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Facelessness of net encounters

tech-reviews Updated: Jul 31, 2010 17:26 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
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Was there ever a time when we knew so much about so many people at any given time – and cared so little? And by people I don’t just mean friends and family or even chance acquaintances who tag you on Facebook, but complete strangers whom we would not recognise if we bumped into them on the street outside. And yet we are privy to their most personal details, their most intimate moments, their deepest thoughts, their most heart-felt emotions. We may not know what they look like, we may not even know their real names, but their private passions and secret demons are laid bare for the scrutiny of all those who care to look (or read).

In some sense, the anonymity provided by the Internet has a certain liberating effect on all of us. If we don’t have to blog under our real names, if we don’t need to post pictures of our own faces, then we need not be inhibited by fears of embarrassment or humiliation. So long as nobody knows who we really are, we can expose our worst selves to the world without worrying about the consequences.

And that probably accounts for the kind of vitriol you seen spewed on the Net every day. People have no compunction about calling you names, prying into your private life, making pornographic propositions, and worse. And yet, I’m pretty convinced that if I met any of these angry, four-letter-word spewing folk in real life, they would be downright charming and lovely to my face (whatever they may think about me in the hidden recesses of their mind). But there is something about the facelessness of Net encounters that brings out the worst in people: which encourages them to explore the dark sides of their personalities; gives them license to indulge in behaviour they would not dream of in the real world.

MobileBut I digress. And to tell you the truth, by now the abuse leaves me cold, some of the name-calling is downright amusing and the pornographic elements are a bit of a yawn. What really intrigues me about social media on the Net is the kind of over-sharing of personal information that has become so commonplace that we scarcely notice it any longer.

Let’s not even venture into the downright freaky territory where a woman tweets her relief about having a miscarriage while in a board meeting at work – because now she needn’t worry about getting an abortion. Or even the surreal world in which a mother tweeted about her two-year old son’s accident – he was discovered lying at the bottom of the pool in their backyard – while he was still being revived. She then updated her page five hours later when he had been pronounced dead.

Frankly, it beggars belief that anyone could even be thinking of updating their social network pages at such a time. But clearly, we have become so hard-wired about sharing every aspect of our lives on these platforms, that nothing appears to be sacred – hell, even private – any longer.

Of course, there is an element of showing-off in the postings on these public platforms. People update their Blackberry profiles to add the name of whatever exotic location they find themselves in. Facebook is littered with photographs of other people’s glamorous vacations, dinner parties, childrens’ birthdays and the like so that the rest of us can exclaim over their picture-perfect lives (and wonder why we can’t afford to take off for a couple of weeks to the French countryside). And then, there is Twitter, where you can update everyone about everything from your last meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant to your journey back on Jet Airways First Class (complete with Twitpic of your private cabin).
But mostly it’s just mundane stuff that nobody in their right minds would give a toss about. Does anybody really care what you ate for breakfast; what your boss said to you at work; that your husband forgot your birthday yet again; that your cat has a fever; or that you are craving vanilla ice-cream as you type this.

Even your good friends would be hard-put to evince interest in this stuff, let alone relative strangers whom you hook up with on social networking sites. And yet this stream of consciousness style outpouring of personal – and sometimes very private – information continues to spew forth.

It’s almost as if people can’t help themselves. If something – anything – happens to them, it doesn’t seem real unless it has been shared with their virtual community. Rowing with your girlfriend? Tell her what a witch (or something that sounds awfully like that) she is on Twitter so that all your friends can weigh in on your side. The husband didn’t get you a nice enough present on Valentine’s Day? Shame him in front of the whole world. Bought a new pair of Manolo Blahniks? Post a picture so that your girlfriends can go green with envy.

But as I look at all these updates, the many tweets and posts, the photographs without end, I wonder who they are really meant for. Do any of us really care about the lives of those around us? Or are we so busy showing off about our own that we couldn’t care less about theirs?

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami