You can save the world, become a farmer, have 5,000 friends, be the centrefold model who can goggle a billion eyes on the internet… but none of it is true
Mayank Shekhar, national cultural editor of Hindustan Times and well-known film reviewer, is a popular man. He started his Facebook account on the internet just last year and recently notched up 5,000 friends. In addition, there were 200 friend requests pending, but Facebook wasn’t allowing him to add more. It demanded a status update, and he explained his newly discovered constraint. “I asked my Facebook friends if it was really true that I can’t go above 5,000 friends. Two or three people very sweetly messaged me saying that though we’ve been friends on Facebook, we never really interacted, and ‘I’m sure there are many other friends you would like to add’. It was almost like a break up. Since it hadn’t worked, they unfriended me.”
Mayank laughed when it happened. Of the 5,000 friends he has, more than 90 per cent are fans, people out to network, corporate social media accounts and fake profiles—like someone called Pandit Nehru. Having 5,000 friends hasn’t made him any more social; most of his Facebook ‘friends’ are just acquaintances. What it does make him is a social voyeur. Besides helping keep in touch with people and staying updated on events like a gathering of friends, Facebook’s charm lies in pure voyeurism. It’s entertaining to peek into other people’s lives. Mayank logs on to Facebook through his phone when he has a minute to spare. He can see where people party, what their thoughts are, whose photos they upload. “Unlike Twitter where people take themselves too seriously, where profundities are spouted, this is really light. It’s truly reality TV,” he says. “It’s mindless.”
Mayank notices a disparity between people’s online and offline personalities. “You meet this quiet dude,” he says, “who will leave the angriest status messages. Or a very non-cool guy who dresses in a suit and throws cool one-liners online. They are at some level building a perception of who they’d like to be.” Most people look better in their profile pictures. Often, Mayank doesn’t recognise the people he has interacted with on Facebook because they look so different in real life. Those who are really uncomfortable with their looks don’t bother uploading profile pictures at all. They use an image instead. “If you want to see them in their regular roles, you have to check out the photo album titled ‘random’. Generally, there’s a lot of drama going on there—parties, etcetera.”
While he is candid about his voyeurism, his own life is strictly self-censored on Facebook. Mayank doesn’t upload photos or change his profile picture. He has left his relationship status blank. “When you have 5,000 friends, no one begrudges your sharing nothing,” he says. “They are happy to share, and I’m happy to watch. I’m the voyeur. In the world of the internet, everyone is talking, and no one is willing to listen. I enjoy listening.”
In July this year, the overall number of Facebook users crossed 500 million worldwide, making it the second most popular website globally after Google. According to Alexa.com, which tracks net traffic, 37.1 per cent of the world’s net surfers visited Facebook in the last one month, while 44.2 per cent used Google. In August, Facebook overthrew Orkut to become the most popular social networking site in India. It currently has 15 million users in India. The social networking site, which racked up revenues of some $800 million last year (thanks to finely targeted ads), has made its founder Mark Zuckerberg one of the world’s youngest billionaires. He was just 23 when he made it to Forbes’ list of the world’s richest. Hollywood has even made a movie based on his life, Social Network, releasing in India this Friday.
Yet, what exactly Zuckerberg has unleashed on humankind remains a grey area. Facebook is just six-and-a-half years old, and there are already studies being done on its social and psychological effects. It is transforming reality as we know it. And sometimes the two worlds overlap with quaint consequences. On 5 November, a New York Times article titled ‘The Facebook Skeletons Come Out’ spoke about the impact of irresponsible Facebook pictures on candidates running for US Congressional elections. One candidate had pictures of her simulating sexual acts on a toy, and another enjoying a drunken Halloween night dressed as a ladybug. Says the article: ‘With the ubiquity of technology and social networking, websites like Facebook that allow—and compel—young people to document themselves drinking, wearing little clothing or putting themselves in compromised positions, it was a given that a generation of politicians would someday find themselves confronted with digital evidence of their more immodest and imprudent moments. But who knew it would happen this quickly?’
The desire for celebrityhood is natural to most people. Like celebrities, we love being clicked, even while doing stupid things. Exchanging pictures is what got 27-year-old Kusum (name changed) addicted to Facebook. She took a vacation to Kashmir, and made many new friends. The website, she realised, was the best way of sharing photos and keeping in touch with them. “I would check Facebook every half hour even at work, as I had to see who had put up what picture and the comments it got.”
One-and-a-half years later, Facebook pictures irritate her. Kusum took all her photo albums off the site once she realised that she was obsessed. She was only taking pictures so that the minute she got home, she could put them up. “The experience felt incomplete till I topped it with a Facebook cherry. A lovely evening with a good friend wasn’t enough till 300 people knew about it.”
A few months ago, she met an acquaintance after seven years. Before a conversation could spark up, she asked him if he was on Facebook. “It felt like the real place to catch up, not the street.” When that happened, she panicked. She didn’t want to live in the Facebook world any longer. Facebook friends—people you know mainly through their online presence—are not necessarily people you understand. “When I check their profile out, it’s almost like I’m in someone’s house and the closet is open. I’m peeping around. I’m gathering information instead of getting to know the person.”
Kusum is reluctant to send ‘friend’ requests, but she secretly hopes they add her as one. She can’t figure out why Facebook makes her behave in such strange ways. But it does. “It makes an ass out of perfectly normal, nice people I know.” When she met up with her ex-partner after breaking up, he asked her why she had blocked him on Facebook. “It wasn’t enough that we were on talking terms, that we had met up.”
