At some point in your adult life, birthdays become less about cakes and gifts, and instead at that time of year when you feel existential fear of getting older. But it is not my own birthdays that provoke thoughts about the complexities of aging, but those that remind me of life itself.
My father was born on May 12. Today I would have turned 56, if I had not died in 1996. When I was in college, my family and I visited our homeland in Bangkok during the summer holidays in May, and our tradition was to always visit the temple where my father resided. To let him know that we would come home. We would leave a phuang malai (garland of flowers) next to his burial site and try to find the monk who officiated his funeral so we could say hello. When I was little, we used to go to this temple every weekend. My brother and I climbed around the lampposts, danced in the courtyard and I was always fascinated by a rotating public telephone in the corridor; an object that is rapidly becoming obsolete, but still used by both monks and visitors. It was difficult for everyone who worked there not to remember us. Bangkok is my home, but that temple is where my heart is.
So when my brother and my mother returned to Thailand this year without me for the first time in three years, all I could do was travel with them from afar as my brother Instagrammed his way through the trip. But this year, he did something he had not done in the past. He called all the places he visited, leaving bread crumbs that would take me to the temple location page on Instagram and fill a void I did not know existed.
Between 2014 and 2018, Instagram's user base in Thailand has grown from 1.4 million users to an amazing 12.4 million. This meant that more local users were uploading photos on the social network and, subsequently, labeling all the places they went to. Before my brother's Instagram, I had never thought about searching and exploring the temple there. (Writing in Thai is difficult when you do not use it every day). Today, the location page is full of images of visitors that run through every corner of the temple, an image or a story at the same time. Seeing the stories of these strangers, I began to relive my own visits: there was the set of bells that greets you from the left of the entrance; the golden altar that houses a Buddha statue before the main building; and the trunk of the tree behind that sanctuary, which doubled as an oasis in the middle of the city that housed the remains of those who have gone to the afterlife. And there was my dad, in his same place as always. As locals and tourists pass through the temple, which is located near the popular Khao San Road bar, its Instagram location tag will always be populated by strangers who have unknowingly helped me visit it with every innocent click of the button part.
Sometimes I am faced with the idea that, despite all the negative consequences of social networks, there is a selfish part of me that can not imagine that everything will go away. I think that's why it's hard for me to leave Facebook or Instagram. These services started as something that felt personal and intimate, and that is how I still prefer to use them today. However, as these technology companies grow, they need to sustain themselves, which leads to dark manipulative patterns designed to make them addicted to technology, or the data privacy debacles we have today. As social creatures, humans have an inherent need to share; They are the data that is shared and used for corporate profits that make us feel uncomfortable. Even so, despite the superficiality of the social networks' mission to "connect" people, we can not deny that, in essence, applications such as Facebook and Instagram have intensified the way we are and discover ourselves.
The reality is there is no objectively good internet company. While everything costs something, we will always find ourselves paying for them, either by monetary means or otherwise.
My father was an entrepreneur before he died. I often wonder what I would have thought of Instagram if I were alive today. He loved taking pictures when we grew up. Would he be the kind of modern dad that gets on social media? Would you have asked me constantly how the applications worked and if everything they said on the news was true? Would you have sympathized with the commercial aspect of the technology? My father died before we had a computer in our house. He left this earth before having ever interacted with the Internet.
Before he died, he called me on my seventh birthday from his hospital room. He promised that we would have a late party, and no matter what happened, he would always be with me. He died six days later, not knowing that one day, the Internet would allow me to be the one who constantly monitored him.