Not so social after all

Facebook is now mainstream in India. It has seen 2.1 crore unique Indians visitors in July. The rival Orkut had two crore visitors and thus in July, there were a total of over four crore Indian visitors on these social networking sites.

The numbers are just too big to ignore and the company is in the process of launching its office in Hyderabad. This will be the social networking giant’s 10th international office, which will provide support for sales and multi-lingual operations.

Not so social after all

As the Facebook blog said: “The new offices come at a significant time in our international growth. Seventy per cent of the people using Facebook are outside the US and are accessing the service from more than 70 languages. In India alone, we’ve seen rapid growth and now have more than 8 million (eighty lakh) people there actively connecting on Facebook with their friends, family, and other people they know, both within India and around the globe.”

You could say that Facebook has truly arrived in India when a friend narrated a story of how his sister had sent him and her other brothers Rakhi greetings, not by calling, or otherwise, but on Facebook!

I am on both Facebook and Orkut. When I first became active, there was the flush of connecting with friends who had moved away and discovering much about their lives. Eventually came the realisation that many had moved on. Of course, the shared memories were wonderful to cling on to and revive contact, but soon I realised that I was spending too much time on these sites and I cut it down. Ironically, since I was an early user, this came at a time when the site was gaining popularity among people I knew, and they used to get upset that I had not responded to their friend requests or commented on their status. It took time, but now my friends have got used to my sporadic presence on these sites.

While researching on chatting at the start of this century, I logged on to a chat site and within days I found that I was just glued on to my commuter and ignoring other things, trying to dismiss people fast when they called on me and behaving in various other obnoxious ways. I soon realised that this was because I had started missing the high of being connected, and was well on a fast road to chat addiction. Within a week, the article finished, I logged out, and stayed logged out.

The downside of the “anywhere, anytime” mantra adopted by the communications industry has resulted in a deluge of data that affects how people think and behave, both individually and collectively. Today’s smart phones are virtually computers, with good processing power, high-speed Internet connections and cameras. Earlier this month, Yujuan Bao, a Facebook engineer, wrote in his blog that 30 per cent of the more than 500 million Facebook users are using a mobile device to access the site.

I recently met a young mother who said that she would “die” without her Facebook. At a dinner where we were together, she checked out her phone and updated her status on Facebook frequently, much to the annoyance of her mother, and irritation of the other guests.

All this tires the brain of the person who is deluged with data. A recent article by Matt Richtel in The New York Times quoted a study at the University of Michigan, USA, which “found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.” Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, according to scientists. “People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

There is an incessant urge to “stay in touch” and it takes its toll. A friend recently narrated a conversation with his daughter. While travelling back from a party, she wanted to check her mail and used her father’s phone. “Look, how easy technology has made our life,” she said. “See, how it has shaved off our 10 minutes of the time we would have been conversing as a family,” replied the father.

How often do you walk into a coffee shop or a restaurant and see someone alone, just sitting and waiting? He or she would be fidgeting with a mobile phone, checking on e-mail or updating a status. Even during theatre performances, you will see the bright blue batons of those who find it impossible to enjoy something they have paid for, and fail to see the anti-social nature of action.

When you try to do too many things at the same time, you lose focus. Now, this should be a no-brainer. Try to tell that to someone who is texting while watching TV, or answering an e-mail while talking to another person, and someone who is juggling many, many tabs on his browser, trying to soak in information from everywhere. We have the multi-tasking myth. We believe that we can multitask, and that women are better at it than men. But are we doing some tasks well, or just doing more things badly? I, for one, feel that it is the latter. So, I love Facebook, but slot out my time on it, and when I am on Facebook, I concentrate on what I am doing. I feel that this makes my activity more meaningful. Would you agree?

This article by Roopinder Singh was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on September 1, 2010.

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