Kshitij Jain had got used to friends crash-and-burn in attempting romance in the middle of IIM-Bangalore’s punishing schedule when he hit upon an idea.
He saw batchmates struggle through online interactions amid a mad dash for campus placements, grades and foreign university applications. Many broke up or burnt out.
That was last year. The 27-year-old now heads Myolo, an online and offline dating and matchmaking app that plans to best Tinder in India. Almost all of the backend data for the matchmaking is sourced from social media.
“Our business revolves around social media. We learn more about you from the pages you like, posts you share and images you click than any questionnaire,” he says.
A world away from Jain’s swanky south Delhi office is Raina Roy, a 35-year-old transwoman and activist in Kolkata.
She started using Facebook around 2009 and now actively uses social media as she works with rural trans populations, sex workers and her organisation, Samabhavana.
“It allowed marginalized people to write about their own lives without the negativity associated with mainstream media. People who’re erased and discriminated against can articulate their feelings,” she says.
Kshitij and Raina are among the millions of people across India who are using social media not just in their personal lives but also for a multitude of professional and political reasons – to promote their agencies, gather data for their apps, reach out to ground-level activists, expand their businesses or just go online and troll opinions they differ from.
Take for example freelance food writer and photographer Aysha Tanya. She has been on Facebook for more than a decade but started using social media – especially Instagram and Facebook – to promote her blog, Malabar Team Room, and later her food journal.
“I found social media was the best way to garner attention and get people excited about something,” she says.
The last few years have seen growth of social media usage explode among both urban and rural users. Last year, rural users doubled while urban users were up by a third. More than two-thirds of these people were accessing websites such as Facebook from their mobile phones.
A typical such user is Dhiren Borisa, a doctoral candidate in geography at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The 28-year-old started using Facebook for the first time when back home in small-town Rajasthan, when his friend took him to a cyber café in 2006.
“It was expensive to go to a cyber cafe but I had somehow managed to save that Rs 30. That would cost for an hour of internet session,” he says.
As a gay and Dalit person, navigating such online spaces was both elevating and tinged with the fear of rejection and insult. He says he would often encounter casteist slurs and ended up creating a “fake profile” with an upper caste surname.
“What I learnt is that we need to stake our claims on these spaces, visibilize ourselves and subvert these spaces,” he says.
A confident 24-year-old lawyer, Vibha Vasuki was always the city mouse, growing up in Bangalore and then moving to Delhi after law school for work.
Vibha was a part of the generation that grew up with social media and started using Orkut when she was in Class 8. She slowly graduated to the then cooler Facebook, then Instagram and the latest craze, Snapchat. “On Snapchat, everyone knows what you’re up to. That’s why it’s great,” she says.
But once she started using social media accounts professionally, the tables were turned suddenly.
“There was a lot more at play. You need to understand your audience, you need to be able to grab eyeballs, and everything in between. It’s a great tool to get message across,” she says.
Online trolls and abusive behaviour online was a constant bother but Vibha says she was ready for them. “Using social media to help people during the Chennai floods was amazing. When there are these experiences, you’re ready to take the chance and tackle trolls,” she says.
Sarita Gupta is not so sure. A resident of Dehradun in Uttarakhand, the 59-year-old uses Twitter, Skype and WhatsApp, mostly to keep in touch with her children, old friends from college and keep abreast of happenings. She says she is often warded off by the language many users employ to drive their point across. “I used to be a debater in college but rarely take part in any debates online because I am scared someone will say something unpleasant,” she says.
Complaints of online abuse and violence have mounted in recent years with the explosion of social media usage in India but experts say little has been done to tackle the scourge. Community policing online is sparse and action taken by the platforms themselves are too arbitrary to make a dent.
Last month, Union minister Maneka Gandhi unveiled a plan to control such cyber bullying but her initiative is also far from taking off.
Fawaz I Khan was on his way to Delhi from Lucknow in June when he noticed that his reserved compartment was overflowing with waitlisted and unticketed passengers squatting on the floor, asking others to “adjust” and taking over space that he thought rightfully belonged to him.
He waited for a few hours but was exasperated after he saw the ticket collector not taking any action, despite repeated complaints by several passengers. Unable to bear the crush any further, he decided to try his luck and tweeted his complaint to the railway ministry’s Twitter handle. In a matter of hours, he had received a response.
“Social media complaints are transparent and visible to all. So, officials are quite worried about their accountability,” says Khan, a project manager based out of the Capital.
He is among the thousands of people who are making use of responsive government twitter handles that respond to complaints in a matter of hours, much more swiftly than the traditional channels of grievance redressal. Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is known to assist Indians in trouble abroad and rail minister Suresh Prabhu is also quick to demand accountability of his officers online. Ministers are often also rated on the basis of their social media performance and engagement.
But using social media to hold administration accountable is also happening robustly at a non-governmental personal level. Riti Sinha, a Bangalore-based professional, often uses social media to train her flock of school students in basic journalism tools.
She talks about the importance of availability of information on social media in the form of videos, data or blogs to train young people.
“I use it to show students how to use web-based channels to inform public, create campaigns, teach how to organise actions around issues, and positively affect civic behavior,” she says.
Sinha created a Facebook page for the class for class announcements, activities and assignments. “On Twitter, children communicate their views through Hashtags. Skype is used to talk to experts for stories.” She uses similar techniques for her hyper-local news portal PointBlank 7 but stresses on the importance of cross-checking facts gathered on social media.
Despite the various avenues opened up by social media, doubts linger about their impact on our lives. Raina appears hesitant when describing the benefits of her Facebook use and talks about how interpersonal interaction is gradually being lost. Kshitij is faced with the formidable challenge of people being a different version of themselves online and offline. He says the difficulty of translating online camaraderie into offline warmth cannot be under-estimated. Dhiren laments that the prejudices that colour his life offline are often the baggage he forwards to his online persona. Being called too good looking to be Dalit reminds him rudely that the brave new world of social media is still made up of the flesh-and-blood people he encounters everyday. For all its glamour and fast-paced change, social media is probably not as different from the neighbourhood galli adda as we think.