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Cyber Society

Indian women are baring their body, mind and soul on social networking sites, triggering a trend of virtual exhibitionism that, in turn, fuels a need to constantly appear important and interesting. By Aarthi Gunnupuri

india Updated: Sep 03, 2011 15:53 IST
Aarthi Gunnupuri
Aarthi Gunnupuri

Aterrible day. I am standing near my five-month-old niece’s funeral pyre,” writes a user on Facebook. A differently depressed user, hurting from a busted love affair, photographs herself in tiny shorts, zooms in on the butt and makes the album public. Yet another tweets her divorce plans even before she informs her husband. Evidently, even when life trips up a woman, her finger never slips from the social networking button.

As technology revs up the speed of networking, more and more women are reaching for the World Wide Web to lay themselves bare, whatever the occasion – celebration or bereavement, a new baby or a pet’s surgery, everything has to be published instantly, and notes exchanged even with complete strangers.

Going by the kind of posts on social networking sites, women are far more eager to let it all hang out than men, who normally limit their posts to news or music clips and holiday albums, with occasional outbursts on national politics or sports defeats. Bored housewives add a new dimension to all this by bombarding the sites with minute-by-minute accounts of their non-activities.

Some compulsive exhibitionists have practically turned into addicts. This is how Pune-based blogger and student, Sush, describes her life on a blog post: “Get up late – check Facebook – go out – stay connected to Facebook via Facebook mobile – come back home – have lunch – check Facebook – go out to meet my friends – stay connected to Facebook via Facebook mobile – return home – have dinner – log into Facebook – stay logged in till it’s very, very late.”

Malini Singh, a 25-year-old Delhi girl working with the print media, is hooked to these sites through her BlackBerry. Every photograph, every comment, every tidbit of her life is instantly uploaded, shared with hundreds of people, praised through the ‘like’ button, tweeted and retweeted until every bit of juice is wrung out of it. All this, of course, happens within minutes as Malini’s fellow networkers are just as obsessed as she is.

What’s going on here? “In a sense, the virtual world has taken over the real world,” says psychotherapist and counsellor, Dr Minnu Bhonsale. “Most people these days are desperately seeking validation from others. It is so endemic that it has begun to seem normal, but it shouldn’t be.”

With traditional social structures unravelling, young Indians are seeking online groups for approval and support. Dr Bhonsale cites a young woman from her own social network, who had recently lost her husband. In just a few weeks, this friend began to post letters to her dead spouse on Facebook, using the ‘notes’ feature. The letters were open for comments and people were soon showering praise and condolence.

“This is an extremely unhealthy way of grieving,” says Dr Bhonsale. “Grief is an intensely personal emotion. It is only when you let yourself experience it completely, can you rise above it. Sharing your pain indiscriminately is an attempt to rush the process.

“This style of consoling makes people shift from depression to aggression. It’s a shortcut to coping with pain, which is what women are looking for on a social networking site.”

Facebook, she adds, is a site created and developed in America, encouraging American-style outpouring of emotions. Such a “public display of personal emotions is not typically Indian”, she points out. “For instance, when we lose our loved ones, we are expected to show restraint and dignity. Our rituals are reflective of that. Oprah-style exhibitionism is not our style.”

But as with Oprah herself, her brand of spilling one’s guts is spreading like wildfire through India. People are anxious to speak, to have mass endorsement of every little thought that comes into their head and escapes through the keyboard. They are equally eager to embrace things that others have to say, even if it’s just a comment about the weather. It’s a fairly common sight to see a Facebook user scroll down the home page with eyes glazed over and give the thumbs up to every second post. Sometimes, even the news of someone’s death or illness is ‘liked’ by several users.

Rashmi Deshpande, a 35-year-old freelance writer, was shocked by how a younger friend behaved after splitting with her boyfriend. “Her immediate response was to take a picture of herself in a pair of teeny-weeny shorts and post just the bottom part of the picture [on the Net]with the torso cropped!” she says.

Romantic episodes are particularly effective comment magnets – a woman who has just found love keeps friends or followers informed of how many licks she and her boyfriend had on a shared icecream, a woman just dumped lists every moment of bitterness she experiences between waking up and going to bed, and their virtual cheerleaders help them keep up the momentum with cries of ‘Go girl!’ or ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish!’ Many dip into their own pasts to fish out tips on surviving a breakup or snagging an engagement ring.

