to check such a proliferating vulgar fun is indeed difficult.
The regressive pranks in India have become a potential hazard but youth continue to watch and like it more and taken ait as a laughing content which unfold yet another social pathology. In a sense it is a new form of cultural jamming as it has somewhat hacked the collective mindset of the viewers (youth) and has shifted their perception of fun, humour and entertainment to a filthy, bullying and sexist content.
In the past, practical joking was usually done with known and close associates and now it has transcended that limit. Such a practice now is hardly limited to close ones or have remained just a form of play fighting but have turned insane, scary and horrifying and outrageous and use of bad language loaded with sexist words in most of the pranks today. The question is can such practical jokes be called as jokes in the first place or are a means of new sadistic pleasure and humiliation? Are such insulting tricks done in the name of fun doing any good to society? The question is, if pranking is not so new what has made it so trending now and why is it proliferating like anything in India.
Dr Adfer Shah is a Delhi based Sociologist working in Jamia Millia Islamia. Author is Associate Editor of Women's Link Journal and Special Correspondent for South Asia and Associate Editor at Eurasia review.