Ladies and gentlemen, the explosion has happened. When Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site, made it to the cover of Time magazine last month in the form of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, it was a defining moment. Already, the site ranks as the third most populous country in the world (if it can be called a country) behind India and China and estimates show that it will cross 1 billion members in 2012. That’s a sixth of the world’s population – and half of the 2 billion people who are connected to the Internet. Micro-blogging site Twitter currently hovers around the 190 million users mark but is taking over our lives like nothing we’ve seen before.
The revolution is already here. What is different this time is that it is not restricted only to the metros but to people from all over the country. We profile four power users of Facebook and Twitter in four different cities to see the world from their eyes and and find out why social networking isn’t just an inseparable part of their lives – it is their life.
By the time kids of her age were just starting to discover the World Wide Web, Noopur Raval’s parents were already trying to get her to log off because she spent too much time online. "I was always the cool kid with a computer when others didn’t have one," says 20-year-old Raval who is currently doing her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, New Delhi. "And the Internet totally, absolutely fascinated me."
Today, Raval states that she is a full-fledged Facebook addict, "but not in the pejorative sense that has come to be associated with that term! It’s such a big part of my life that it is no longer a special activity. To me, Facebook is as good – and as natural – as breathing," she says.
Raval has a fixed Internet routine: as soon as she switches on her computer, she has four tabs on her browser that HAVE to be permanently open: her Facebook, her Twitter, her Gmail and her Google Reader for keeping up with all her RSS feeds. When she was doing her Bachelors, Raval used to get home from college by 4:30 pm and be on Facebook till about 12:30 at night. This was true even in the pre-Facebook days. In the middle of her Class 12 board exams, Raval lolled around on Orkut, scrapping and participating in community discussions. "My parents told me I was crazy," she says. "Thankfully, my scores weren’t affected. What happened, however, was that my attention span nose-dived. I couldn’t sit for ten minutes without running to the computer to check my profile." Which begs the question: what does she do for so long on Facebook? "Stalk people’s Walls," she grins. "I’m not really a social person and cannot make conversation with many people. However, on Facebook, there’s a social feed that keeps coming to you – it’s fun to see who’s doing what." This isn’t a drawback, she says. "Because when you’re talking to someone on the phone or face-to-face, you have to go through a code of formalities. Online, the conversation is utilitarian – which means I can chat like a maniac, post things like a manic and not miss real life conversation at all!"
While most Facebook users try to hide pictures and profile details, Raval’s profile is wide open (even if you don’t ‘friend’ her on Facebook). Wall posts, pictures, comments and even her phone number are visible for anyone to see. “In the four years that I’ve been using Facebook someone has used my number to send me unsolicited messages only once,” she says. “On the other hand, I recently got a call from an art critic in New York, asking if she could exhibit some of my pictures (also in my Facebook albums, open to public) at an exhibition.” (Raval is an amateur photographer).
Most people look at social networking as a waste of time. Raval shatters this notion to bits. “It’s an established way of communication and this is my generation’s mode of meeting people,” she says. “Facebook trickles down in three out of five conversations I have with my peers. We’re always asking each other, ‘Did you see that picture I posted?,’ ‘Did you see his latest status update?,’ ‘Doesn’t her profile picture look awesome?’ It has shaped the way I know people. Why, I might just end up marrying someone I meet on Facebook! It’s like asking me ‘Why do you spend so much time awake?’” What about the distinction between the real and virtual worlds? Raval looks bewildered. “This is as real as it gets,” she says.
‘I take Facebook seriously. I don’t go there to chill out’
Quick, what is the longest you’ve sat before a computer? A couple of hours? A day? Srikeit Tadepalli once sat down in front of his PC and didn’t get up for three days straight. The year was 2006. It was summer vacations after his Class 12 board exams and he was doing what he loved most: editing Wikipedia. “I was averaging around 500 edits a day and I was hooked,” says Tadepalli. By July 2006, he had close to 9,000 edits on Wikipedia and was nominated to become an admin. A month later, he won by a landslide– 112 votes for, 1 against – and became one of the first few Indian Wikipedia administrators.
Signing up for Orkut in 2007 was a natural progression but initially, Tadepalli, who is currently an advertising student at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, dismissed it as a waste of time. “You don’t really think of it as a social network, but the fact is that before everything else burst on to the scene, Wiki was and still is a very active social community and I preferred being there because unlike Orkut, it was something constructive.”
So naturally, he thought the same of Facebook. “I thought it was a tool for entertainment more than anything else,” he says. “But then, everyone signed up for it and it snowballed into something really big.” As a student of advertising, Tadepalli followed the thumb rule – you go where the crowd is.
So soon, Facebook became THE place to interact, catch up, educate, promote and market practically every single thing. “I spend pretty much all my waking hours connected to the Internet,” says Tadepalli. “I am a true-blue digital native, in the sense that for me, being on Facebook is not just a form of entertainment. It’s like going to work or going to school. Facebook is not simply for chilling out or playing Farmville. It’s a potent tool for marketing and education along with entertainment.”
