Truth be told, I’ve never been a great admirer of the virtues of virtual communication: it is my paramount belief that there can be no substitute for actual face to face- mano à mano- flesh and blood, contact between two or more hot-blooded human beings (a fact, needless to say, epitomized by the sexual act). So, it was only after my Inbox was regularly carpet-bombarded with automated emails inviting me to join Orkut, Google’s social networking website, from the never-say-die, Rajesh Dulani, that I finally overcame my initial skepticism, and yielded (if only as a token of my inevitable appreciation for Mr. Dulani’s patient persistence).
During the past year, Orkut has helped me revive old (not to mention, cold) intimacies with long lost friends (at last count, 95), and allowed me to befriend many more (555 and counting). To illustrate, while on a pilgrimage to the khanqah of the venerable Sufi saint, Moin-ud-din Chisti, at Ajmer-é-sharif two days ago, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a telephone call from a college-mate, Aseem Andrews, who is, as it turns out, presently working for the United Nation’s Resident Coordinator at Windhoek, Namibia: when I inquired how he had managed to find me after an absence of about a decade, he exclaimed from beyond the oceans, “Thank God for Orkut!” Not only that, since Mr. Andrews seemed to know all about what’s happened to me in the interregnum simply by reading my somewhat dense, soap-operatic profile, we could resume our dialogue as if it had never really been discontinued.
Party Poopers & Gate Crashers
Now, as regards the rapidly-mushrooming Galaxy of Friends I’ve never really met, well, the experience hasn’t been quite as enriching as I would have liked it to be: to put it plainly, it’s more quantity than quality. Let me explain. It’s like meeting people at a rather large party where nobody (including the host) knows anybody: with most, one runs out of things to say after exchanging the first few pleasantries (hi!- how are you?- I am fine, thank you, how are you?- I am fine, thank you ad infinitum). This sort of conversational impasse is not unlike the dozens of automated messages we are flooded with (on say, Friendship Day or Diwali), where the need or the motivation to respond simply doesn't exist. (See my entry on 'From One Computer to Another: Shubh Diwali, Eid Mubarak etc...')
To take a pointer from Dale Carnegie’s bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, we simply fail to move onto the next strata of 'virtual-proximity', which must, I guess, necessarily be based on a mutuality of shared experiences and interests (which college did you go to?- Stephen’s- O! what batch?- 1998- ah, I am your senior by a decade. Way before your time, kiddo’- Wow! is that so!- boy, do I miss those mince-cutlets!- etc. till one of them invites the other for a drink).
On the left-hand margin of its Friends section, Orkut provides a neat little hierarchy pertaining to ‘levels of friendship’. Virtual friends can be successively categorized into the following levels: haven’t met (555); acquaintances (51); friends (30); good friends (8); best friends (6). If one remains actively involved with Orkut, then there’s a fairly good probability that a lot of people in the haven’t met-list will move up to the acquaintances-list, who will in turn rise to the friends-list, and so on and so forth. As the numbers I’ve indicated in the brackets above show, the greatest hurdle is to migrate from the haven’t met-list to the acquaintances-list. From there on, it becomes relatively easier. In my case, of the 606 persons who were originally on the ‘haven’t met-list’, only 51 became acquaintances. In most of these 51 instances, I must admit that the ‘initiative’ to do so has almost always come from the other party. To enable this upward movement, Orkut offers two rather interesting options.
First, there are tens of thousands of ‘communities’ catering to every conceivable interest-group, from Harry Potter to ‘Against People Who Hate Sonia’ (a community formed in response to its rival, ‘I hate Sonia Gandhi’). Every day, hundreds more are being added (‘Free Sanjay Dutt’). It would seem that all one has to do to move to the next proximity-level is to join any of these communities that might be of interest to you. I am now a member of a staggering 115 communities (three of which were started by me). However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I actively participate in all of them; or even that most of these communities have activity of any kind going on. A majority of them are quite simply, defunct. In retrospect, the only reason why I joined most of these communities was the exact same reason why I joined Orkut in the first place: not only to stop people- ‘friends’- from stuffing my Inbox with invitations to communities that couldn’t possibly be of interest to me (‘Raipur Property Developers’) but also to avoid offending these gentle souls.
Of course, there have been a few praiseworthy exceptions: SNT’s ‘Jai Chhattisgarh’ community has done more to revive a love for Chhattisgarhi-culture and language among our youth than any other forum, virtual or otherwise, I know of. However, to get it off the ground, he had to take out several hours from his daily schedule, sending invitations, posting topics, conducting polls, and even telephoning friends to join. Needless to say, not many of us can put in this kind of singular dedication and time, which is a requisite to keep a niche-group like this one alive. In contrast, a community named ‘India’, which doesn’t really cater to any particular interest or sentiment, doesn’t require this kind of effort: yet, of its 447,417 members (!) only a miniscule percent actually participate in any kind of community-discussion. So is there an alternative to ‘communities’?
