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Social media: the bumpy ride from handwritten letters to Facebook status

Facebook invented a new human need - the need to invent a false narrative of personal happiness, and project it to the world, writes Palash Krishna Mehrotra.

brunch Updated: Feb 22, 2014 20:28 IST
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Hindustan Times
Palash Krishna Mehrotra,10 Years of Brunch,Brunch

The first issue of Brunch in Delhi came out on February 1, 2004. Nine months later, with the launch of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, Brunch was introduced to readers there as well. The Delhi Brunch completes 10 years this month.

And so we bring you a special two-part anniversary issue, on the theme 'Look How We've Changed!' We asked writers and specialists in their field, to do a series of essays for us, chronicling these changes.

In this essay, author Palash Krishna Mehrotra talks of the journey from handwritten letters to the world of Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

From Orkut to Facebook
Around 2004, Orkut became the first social networking site to go mainstream in India. Old school and college friends found each other. More lasting things happened on Orkut too. Like marriage. A friend of mine in Dehradun met a local girl on Orkut. They started hanging out at the Barista in Astley Hall. Soon they were married, the first Orkut wedding in Dehradun. It was a sign of things to come, of face-to-face interactions decreasing even in small towns, where, previously, everyone knew everybody.

Read: Orkut, the new agony aunt

Facebook killed Orkut. The initial novelty of meeting old friends online gave way to boredom. After you'd exchanged nuggets of nostalgia, and informed each other of how well you were doing, you realised you had little to say to each other. We defected en masse to Facebook. One of the first groups I joined on FB was called Orkut Orphans.

The cusp generation
I belong to the cusp generation that grew up in the Eighties and Nineties. We came to the Internet when we were in our twenties, and Facebook even later. I wrote my first poems on a typewriter. I was in love with a girl in Bombay - we wrote long letters to each other, which we posted to each other in installments. Often, owing to the vagaries of the postal service, Part Three arrived before Part One leading to much narrative confusion. Sometimes, the letter wouldn't arrive at all, leading to accusations and heartbreak.

The unease
Initially, I was uncomfortable with Facebook. It was as if you'd opened your letters for the world to see. 'Come, have a look at what I say to people and what people say to me.' I rarely visited other people's walls. It seemed rude, an invasion of privacy. I was in danger of missing the very raison d'etre of FB. Thankfully I didn't. I soon discovered its venal joys. Like stalking people's photo albums, for FB, unlike Orkut, followed a policy of anonymity.

Read: Facebook catching up with Orkut in India, says report

Unlike Orkut, FB also allowed one to do 'status updates', where one could offload/upload one's thoughts and opinions about anything and everything.

Just as one was getting settled into the idea of FB having become a stable fact of life like cars, computers and parents, along came Twitter. 'What?' friends would say, 'You still do FB? C'mon, man. Twitter is where the action is."

HT Column: Whataboutitis, the new malaise infecting social media

Right now, it's a time of fragmentation. FB is a one-stop shop - you can do everything under one roof. But that obviously is not enough. The status update idea has been hived off and turned into a 140-word fetish by Twitter. Now, you'd also rather share your photos on Instagram, an app dedicated exclusively to that purpose.

The other day I was invited for lunch to a friend's place. I was famished and made the mistake of digging in a minute too early. After all, the table was set and we were all seated. We don't say grace anymore, do we? There was a minor commotion, murmurs of disapproval. I stopped short of the roast chicken, the spoon suspended in mid-air. The host whipped out an iPhone. She took a photo of the Fab India table laden with immaculately laid-out food and Instagrammed it. It was the green flag we'd been waiting for. We could now finally eat.

Just as one was getting settled into the idea of FB having become a stable fact of life like cars, computers and parents, along came Twitter

No to Twitter
Twitter never appealed to me. It's often nothing more than the unreasoned voice of the mob. Do we really need to know Johnny93's half-baked views? Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, expressing a considered opinion, is one thing. Trolling on Twitter another. Every time I hear the cliché 'Twitter was abuzz', that image from Life of Pi comes to me, the one where millions of meerkats swarm the carnivorous floating island. They come out to play at night; they stand on their hind legs, throw their heads back, and utter horrible, shrieking, mewling sounds.

Read: Soon, lie-detecting system for social media

A new study published recently compared FB to the bubonic plague and predicts its demise. Trends, like epidemics, spread indiscriminately, then die. This seems unlikely. It's true that teenagers are not signing up as much as they used to. Kids, out of privacy concerns, might not want to share intimate details of their lives with aunts, parents and teachers, and so move to newer networking sites. But there's an older demographic that remains hooked.

HT Column: Do you care about social media friends?

Facebook invented a new human need - the need to invent a false narrative of personal happiness, and project it to the world. Post-FB, this need seems as natural or real as apples and oranges. To feel the desire to record one's life is innocent; what makes it phony is the impulse to manipulate this narrative, and to brag to the world.

Starved for real interaction?
We put everything up on FB - our lives as Page 3 celebs, selfies of painted toenails, the insides of our homes, births, marriages, even deaths.

These days, you might not visit the Lodhi Road crematorium, or even drop a personal line, or make a phone call to the family of the deceased. You go to the dead one's FB wall and type R.I.P.

Time for the wall to fall?

Palash Krishna Mehrotrais the author of The Butterfly Generation

From HT Brunch, February 23

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First Published: Feb 21, 2014 20:39 IST