Being a digital native does come with a price. In 2006, Tadepalli had to repeat Class 12 – twice. Even when he cleared the exams, his percentage was in the low 30s. “It was terrible,” he says. “My parents were going berserk and my mom wanted me to quit Wikipedia. But I was so addicted that I used to edit it on the sly when my parents went to bed.” Those were the days of crummy old dial-up modems that emitted loud squeaks – the technical term is ‘handshake’ – when they connected to the Internet “which I used to muffle with a pillow,” laughs Tadepalli. Then he got admission to Bangalore’s Christ College purely on the basis of his Wikipedia administrator credentials. “I guess they were impressed. I was really lucky,” he says.
Today, Tadepalli manages seven official Facebook pages of various organisations, including his own college and a Bangalore-based band called All The Fat Children. Last year, he got an internship via Facebook and even managed to find his hostel roommate on the site. “I’ve often been told that I waste my time but the truth is that I’ve had very productive relationships with people I’ve met on Facebook. I take it very seriously. I hate clutter and I only add people I know. In fact, every ten days, I go through my friend list and weed out the folks I don’t know. Why? Because I believe that the time I spend online is very valuable. If they clutter up my timeline with updates I don’t care about, I get rid of them. Also, every person is a part of a list based on how I know him or her.”
Unlike most social media fanatics who don’t care about privacy, most of Tadepalli’s content was hidden from view till two and a half months ago. “But now I’ve opened up everything, including my phone number,” he says. “Facebook is notorious for messing up users’ privacy settings on the fly and I figured that if things get out of hand, I could always leave the network.”
If you have privacy concerns, says Tadepalli, don’t put up any stuff that you don’t want going public. “I think it’s quite silly to leave Facebook simply because you’re getting jumpy about who sees a certain picture of you,” he says. “That’s a wealth of resources you’re leaving behind.”
Tadepalli plans to make his career in social media management. So has Facebook changed his life? “It hasn’t changed my life, it is a significant chunk of my life,” he says. “The good thing about it is that it is giving me my career.”
The flipside? Tadepalli struggles to answer. “You know, I can’t think of one single thing!”
It’s a dog’s (social) life!
Bono, the 7-month-old white and brown mongrel who lives in Mumbai, tells us why it’s so cool for a dog to be on Facebook and Twitter. You can follow Bono on Twitter at twitter.com/bonobarks.
The furniture has been gnawed, clothes have been torn, and books have been nibbled. What next? Social media! Seeing my mum glued to a box on her lap and a box in her hand, I was intrigued. So I wagged my tail and my mum knew I was interested. See, the deal is, my mum’s sister lives in the US and she isn’t pleased that the family decided to bring home a puppy in her absence. So I was forced to open Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep her updated on my latest crushes, my favourite meals and my adventures. Yeah, I am world famous. A cute Chihuahua propositioned me on Facebook, bitches are so in your face *sigh*
Twitter has made me some fun friends. In fact, some senior doggies warned me about those needles they poke into us. Every once in a while I tear a book because it would make for excellent tweeting. Sometimes, I make a cute face at the box in mum’s hand because I think it’d make a fine twitpic. Now I am thinking of starting a campaign on Twitter to get my mum to buy me an iPad. I plan to make millions by creating a game called Angry Kittens. What fun it would be to see kittens dash into things *evil grin*
‘Everything in my mind had to be processed like a tweet’
Forty-eight hours after she was born, Inayat Kaur got a Twitter account. Twenty-four hours later, she had over a hundred followers. The number kept growing; mama Gursimran Kaur was as pleased as punch. Mother and daughter made instant headlines – the daughter for obvious reasons and the mother for tweeting about the baby right through the delivery. “People thought it was a publicity stunt,” says 24-year-old Kaur who lives in Jalandhar. “There were more negative reactions than positive. But my Twitter space is where my friends are. I wanted to let them know about it as much as I wanted to let my relatives know.”
When Gursimran Kaur was ten, she was spending close to five hours online everyday (“in those days of dial-up connections it was really expensive, so I used to go online after my parents went to bed,” she laughs), freewheeling between ICQ, the instant messaging client that was the rage in those days and Internet forums. At 12, she became the youngest person in the world to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer; at 13, she was designing websites on a professional basis.
And so, when the social networking wave crashed upon Indian shores with Orkut in 2007, Kaur, now a freelance web designer, rode it like a windsurfer. It was the same with Facebook. “But Orkut and Facebook were walled gardens, in the sense that you were restricted to your communities, groups and friends,” says Kaur. “With the privacy paranoia, there was no chance of meeting new people.” So Twitter was just what she was looking for. “Suddenly, you could follow all these strangers and they could follow you back and you could have rapid conversations that could go on for hours – it was so liberating!” she says.
Twitter provided the narcissistic validation that Kaur was looking for. “It was great for the ego,” she says. Initially, Kaur averaged about 70 tweets a day from her handle @LimeIce. “It was everywhere – my cellphone, laptop, Tablet and on my PC; it was integrated right into my browser. It got to the point when everything in my mind had to be processed like a tweet. Once, I was tweeting sitting in my bathtub!”