Like a chain smoker, Kusum sets rules for herself—like no Facebook till 4 pm, especially while at work. But the moment work gets a little boring, Facebook pops up on her desktop. Kusum’s urge to log on varies by her mood when she calls it a day: “On a bad day, I avoid Facebook, because it only makes it worse.” It reminds her that she isn’t drinking enough, partying enough or travelling enough. She is beginning to realise that Facebook has become more than a platform for human relationships. Kusum is in a relationship with Facebook itself. And she isn’t sure where it is headed.
DO-GOODERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
Worldwide, there’s constant debate about the benefits and pitfalls of Facebook. The benefits include the ease of keeping in touch, sharing customised information and sometimes even saving the world. Online activism has been propounded as a big advantage of social networking sites. For some, it alleviates their guilt of spending too many hours online. Chandni Parekh runs two initiatives on Facebook to support independent documentary films and raise funds for various causes. The online response has been huge, but she isn’t satisfied. While her group Fund-A-Cause has 1,166 followers on Twitter, on Facebook, the number is one-third. She reckons it’s because there are many things fighting for one’s attention on Facebook, like a friend’s recent update or photographs.
The potential of online activism in India, Chandni feels, lies in the fact that it can mobilise people. But these are people already inclined to help. It doesn’t help reduce apathy. Some don’t want to give money, she says, or even volunteer. Stirring up anger helps getting people to do things, but their interest is hard to sustain.
Chandni speaks about the success of the Pink Chaddi campaign online that got women to parcel pink underwear to Pramod Muthalik after his outfit Sri Ram Sene attacked women in a pub in Mangalore. Other causes could have gained from the same crowd’s activism (Ek Jodi Kapda, a campaign run by Goonj, an NGO, comes to mind), but the group dispersed almost as quickly as it appeared in the collective conscience. Sadly, online efforts remain symbolic at best. It probably explains why more than 45,000 people lit a Diwali cracker online in just 12 hours, but only a handful would volunteer for an eco-friendly Diwali campaign.
In an October 2010 piece called ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’ in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media networks only promote weak tie connections, which are great to get the word around, organise people loosely, and even do some innocuous activism, but that’s about it. ‘It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact,’ he writes. For a revolution that will shatter the world order, then, social media is not the answer. True revolutions require the sort of discipline, strategy and bonds that Facebook and Twitter just cannot afford.
LAND OF INFINITE PROMISE
Mark Zuckerberg never claimed to be the Messiah, and Facebook didn’t claim to be the Promised Land. Like most social networking sites, it is just a platform. On Facebook, most users would like to meet their own new, improved and cooler selves, not just friends. If not real revolutions, they’d at least like to be part of groups with revolutionary ideals. After the Mumbai terror attacks, more than a dozen groups sprung up on Facebook overnight, praying for martyrs, demanding justice, asking for better security measures and criticising the media’s role. One such group that boasts of more than 2,000 members hosted an event where they asked everyone to put up an image of the Indian tricolour instead of a profile picture to show solidarity. A member left a comment on the group wall congratulating those who did it. To those who didn’t, she had this to say: ‘Kindly note that it’s suggested that you sign up for stuff you can stand by, and not unintentionally mock the cause by not living up to it later.’ Somewhere, we have all mocked our Facebook profiles by not living the Facebook life.
Perhaps future generations won’t feel the need to synchronise their online and offline personalities like we do. They might relish their parallel worlds; find companionship, satisfaction, even God within the four walls of Facebook. In an online paper titled, ‘An extreme reading of Facebook’, Daniel Millier, an academic, uses the elastic world of the internet to take an argument beyond what is acceptable in conventional academic journals, for the sake of debate. One of his propositions is that Facebook is a medium for developing a relationship with God. Like God, it is the supreme friend, always there for you when you’re lonely, depressed or bored. Friends may judge you, but the benign gaze of Facebook doesn’t.
Look at the profile of the youngest person you know on Facebook. He or she could be 9-, 12- or 15-years-old. Chances are, they spend most of their Facebook time poking each other and playing online games. Games like Farmville and Mafia Wars have been some of the biggest magnets drawing people to the website in India, giving it an edge over competitors.
And it isn’t just the youth that is addicted. Aneela Lath is a grandmother in her early 60s. She has always enjoyed playing games, solving crosswords and Sudoku. She got an invitation to join Facebook from her niece a year-and-a-half ago, and she accepted it. Ten months ago, another relative introduced her to Farmville. Since then, she has been playing the game for long hours everyday. Some days, she wakes up at odd hours to log on. “If a recipe is ready at 2 am, I wake up to collect it, so by morning I can collect another one and get more points,” she says. She enjoys seeing her crops grow. When she fertilises them, they look beautiful. To her, meditative bliss is watching an egg hatch into a chicken, a calf grow into a strong cow. They have a proper market, she explains, where you can use Farmville money to buy fruits and vegetables. When Mrs Lath speaks about her farm on Farmville, she gets lost in her colourful descriptions. Her bliss is a farmer’s bliss, minus the muck, physical toil and suicides, sitting in her home in suburban Mumbai, while her husband watches TV.
She may not have found God on Facebook, but she has found an ideal world—where the farms are idyllic, her relatives nearby, cherubic calves turn into robust cows, and the crops look beautiful before the harvest.