In a tiny pocket of the internet, far away from the dominance of the ed-tech platforms, exists a space that prides itself on learning, but without the presence of teachers. It’s a digital subculture in India where student-to-student communities quietly thrive. In this world of co-studying online, Gen Z and millennial students don’t have to feel terribly alone when they crack the books in their rooms. They can now time and watch other students study in parallel worlds, share notes and show their desk and stationery.
The ‘study web’ might have existed before the Covid pandemic, but many were initiated into the online subculture as lockdown tore down boundaries of school, work and home.
Struggling to stick to a timetable at home, 20-year-old Varsha Rana started looking for online study groups on Discord servers. But with no one to check if she was actually studying during those sessions, she decided to host her own ‘study with me session’ on YouTube in December 2020.
“It helped me become consistent and avoid procrastination. I used to get up every morning and set up my timetable. I set up three-hour sessions using the Pomodoro study technique. It meant studying for 50 minutes and then a break for 10 minutes,” Varsha Rana, who is based in Meerut, said. On some days, her NEET preparation sessions lasted for as long as 12 hours.
Clubbed under the broader theme of productivity content on social media, ‘study with me sessions’ are usually live broadcasts where the channel owner films themselves studying.
The trend was first reported in South Korea – a country notorious for its high-pressure education system – in 2018 and its popularity spiked during the pandemic.
While it helps some feel less alone, others warn about the dark side of unhealthy comparisons and competitions with strangers online.
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Set your desk, get a snack, study
Portmanteau hashtags such as studygram (study+ Instagram), studyblr (study+ Tumblr), studytwt (study+ Twitter), studytok (study + TikTok) transport a user to a parallel universe. It’s a world made up of accounts that post colourful analogue and digital study notes and photos of fancy stationery and imitable workspace setups.
If the million aesthetic images fail to motivate, then students can host or participate in live study sessions on YouTube or join ‘study servers’ on Discord. Largely a platform for creating rooms to chat or call with large groups of people, Discord offers a lot of customisable options and is popular with the gaming community and Gen Z.
One such account on Instagram is ‘Waytophd’, which is replete with grids of soothing pastel, showcasing a desk with a laptop, plants, notebooks and stationery. It was created by Moni Boruah – a PhD student researching cancer biology at AIIMS, Delhi – in November 2020.
Trapped inside her hostel during the second wave of the pandemic last year, Boruah actively started documenting her study journey to “fool” her brain into studying. “I did not want my studygram to be very serious or heavy. I did not want my page to feel like work but a light, fun table set-up, with my laptop and/or some book that I might be reading that day,” she said.
That was the ostensible purpose of the account. The real goal was to get up from her couch, sit at the desk and study and be seated. Once the hard part of setting the table was done, and a snack or drink arranged—mostly as a prop to make the pictures more aesthetic—Boruah said she was “automatically motivated to work”.
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Enter ‘study web’
Moni’s account is one of the million studygram accounts on Instagram, the platform that posts anything from study tips to visual content that motivate others to study. As of early September 2022, the platform had over 16.4 million posts under #studygram alone.
Studygram is part of a cluster of online self-study spaces loosely called the ‘study web’, a phrase first used by former marketing manager Fadeke Adegbuyi in her popular newsletter Cybernaut. Study webs are largely steered by women.
The earliest traces of the online study trend can be found on Tumblr. Back in the early 2010s — before Instagram had grown to become the behemoth visual platform it is now — ‘studyblr’ community, with their immaculate desk and an occasional mug of coffee, ruled this corner of the internet.
Some claim the aesthetics of the early studyblr blogs “stole” more or less from lifestyle blogs and beauty sites. But over time, they became a force of their own, pushing the trend on other social media platforms.
In 2012, Kanika Sharma was preparing for her Class 12 board exams when she first discovered ‘studyblr’ while idly reading motivational tweets on Twitter. A decade later, the 28-year-old, now an economics professor at a government college in Himachal Pradesh and a PhD scholar, is still in love with the platform.
It altered the way she approached studying.
“I realised how it can actually be celebrated. With time, I discovered various YouTube channels that post ‘study with me’ videos. I realised studying is not for boring people,” she told ThePrint.
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From a soul-sucking exercise to joy
Tumblr user Charuta G., who actively posts on her account @gaaandaaalf, discovered the ‘studyblr’ community in 2017. Describing her account as somewhere between being a studyblr and book blog, the 23-year-old said she prefers the anonymity that Tumblr offers. “The absence of AI-generated algorithms on the platform allows me to curate my experience to a far greater length than Instagram does.”
In India, at least, studygram is a reaction to an education system that rests on the pillars of boring textbooks, rote learning and exams. “Education in schools and colleges can feel soul-sucking simply because of how the system works. It’s lovely to discover people who are invested in the learning project,” said Charuta, a history graduate from Delhi University.
After a few of her posts blew up, she started interacting with others on Tumblr. “It felt really heartwarming to be among people who stressed the simple joy of studying. It’s been great to see people in different stages of life (academic or otherwise) just loving learning and carving out a space for that,” she said.
In Meerut, Varsha turned to YouTube study sessions to help realise her dream of studying abroad. She also got an all-India score of 584 in NEET this year, but opted to enrol in a healthcare course at an Italian university on scholarship.
Currently on hiatus, Varsha’s channel has 190 ‘study with me’ sessions with some videos snatching up to 28,000 views. Those who studied with her weren’t just medical candidates but also IIT and UPSC aspirants, GATE takers and students from commerce and humanities backgrounds.
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Is it toxic productivity?
Although happy narratives of ‘study web’ helping people achieve their goals or finding their ‘own tribe’ in digital spaces abound, criticism is rife on how online media platforms alter the human approach to labour by trying to ‘romanticise’ it.
Hubli-based senior consultant psychiatrist and mental wellness expert Alok Kulkarni advised extra caution and moderation while indulging in these activities.
“People with self-esteem, self-image and confidence problems may feel vulnerable in such an environment. They may get into unnecessary comparisons with their online peers and end up feeling dejected. This has broader ramifications in the form of clinical anxiety and depression,” he said. He also warned that constant comparison with online peers may push an individual towards toxic productivity.
Cornell University associate professor Brooke Erin Duffy in a 2015 academic paper examines the discourses of authenticity, community building and brand devotion.
“Aspirational labourers pursue creative activities that hold the promise of social and economic capital; yet the reward system for these aspirants is highly uneven,” she wrote. While her paper focused on gender and aspirational labour in the digital culture, her observations inform this niche trend of studygram as well.
But participants in these online study trends prefer to focus on the positives and search for the silver lining.
“I don’t think I’m qualified to build a critique of grind culture and the culture of hyper-productivity, but it isn’t entirely useless. It is a little sad that the learning process on its own isn’t fabulous or exciting enough and has to be romanticised this way. But then again, I think it’s nice that students worked around the issue by romanticising it on their own,” Charuta said.
A privileged hobby
For a trend that drew heavily from lifestyle and beauty blogs in its early days, the tendency to slide towards opulence seems inevitable. Clean aesthetics and studying with the sleekest gadgets reek heavily of privilege, and those participating in these digital trends don’t deny it either.
As a student, Kanika remembers being unable to afford what she saw on pretty blogs and compared it to the realities around her. “That used to distract me a lot mentally. But then again, if you really look, there are so many students in this community who don’t have the best pens or setup and they still post their achievements. If you know where to focus, you can gain from such participation,” she said.