Kaur put her life real on hold. At parties, she would tweet about what was happening; at dinner-time, she would lift her head only to utter a dazed “What…?” when she was asked something; and she peeved her parents because even when she stayed with them, she was on Twitter all the time. “I was living a double life,” she says. The rewards came in the form of more Twitter followers. She has more than 33,000 tweets.
The distinction between real life and virtual life is for old fogies, says Kaur. “I connect with my virtual friends more than my real friends,” she says. “It is a deep relationship because it is based simply on what they think, unlike real life where you judge people based on how they look, dress and talk.” Twitter, she says, is a platform for the future. “Being a freelance web designer, it has given me lots of business opportunities. Also, it’s a great tool to get instant feedback on pretty much anything.”
A few weeks ago, Kaur consciously reduced her Twitter-time despite the pseudo-fame that being a tweleb (a Twitter celeb) brought her. Her followers went hysterical (“Where is @LimeIce?,” “I miss @LimeIce”) but Kaur didn’t budge. “I spent more time tweeting about stuff that happened in my life than enjoying life itself,” she says. “That said, Twitter has connected me with so many people that I can’t just leave it behind. I met my best friend on Twitter, so I am merging the virtual world with my real world. That’s something!”
‘I spend about 17 hours every day on Twitter’
Need help with your blog? Directions to a place? Maybe even a job? Worry not, @softykid is your man! On Twitter, @softykid, whose real name is Nabeel Ziyaan, is known for being a one-stop information kiosk for anything. Seventeen hours. That’s how much time Ziyaan spends on Twitter every day. It has been an unwavering schedule since he signed up two years ago. “From the moment I wake up, I’m on Twitter,” he says. Till about lunchtime, Ziyaan trawls through his Twitter stream, his Direct Messages and his @Mentions. He keeps abreast of what’s happening by going through Twitter’s ‘trending topics’.
Then he gets down to business. Every day, Ziyaan receives hundreds of requests for help. Someone in Chennai wants to know about the best restaurants to visit with family. An intern from Mumbai wants to move to Bangalore, could he help? Help, in the form of @softykid, is but an @Mention away. “I think it stems from the fact that I wanted to do so many things that I wasn’t able to do. So I decided to use my contacts on Twitter to get other people’s work done,” he says. Till date, he has clocked more than 76,000 tweets.
Ziyaan taps into his network of more than 2,700 followers to help everyone as best as he can. His followers include media man Pritish Nandy, journalist Prabhu Chawla, other journalists, head honchos and celebrities. “On Twitter, I’m famous for being nice and reliable,” he says. None of this, Ziyaan says, is for personal benefit. “The moment I start doing that, my credibility is finished. My Twitter relationships are all based purely on goodwill.”
The need to be connected 24/7 is compulsive. Ziyaan uses a Nokia C3 phone exclusively for tweeting on the move. At home, he tweets from an Acer laptop. As a backup for when the Internet connection goes down, he keeps aside two Tata Photon USB modems, one Airtel modem and a Reliance data card. “It is a necessity. I can’t not be connected now.” Ziyaan has never seen Twitter as a waste of time. “It gives me everything and faster than Google! If I want to know where a certain place in Delhi is, a tweep will tell me instantly – I don’t have to crawl through a Google Map. Twitter is more human than Google. It is a virtual world with real people, real emotions and real thoughts,” he says.
He plans to launch his own brand of leatherwear by utilising his Twitter contacts. “In the pre-Twitter days, I would have had to travel across various cities to set up my brand. Today, I know at least one person in every major country in the world. Suddenly, I have gone from being nowhere to everywhere!”
Confessions of a Twitter addict
How did Twitter change my life?
Let me count the ways. One day, someone really cool Retweeted me (repeated an awesome tweet). And then, another cool tweeter Mentioned me (the accepted form of communication here). Suddenly, everyone was Follow Fridaying me (a holy day on which fawning compatriots on the network act saccharine sweet and suggest that you be followed).
Suddenly, I was no longer talking to a universal void. I had genuinely fascinating, mostly anonymous people from all over the world, interested in my interests. Sometimes I realise I haven’t moved away from the computer for a week, because of a brilliantly funny hashtag some oversmart kid started and I just HAD TO participate in.
I now officially have thousands of followers (not stalkers). Yes, some are the hai sweety types (known as #bulbs, useful for blocking practice), but most are nice people who listen to me say a bunch of rubbish 24x7.
I met a bunch of superiorly cool people who have the most awesome senses of humour and smart culturo-socio-political observations.
I’m afraid to meet them in real life, they’re that cool. I now know everything as it unfolds - natural disasters, political faux pas and Justin Bieber’s zits.
Lives are being shaped around the popular belief – If you didn’t tweet it, it didn’t happen. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. Even if you hate it, you’ll get around to loving it.
I am a self-professed, inexorable twit.
From HT Brunch, January 16
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