To use an analogy, if ‘communities’ are akin to ‘parties’, and you don’t really feel like going to one, then Orkut offers you a second option: its rather powerful ‘search engine’ allows you to look for, and directly get in touch with, like-minded individuals (as opposed to communities), with whom one might share a hitherto undiscovered niche. For instance, typing ‘à la recherché du temps perdu’ will fish out all those who, for one reason or another, love Proust; and then, you can while away time musing about Cambray in chaste provincial-French. Chances are you will both also like listening to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1: ‘I love the way it opens with oooo such aplomb, and then quietly disintegrates into near-oblivion’. And what’s true of Tchaikovsky also applies to most virtual dialogues I’ve endeavored to sustain: for better and worse, their disintegration into ‘near-oblivion’ has been inevitable.
The reason, I believe, lies in an unavoidable ‘structural blockage’ inherent in all virtual communication. And the only way to overcome it is to quite literally, step out of each others’ computer monitors, shake hands, and embrace. Needless to say, this requires a ‘leap of faith’: what if, for instance, this person who loves Proust and Tchaikovsky turns out to be Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant psychiatrist from Thomas Harris’ novel, The Silence of the Lambs, who preferred to eat his patients’ ‘liver(s) with a nice bottle of Chianti’ on the sole pretext that their ‘therapy wasn’t going anywhere’? Well, unless and until one decides to meet, there’s no other way to find out, is there? And this is precisely where most people chicken out, and rightly so. As things stand, web-based social networking is fraught with a variety of dangers, both foreseen and unforeseen. Allow me to share three anecdotes (one involving me, and two concerning friends) to elaborate on what I mean.
Three Anecdotes: On Being Deceived, Demonized and Deleted
After all these years, I still try to laugh the whole thing off. But somehow I can’t. Perhaps, this is the principal reason why I’ve had to turn-down requests from ‘females’ who, however valid their reasons for doing so (personal safety?), cut-and-paste a Catherine Zeta Jones photo on their profile. The fact is that ‘virtual communication’ allows you to be dishonest- to project an image of not what you really are but what you would much rather want to be- in ways that real communication simply cannot. As Amit Tiwari remarks in a particularly incisive blog-entry, "We become someone else in the virtual world." (What he doesn't quite answer is whether this someone else is actually more representative of our true selves?) Whatever be the case, any relationship based on a lie, howsoever big or small, cannot endure. Understandably, after this ‘experience’ I haven’t really had the heart- or the stomach- for similar misadventures. The risks, physical but also, more importantly, emotional, are far too great, as another friend, Mohit Singhania, was to discover to his chagrin, thirteen years later.
The point I wish to make here is this: unlike me, neither of my friends went looking for trouble. Trouble, it seems, found them. It’s kind of like that Sandra Bullock film, The Net: a cat-and-mouse tale of deception where Ms. Bullock’s character finds her entire life erased by a band of cyber-terrorists who, typically of Hollywood blockbusters, are out to take over America’s computerized-civilization. The fourth installment of the Die Hard series starring Bruce Willis is also based on a somewhat similar premise (I will spare you the details, assuming that those of you who haven’t seen it might want to do so at some later date). Unfortunately, such tales are not confined to celluloid: if newspaper reports are to be believed, then instances of Orkut being involved in anti-social activities- narco-jamborees, hate-communities, classroom harassments, even homicides- are becoming increasingly rampant in metropolitan India.
And Two Antidotes?
Not surprisingly, the Mumbai chief of the ultra-right party, Shiv Sena’s youth wing, Abhijit Panse, recently agitated to get Orkut banned: his raison d’être has little to with crime per se; instead, he believes that Orkut is, well, ‘anti-India’. Nothing could be farther from the truth: more Indians use Orkut than any other social-networking website (as a matter of fact, the number of Indians on Orkut is next only to Brazilians, and we are fast catching up). If anything, Orkut has become a powerful medium for Track Three Diplomacy (more commonly known as, P2P, or people-to-people diplomacy): the ‘India-Pakistan Friendship Club’ has 83,594 members. In fact, Mr. Panse would be better advised if he were to emulate his party’s alliance partner, the BJP, which has obviously realized the immense potential of Orkut in promoting itself among its predominantly youth members: while the ‘BJP Supporters Group’ has 7997 members, its parent-body, the RSS boasts a membership of a whopping 22,853 (which is more than all other political parties combined, Congress included). Even Lok Paritran (formed by IT-savvy IITian do-gooders), a relatively insignificant political outfit in the real-world most recognized for its anti-reservation stance, has a membership of 10,185. In contrast, the ‘Dalit’ community, whose members support affirmative action for the depressed communities, number only 505. In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that Orkut is fast becoming an ideal representative of what’s happening in- and to- Urban Upper Caste India. And even as Orkut continues to draw parts of this India closer to each other, and to the world, it also shows us how fast and how far this India is moving away from its Rural, Exurbian counterpart.
As I enter my second year of Orkuting, my effort, therefore, shall be twofold: first, at a personal level, I should like to make a conscious effort to convert my virtual friendships into real-life friendships, believing that the Good in all of us cumulatively overpowers the Bad that might exist in some of us; secondly, I would want to explore ways in which this immensely powerful medium could be used to ‘sensitize’ my Urban Friends, both real as well as virtual, to the needs, the hopes and aspirations, of the India that doesn’t quite have the luxury of connecting to the world on Orkut.
Monday, August 06, 2007