Friday, August 31, 2007

Faces not Friends

I have stopped befriending people. These days, I simply engage in social networking.
Such are the new ties that bind Indian teenagers to 20 somethings to those of us in regression. And boy, do they bind… us to the computer for hours and hours.
I’m not entirely new to this, having been an early Friendster member around the turn of the century, which in Internet history really was quite some time ago. My now-husband and I even changed our “single” status on the site on the exact same autumn day of 2003, unbeknownst to the other: digital, mutual confirmation of true love and commitment really beats “The Talk”.
Then marriage and a baby forced me to forget my Friendster. That’s my excuse, I can’t speak for everyone else who left. I never joined MySpace or Orkut. I signed up for Ryze and LinkedIn because they were professionally oriented—as in, no options for “open marriage” and “hooking up”. Still, I rarely logged on.
But for the last few months, these Facebook fans have been nothing short of relentless. My friends sent invites and instant messages. They discussed bizarre exchanges of “spanks” and “pokes” and spiked collars as gifts. One close friend, an executive at a major multinational, wrote: “You really seem like a Facebook kind of gal. Why aren’t you on?”
I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or insulted.
My husband, a creative hipster who sticks with times and trends despite the presence of wife, child and grey hair, joined Facebook a few months ago. I didn’t even know it until he started casually dropping updates on my friends: Aseem is coming to India. Roopa said she liked my painting. Your friend Amy is single again.
Never one to be left out, I signed up two weeks ago, the day after my birthday. With its initial base of college students and status options ranging from studying to partying, Facebook felt a good place to begin my return to youth. Besides, my husband is never supposed to know more than I do.
Between May of 2006 and 2007, Facebook saw its largest growth among people like me, those between the ages of 25 and 34; unique visitors in this age group soared 181%, while those above 35 constituted the largest number with nearly 100% growth, according to ComScore, a survey and research company for the digital world.
Like the first week of a new job, my first week as a Facebook user passed with administrative tasks, from sending and fielding requests to “tagging” pictures of myself in other people’s albums. I scrambled to keep up with the all-in-one site, which also asks you for details on each acquaintance. It’s optional, but many names left me stumped. Asha Shah sounds familiar, but how the heck do I know her? Was she in my nursery class or my college roommate’s cousin? When in doubt, the random queries became friends, whatever that means these days. By day three, I had more people in my network than the husband and had discovered lots of people I never would have expected: the board chairman of my previous employer (hey, he reached out to me), for example.
At the end of the first week, someone wrote on my wall that my brother was peeved. I went right to the source and instant messaged the brother, using old-school Google chat. “YRU mad?” I wrote, trying to relate to his 22-year-old ways.
“Because I had to sanitize my Facebook page!” he wrote back in real English. “Why are you on there?”
Week two became even more of a time-sucker, as I devoured other people’s profiles, filled with obscure details, strange assessments of relationships. The wannabe friends, meanwhile, had no qualms interrogating me: When did you get married? Wait, you had a kid? You work in India now?
Clearly, these people are not my friends. They perhaps were a part of my life once upon a time and then we moved onto new chapters, new books even. Why engage, pretend, dishonour true friendship? As I steadily acquired friends, I felt like the more people I know, the less I really knew anybody. Me, with 154 friends, suddenly felt alone. Yet ignoring them seemed rude, so I did something else fitting these tech times: I sent them to my blog.
As of early Thursday morning, Facebook’s India network had 271,566 users and the country ranks ninth on a list of the 55 countries with the most active users, according to an email from a Facebook spokesperson.
“A lot of our growth is happening internationally,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with Time magazine last month. “We haven’t translated the site yet, but that’s something we’re working on and it should be done soon.”
Suddenly, I sympathized with my brother. In case Assamese figures anywhere in Facebook’s expansion plans, I have begun sanitizing. And for the real friends who want the real scoop, I hope they still take phone calls.
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