Even those who complain about exhibitionism may not be able to resist indulging in it themselves. Rashmi, who was offended by her friend’s post-breakup album, admits giving in to the urge: “When my cat, Chairman Meow, was in the hospital, I was upset. I took a picture of him undergoing treatment and put it up on the site. I just felt like I had to. I guess, I was looking for some sympathy.” (Status update: Chairman Meow has now fully recovered.)

Looking for sympathy is a natural human trait that found an online outlet, in Rashmi’s case. Other less innocent motives give rise to the inevitable: keeping up with the Joneses, or even besting them. This is how it usually goes. Pictures of recent holiday in Europe. Check. Baby’s first birthday party at Grand Hyatt. Check. Honeymoon in Langkawi. Check.

The use of social networking to share and show off exciting life moments is driven by two factors, says Dr Yusuf A. Matcheswalla, psychiatrist and addictive behaviour specialist. First, most of us are under the spell of technology; we like to stay plugged-in. And because most of our time is spent checking out other people’s status or comments, the second factor comes into play – the need to compare. This, in turn, fuels the desire to spruce up our profiles and albums regularly.

Above all, the greatest attraction of these sites is that they allow one to remain in the public eye simply by constantly posting trivial comments. It is not necessary to engage in anything really constructive; one tweet or Facebook post about traffic, humidity or a good/bad cup of coffee is enough to bring in a few comments and keep one from being forgotten. Supriya Saha, a 30-year-old Mumbai-based marketing professional, has an ex-colleague who quit work to get married. Since returning to Mumbai, this ex-colleague has been active on Facebook practically 24/7, without ever managing to say anything remotely interesting. Nevertheless, she does get a few idle ‘likes’, and that must be gratification enough. “As a professional, she never distinguished herself, but as a Facebooker, she gets a few thumbs up every now and then,” says Supriya with a smile.

Ad filmmaker Parvinder Kaur, 36, explains a friend’s situation and how it correlates to her Facebook usage: “She’s married to her college sweetheart. Before her kids came along, she was an active professional. These days, she chronicles her every move on the site. That is her way of tackling boredom and the lack of a professional life.”

While a few keep themselves out of obscurity via the web, for women who never went to work or had much of a circle outside the family, the online platform can ensure companionship and even lowlevel fame. Such a woman – if she lives among plenty, with a home worthy of a photo-op, and an equally photogenic child – can gather a small fan following as friends of friends of a friend will want to join her list or follow her, vicariously living a slice of the good life, in the time it takes to scroll down a web page. A few sighs and exclamation marks of goodnatured envy will bless her exotic holiday album or three-tier birthday cake, making her feel that she, too, has arrived in life.

The need to belong, an intrinsic part of human nature, is aggravated by loneliness and boredom, says Dr Matcheswalla. Coupled with the need for validation, it leads to an interesting phenomenon. “Ever since the ‘like’ button was introduced on Facebook, users have been driven by the need to be interesting and witty,” writer Sonali Kokra, 24, tells us. “Recently, a friend asked me why I hadn’t ‘liked’ her status yet, when 20 others had already done so.”

Rashmi agrees that there is a growing mania of wanting to stand out and seem interesting, so much so that people are ‘stealing’ profiles. “My entire profile – my likes, dislikes, personal philosophy, etc – had been copied on Orkut by another user. Everything, except the name, was the same,” she says.

Such abuse notwithstanding, social networking sites do have their uses. Rashmi, whose friends and cousins span the globe, keeps in touch with them through the site. Parvinder, too, maintains an extensive online network of filmmakers and their work.

Parvinder can be described as a moderate user. She refrains from putting up personal messages and doesn’t feel the compulsive need to stay logged on all the time. But a little prodding and she admits to sharing her gloom on occasion, by updating her status with Urdu couplets that reflect her black mood.

Can’t she just call a friend?

“It’s difficult to call someone and say ‘Hey, I am bored’ or ‘I am depressed’. It’s easier this way.”


Marie Claire

First Published: Sep 03, 2011 14:23 IST