It’s a bit competitive out there,” sighs 17-year-old Sasha Kirmani. The Mumbai teen isn’t talking about academics or sports. Instead, Kirmani is referring to the competition that exists between ‘friends’ on social networking site, Facebook.
Every day, Kirmani spends at least two hours on Facebook. She writes on friends’ ‘walls’, browses through pictures, adds new applications and ‘stalks’ other users. By her own admission, she’s a bit of a “Facebook addict”.
Every Thursday and Sunday morning though, Kirmani alters her Facebook routine to upload pictures from the previous night’s parties. “These days, everyone makes it a point to carry cameras to parties. The next day you’ll log on to Facebook to see who had the wildest night. I take pictures of all of us having a crazy time and think, wow, I’m so putting these up,” she explains. Kirmani’s Facebook obsession is a source of much mirth for her friends, but she says, unfazed, “They’re actually dying for me to put up their pictures. In the end, everyone wants the world to see them looking good and acting cool.”
Kirmani is one of the 90 million young people registered on Facebook. Another 110 million are registered on MySpace, another social networking site that was launched in India in April this year. And those numbers are set to grow by a whopping 67 per cent per year. “Social networking is totally booming in India right now,” says Deep Malhotra, Director for Sales and Business Development for MySpace India. “According to statistics, 51 per cent of Internet users in India are now using it to socialise with others,” he says.
But Kirmani’s Facebook usage is more than just a statistic illustrating the growth of social media technology in coming years; it’s also an example of how social networking sites are dramatically altering our interactions with those around us. “Facebook has definitely changed my life. I know so much more about the private lives of acquaintances without even having spoken to them, I gossip more, and I am more in touch with all my friends,” she says.
So what will all the “increased gossiping” and frenzied “wall posts” ultimately mean for the millennium generation? And are these changes for the better or worse? Unfortunately, there is no single, unanimous answer: some say that the site has helped enrich lives and relationships, while others think that it’s creating a generation of dysfunctional teens.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
According to Charles Steinfield, a Michigan State University professor who has been researching the effects of social networking sites, “Our studies have shown that Facebook users have greater ‘social capital’. That is, that they more connected to their community and derive greater benefits from their contacts. And it certainly helps those with low self esteem overcome communication barriers,” he says.
But Alice Mathias, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, disagrees. Her own experience with Facebook over the years has made her believe that “Facebook eliminates the need for real time conversation with friends”. “You’ve already been bombarded with so much information about them on your news feed (see Glossary), you don’t find the need to ask questions anymore” says Mathias, who has written several pieces for the New York Times on Facebook use. “It’s the loneliest way to get to know your friends,” she says.
Mumbai resident Uttam Chopra, 26, knows what Mathias is talking about. A social-networking veteran, Chopra found an old school mate through Orkut way back in 2006. They became ‘friends’ and began to send each other ‘scraps’. A few exchanges later though, the interaction ended. While Chopra is glad that he got back in touch with an old friend, he wishes the communication between them had been more substantial. “I was so excited about finding him but the conversation was totally anti-climactic. I almost wish I’d just bumped into him in person years later instead,” says the Creative Director of online contests website contests2win.com.
But it’s not just the elimination of the need for face-to-contact that is a concern for Chopra. He believes that social networking sites are, in the end, an exercise in narcissm. ”Your profile page is an effort at putting out the best possible version of your self. You add quotes, interests, favourite movies and a sexy profile picture believing that the world wants to know all this stuff about you. It’s like we’re all living in our own mini Page 3 worlds thanks to Facebook,” he says.
And points to recent entrant Twitter as further proof of his theory. “Twitter is based entirely on a user updating their ‘status’ every hour or so. Doing this makes you feel like you’re the centre of the world,” says Chopra.
Social scientist Will Reader agrees: “There’s definitely an element of manipulation in Facebook use. It often becomes a platform to show how cool or rich or fabulous you are. Everything you say or do on the site has an element of theatre to it,” says the Doctor of psychology at UK’s Sheffield University. Reader’s research has also shown that a large number of Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily translate into closer friendships in real life. “People with more contacts on their ‘friends’ list have the same number of close friends (about 15) as someone who has fewer contacts on their list,” he says.
LOVE AND LOATHING IN THE TIME OF FACEBOOK
Uttam Chopra also believes that social networking sites play a large role in how real-life relationships play out. “Facebook lets you take your offline relationships and make them online through pictures and status updates,” he says. By way of example, he points to a news story he came across last December, in which 28-year-old New Yorker Sandra Soroka was said to have broken up with her boyfriend via her Facebook status. “Her status proclaimed something like, “I’m letting Will know it’s officially over through Facebook”. It made news on all the Internet news sites and her Flickr account got hacked into. The whole thing was just bizarre,” says Chopra.
Delhi teen Mallika Bhargava has other examples to offer: “A friend of mine had a huge fight with her boyfriend because she didn’t want to declare that she was dating him over Facebook. He believed it was the only way the relationship would be ‘real’“. Yet another friend of Bhargava’s had to take herself off Facebook because her boyfriend (who was studying abroad) fought with her every time someone put up pictures of her partying with other boys. Agrees 15-year-old Raena Parikh, “Couples often put up pictures of them making out because it’s cool to let everyone know”.
However, Bhargava also admits that her Facebook use is slowly plateauing. “In the beginning, it was a total craze. Everyone was on it. But now I mostly use it to check out events and stuff,” says the 19-year-old. And many Internet commentators predict that much like geocities, Xanga and MSN Messenger, Facebook too, is just another fad that will soon be replaced by yet another ‘social’ tool. Certainly, 13-year-old Manah Sanghvi is almost disdainful when I ask her about her Facebook account: “I’ve gotten quite bored of it, to be honest. I used to do the whole commenting and writing on walls thing. The new thing is this website called Piczo on which all my friends have started making their own websites.”