Spreading like wildfire across my and my Indian friends’ social-networking pages is Tunku Varadarajan’s latest commentary in The Daily Beast, which delves into some negative stereotypes we’ve created for our own people. The piece, benignly titled “Why India Loves Facebook,” suggests with all the sensitivity of a rabid dog that we Indians are a bunch of nosy braggarts who believe it’s our gods-given right to examine and judge the actions of everyone we know–and to over-share our own lives’ most inappropriate details.
[S]hould we think of Facebook as yet another canvas on which the Indian etches himself into an entwined crowd? One can see this art of connection on display on many Indian Facebook pages, where seemingly private conversations are conducted in a wide-open space. “I sacked the maid,” an Indian “friend’s” recent status update said. “Anyone know how I can find another fast?” “Should I wax or thread?” another asked, provoking, like the first questioner, a torrent of responses that other cultures might regard as intrusive or presumptuous.
To be honest, I’m not really keen on the thesis here. I don’t mind the stereotypes (more on that later), but I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to use these stereotypes as an explanation for why any particular demographic enjoys connecting and communicating via the Web. Sure, Indian Facebook users love to tell people what they’re doing and to read about what everyone else is doing! Isn’t that the curry-eatin’, chai-drinkin’ point? It’s social networking; this is what Facebook, MySpace, and Orkut are for. (You remember, Orkut, right? If not, you might be living out the American stereotype of only caring about things that matter to America: Orkut is Google’s answer to Facebook, and while it thrives in places like India, the long-awaited service actually bombed in the States. But, I digress.)
There are about 1.2 billion people in India today. Of those, only 13 million use Orkut, while a scant 4 million use Facebook (Source: ComScore). Even if you count Indians worldwide and include those of us who live in the States, Varadarajan himself estimates that only 8 million of us are on Facebook. To give you some perspective, more than 275 million Indian citizens use mobile phones. Not all of our billion-plus people are Slumdogs hanging out at the Temple of Doom. (Talk about stereotypes!)
But back to why I don’t really mind Indian self-stereotyping: This might be an unpopular stance to take, but I believe that a lot of generalizations–particularly those that groups come up with for themselves–have at least some basis in truth. Why would we make this stuff up if we didn’t see these traits in our friends, our families, and even ourselves? I mean, most of the stereotypes that other groups have created for us have been pretty great: Everyone seems to think we’re all brilliant doctors and engineers who are genetically predisposed to academic success. We’re exotic, our food is fabulous, and above all else, we can dance.
So, I don’t disagree with Varadarajan’s assessment that social networking really jibes with Indians’ disdain for privacy and boundaries because when it comes to generalizations, you have to take the good with the bad. I do, however, disagree with his suggestion that this disdain is somehow unique to us. I seriously doubt Indians’ interest in social networking, which really is somewhat modest given the figures above, has anything more to do with cultural traits than with human ones.
Take a look at the frequently updated social-networking mockery sites, Failbooking and Lamebook. Maintainers of both sites seek out the most inappropriate, foolish, weirdest, creepiest content from the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and compile them for the rest of us to see so that we may join in them in pointing and laughing at the blurred out faces and scratched out names.
Here’s an example:
This mass ridicule is nothing new. Back in the days before social-networking sites, when more internet users socialized via chat rooms, sites like Bash.org sprang up to bring us comic gold like this:
Josh: QUESTION FOR EVERYONE.... SecureXeC: IT'S TO THE LEFT OF YOUR 'A' KEY.
All of these sites are based in The United States, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in the world. All content is user-generated, and despite Failbooking’s halfhearted attempts at concealing names and faces, it’s quite apparent that this content comes from people from myriad walks of life.
The truth is, we’re all just a bunch of voyeurs with exhibitionist tendencies. If we weren’t, social networking would fail and Facebook, once run out of a dorm room, wouldn’t be worth the whopping $11 billion it is today.