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Cyber chatting: The good, bad and the ugly
Priyanka Joshi | December 22, 2007
When Manish Keswani*, a college student, started a hate group on social networking site Orkut, it wasn't a big deal for him. The catalyst was something that is familiar to most people -- Keswani did not like his classmate Tarini Nagpal* who, he says, "had an attitude problem". "She would sweet-talk her way, especially with the male professors in college," he gripes. "It was very jarring."
So Keswani did what other hot-blooded youth seem hell-bent on doing as well. Just before the annual college festival, the Delhi-based lad created an "I hate Tarini" group on Orkut, restricted to friends who shared his sentiments.
He boasts of 29 active members in the group and fields numerous requests from random Orkut users who are interested in figuring out what the fuss about Nagpal is all about. Keswani claims that all he wants to have is a little fun at Nagpal's expense.
Such spontaneously meted justice in the public domain isn't limited to just others. Recently, when I stumbled upon a group somewhat smuttily titled "Priyanka Joshi is a suck up" on the popular social networking site Facebook, it came as a rude shock. No one, not even me, it seemed, was free from the nasty handiwork of these cyber graffiti artists.
The 35-strong group's sole purpose appeared to be to pile abuse and crack crude jokes against me as they disparaged "the clothes worn by the Queen Victoria [i.e. me]" or my apparently "tardy presentation made to clients" or, worse, "She has the boss eating out of her hands".
I have to admit that it was a huge relief that this Priyanka Joshi in question was not me -- but it might as easily have been. Which is why it's appaling to see the members make their dislike for the alternate Priyanka Joshi so apparent. [The group was duly reported to the Facebook authorities and has since been taken off the site.]
Today, there are zillions of hate groups on social networking sites, and if truth be told, till you're targeted, the reasons they give for being online appear at least notionally to make some sense. Welcome, then, to the "not-so friendly" side of social networks.
Imagine a similar, real-life situation: the icky feeling you might experience if you were to wander into a co-worker's cubicle to find the wall covered with tiny photographs of everyone in the office ranked either as "Friend" or "Enemy" -- with perhaps the three best colleagues/friends elevated to a small shrine decorated with post-it notes and hearts.
The question we, therefore, need to ask ourselves is whether social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook, MySpace and Bebo are helping users keep in touch with friends (their original and stated intent) or attracting perverts and leading to social mishaps, sometimes with tragic consequences, as when a middle-aged lady in the US pretended to be a boy interested in a neighbourhood teenager before dumping her publicly in cyber space, leading to her tragic suicide.
Clinical psychologist Prof Dr Aruna Broota describes social networks, somewhat brutally, as a nuisance. "It's an addiction for a generation that cannot get enough of the computer," she says.
Before leaving for higher studies in London, Sagata Bhavnani used her anonymous Facebook profile to go after school bullies, former bosses and "friends" she disliked. "I listed little secrets about my boss's behavior during meetings, posted stories on how I was bullied in school by a boy, or how a certain teacher favoured a classmate," she confesses.
And the gratification? "Nothing beyond the fact that I could say what I always wanted to, without thinking 'What if?'" Bhavnani explains. Today Bhavnani has a listed profile page on MySpace and claims to use the space only to keep in touch with her London friends.
It may take years to track the social changes cyber networking is serving up, but it seems almost impossible to believe that until last September, a "normal" user could not get a Facebook account. It's only actually been one year since Facebook's developers moved the site from being a US varsity tool to a global social networking, messaging and application behemoth available to anyone with an Internet connection and time to spare.
Such has its impact been that today millions of users hobnob and enjoy hunting down long-lost friends in order to catch up, gossip, play games, share content and, in the case of one Facebook application, take vampire-sized chunks out of each other.
All for fun? Well, not exactly. Viren Advani dedicates three hours everyday on social networking sites like Facebook, Linkedin, Yahoo! 360 and Orkut as part of his daily work. Advani, who is associated with the human resource department of a leading financial outfit, has been using social networking sites for some time, both to keep an eye on the online behaviour of existing employees and to vet job applicants before making them offers.
"We have rejected candidates on the basis of unsavoury photos or messages posted by them on these social sites," he says candidly.
"We also review the type of activities our employed staff indulges in on such sites, not with the intention to snoop but to ensure that our candidates do not malign our multinational organisation."
HR executives like Advani believe that the social networking habits of an individual help provide a near-accurate picture of his skills and personality, which then helps them in selecting the most appropriate candidate for the role.
It was a different story for 16-year-old Rhea Prakash*, a state-level basketball player from a leading public school in Delhi. For her, handling a rough competitor on the field would probably have been much easier than dealing with the anonymous abusers she met online.
She started receiving private messages -- one of the modes of communication on Facebook -- abusing and threatening to harm her. "My schoolmates told me that I had to learn to live with it," she says. Eventually, Prakash deleted her details from Facebook. She looks pained when she says, "I showed the messages to my parents�I expected them to be sympathetic, but instead my parents hushed me up saying, 'This sort of thing is expected as you are a popular basketball player'."
Today Prakash has a profile on Orkut -- under a different name. "It's a different high to see a virtual room full of friends reassuring you that you're right about something and this boosts my confidence like nothing else," she admits.
Cyber experts define cyber harassment as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text. It's different from old-fashioned bullying or harassment because it reaches wherever young people go online -- often in the privacy of their own bedrooms. "One glaring drawback of social networks is that not everyone on them is there for the same reason. There are addicts, abusers, stalkers who enjoy anonymity and freedom to harass users," says Broota.
That probably explains Ashish Gupta's* social networking experience. An NRI, Gupta works with a bank in the UAE. He joined a cyber group called "Indian Gay and Bisexual Men" on Facebook last year. The group looked interesting and Gupta was readily accepted. He maintains he was looking for "like-minded friends" but could hardly have imagined what was in store for him. He met a fellow member with whom he got along quite well at an offline event in Mumbai.
"We were in touch over emails and phone," he shared through a message on Facebook. Eventually, Gupta drifted away from this "Facebook friend" and that was the beginning of three months of e-abuse for the banker.
"I was repeatedly mailed obscene video clips from anonymous users on Facebook, would receive blank calls during peak work hours sometimes loaded with threatening messages or veiled threats to tell my employer about my sexual preferences," wrote Gupta. It stopped only when he deleted his Facebook profile, changed his mail ids and phone numbers "and also shifted my residence".
Every day, hundreds of thousands of Indians -- office colleagues, students, housewives, or simply friends who've met in cyber space -- post messages, share confidences and secrets on these public chat sites.
The social networking fad is a great way to pass time, or to genuinely reach out to friends. But who needs networks that open the doorways to the darker side of life or leave a vile taste in the mouth?
(*names changed on request)
The site is for those who too seem to have these "qualities" in them. You need to register (free) and upload a photo and write a brief description of yourself. You can also select tags that best describe your interests and others sharing those interests will find you and then chat with you, all within the website.