Online social networking is changing our lives in more ways than we realize.
“Online social networking is not just about contact; it is a way of life,” remarked my friend. “Absolutely!” I managed to say between mouthfuls of Hareesa, as we sat enjoying our lunch in the quiet corner of the restaurant I like to frequent for gup-shup or serious discussions. While I savor face-to-face contact with the people in my life, it is sadly becoming something increasingly absent from the lives of a large number of internet users.
Online networking phenomenon took the world by storm in the last decade or so. Real life interactions which required bringing like-minded people together has now been replaced largely by online networking due to the popularity of online websites like Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, FriendFinder, Friendster, Classmates, and networking services like Twitter etc. While previously it was only possible to interact with like-minded people within a certain geographical location, it is now quite easy to live parallel lives in the cyber world and have access to individuals from around the world, shifting the boundaries of what personal information should be shared with the public. Contrary to popular belief, nothing online is ever private!
Online networking is helpful in bringing together friends and family members living in distant places, but also dissemination of information through live updates from newspapers and television pages on sites like Facebook, which allow users to share their opinion about the issue being discussed by posting comments. Posters are exposed to a diverse set of opinions that s/he would otherwise never come across. This also provides an advantage where one can enrich one’s outlook and take a trip into a foreign culture, literally, in the blink of an eye!
However, as with most things, there is a flipside to instant connections. The tangible dangers include identity theft and from predators who befriend unsuspecting users by pretending to be someone else, using pictures and personal information from other people’s profiles. Most online users are not careful when adding friends as the number of friends might matters more than the quality of a relationship. Online harassment can result in psychological and emotional strain. Some incidences reported in newspapers included murders and suicides due to cyber-stalking and bullying. One important tip that police and responsible adults impart are to not befriend individuals whom one doesn’t know in real life and never to meet online ‘friends’ in isolated places.
Social networking is taking up important marketing and business roles as well. Facebook has gained recognition as a business-related site. It is not uncommon for prospective employers and college admissions counselors to look into profiles of applicants to make their decision-making process easier. Sites like LinkedIn provide professional business networking opportunities. Businesses are increasingly applying online portals to promote themselves and to target consumer interests. Job applicants can also use online networking for finding suitable jobs or to share thoughts with co-workers. The importance of portraying a suitable professional image online cannot be stressed enough. The Wall street Journal recently reported in an interview with, Eric Schmidt , the CEO of Google, commenting on how the “young may want to change names in future to escape public record of youthful indiscretions” because "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time…", adding that, based on the information that Google collects, “we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." That is not a very comforting thought!
For Asian populations, the more popular online websites and services include Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter which have a huge following. However, the numbers would be much higher than what they are projected to be now if economic reasons did not prevent huge sections of populations from purchasing personal computers and accessing online portals. According to the advertising page of Facebook, the total number of Facebook users in Asia is 59.6 million, which is about 15% of the global Facebook population. The two main age groups are between 18 – 24 and 25 – 34. The young 18 – 24 year olds dominate in Indonesia, Philippines, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh, this age group constitutes more than half of the Facebook users in their respective country. Similarly, according to a Toronto-based social media analytics company, Sysomos’s latest report on Twitter, Asian countries constitute about 7.74% of the Twitter users worldwide.
Another important function that online websites have taken up is that of matchmaking, which was previously done by family or friends or professional matrimonial services. Now, finding romantic interests online has become the craze for the very young as well as the lonely older age group. Sites like eHarmony, Match.com, etc. have gained huge popularity. There are many matchmaking sites now catering to specific groups as well, like Senior FriendFinder, Catholic Match, Muslima.com etc. The online dating websites advertise their services through online search engines and act as social networking sites too. When people join these websites they may add relevant information on their profiles and then are matched with people of similar interests. They boast of a high success rate and attract a huge following, though, just like real life interactions utmost care should be taken when imparting personal information to anyone.
One advantage of online dating is that one can focus on the common aim of getting to know the other person. Eastern populations of South Asia are taking advantage of online networking through websites like Asia FriendFinder.com, Asian Singles Connect, Indian FriendFinder, etc. In societies where arranged marriage is the norm and is considered more of a union of families rather than just two people, various criteria set by the matchmakers might not necessarily coincide with that of the couple. Yet, there is no data so far to support the success of online interaction versus traditional matchmaking in Asia. Nothing compares to meeting and knowing someone personally. We can click to connect instantly, but forming long lasting and fulfilling relationships demands much more than the superficial bonds formed through social media, which also undermine social skills and the ability to read body language.
Surprisingly, despite the high number of hours spent each day online, young adults remain dissatisfied and lonelier than ever. A recent report called The Lonely Society? Published by a New York based charity called the Mental health Foundation describes that almost 53% of 18-34 year olds had felt lonely compared to just 32% over 55. The report found the reason to be linked to the admission of 1/3rd of these young people who admitted to spending too much time online and not enough in person. Mark Vernon, the author of The Meaning Of Friendship aptly remarks, "For older generations, who have come to it when their friendships are already well established, social networking just makes up for the fact that you can't be physically present all the time," and that, "You've spent plenty of time together in the past, and can understand the nuances of a short email or message. If you've mostly conducted your friendship online, you don't have that resource to draw on."
All said however, like everything else, online networking has its advantages and disadvantages, but the technology of instant contact is here to stay and we might as well learn to use it responsibly and to our benefit. Do you agree? Let me know… I’m just a click away!
SouthAsia, Sept 2010.