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Where have the real friends gone?

November 25, 2008

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Sam,' Shanmuganathan to his parents and to almost no one else in the US, is an old friend and when we met recently was looking worried. I initially put it down to Sam's profession -- investment banking with a specialisation in hedge funds or leveraged buyouts or some such, which I had never really understood.

Of course, it is common knowledge that all  the financial big shots in such high flying and esoteric areas are now a worried lot and go about with woebegone faces. So I thought immediately of recession, stagflation, downturn and slump, terms constantly in the news these days.

"Did you lose a lot? Any hopes of recovery?" I asked with some sympathy.

"Do you think money is the only thing that I think about?" he asked a little angrily. Frankly, that is what I did think.

"It is not money, it is Sid," said Sam referring to Siddarth, his only son.

Sid is almost 15, a model kid with superlative grades at school, hard work in his bones and on top of all that with a quiet and gentle temperament.

"What has happened to Sid, now?" I asked, genuinely a bit worried whether Sam was finding it difficult to pay Sid's exorbitant school fees in these days of  reductions and retrenchments.

"Nothing ever happens, that is the problem," said Sam with some exasperation. "No friends, no needs, just sitting in front of his laptop all day," he sighed. "He does not have a life," he said using a quintessentially modern American expression.

We talked a little more. Sam's frustration was understandable. In his own school and college days Sam was always an outgoing, sports loving, friends aplenty personality, despite all his studious and industrious habits. And his son, never going out, no friends dropping in -- a loner?

I will talk to Sid, I said and proceeded to do so when an opportunity presented itself.

"Tell me about your friends, Sid," I asked him. "Who do you hang with these days? Which are your favourite haunts?" I asked trying to use what I thought was his generation's lingo.

Sid looked up slowly from the screen in front of him. "Uncle, I don't go out all that much. My problem is that I have too many friends," he said. "I can hardly keep up with them."

"Really? Are they in the same school?"

"They are all over the world, naturally," said Sid somewhat perplexed. "There is Aiako in Japan [Images], Hans in Sweden and Sheshadri  from Nellore."

"Want to see their pictures?" he was asking, already tapping his keyboard even before I could reply.

 "What about your real friends?" I asked.

Sid was confused as well as irritated. "But these are my real friends," he answered.

"No, I meant the actual... well, the physical ones, in the same school, in your neighbourhood, friends that you can really confide in..."

I began saying even as I realised that I had lost it. I was getting entangled with a young boy in metaphysics, on what is real and what is appearance, and whether friendship needs physical proximity or emotional empathy.

This encounter made me think once again of the force and total hold of Facebook and MySspace on Sid's generation and the larger question of the effect of the 'social networking web communities' on the generation next.

Facebook is only four years old, having been set up by another one of those young web geniuses, Marc Zuckerberg, in February 2004. Its main competitors MySpace and Orkut are equally recent for people like me, or to see it in another way, equally familiar for kids like Sid. But in this period they have more than 300 million subscribers. And the time has indeed come to ponder over their impact -- psychological, social and even philosophical. Also generational, as the travails of Sam and Sid showed.

First, a few words of description though, for those readers who like me don't fully appreciate this phenomenon. Websites like Facebook, MySpace, or Orkut are quite simple in their concept even if they are complex in their design. They allow you -- as a member -- to create a profile of yourself, personal details, photos or an entire album, favourites lists -- music is the most critical for this generation -- but also books or movies, comments or blogs, lists of friends: in short to create a kind of platform for self-expression as well as communication.

Zuckerberg modelled the early Facebook on the kind of  'inhouse' campus book that universities had with pictures and profiles of classmates and teachers in a college so that those curious could look up who that pretty girl with curly hair or the nerdy genius  wearing a tie, in the campus really was. In fact, Facebook was originally meant only for Harvard, then expanded for other Ivy League universities before it was thrown open. 

MySpace attracted a younger membership from the beginning. Orkut from Google became dominant in Brazil [Images] and India for some reason.

So someone like Siddarth first starts by defining himself through his profile listing his hobbies, interests, personal favourites in music, sports etc and invites his friends to take a peek at his profile. He is at the same time curious about others, both friends he already has and others he wishes he knew. And in no time at all, his universe expands and he starts 'making new friends' -- if this be called friendship -- with hundreds all over the world, based on common interests, shared inclinations, or sometimes by mere chance.

But this is not a static universe. It can be updated continually and it is not uncommon for someone like Sid to first rush to announce on his page anything important in his life -- winning the chess match, aspiring for Princeton -- before telling his parents at home. This in a nutshell is how it works.

In Silicon Valley, I heard some fascinating debates about the sociological impact of such networks. Many PhDs can be written and are indeed being written on diverse aspects. On one hand, there are parents like Sam who worry that this obsession with cyber friends will suck out all initiative and enthusiasm in making real friends and 'contacts' for the young like Sid.

It is a version of the fear that Indian parents have perennially had of their children being stuck in front of television, video games, VCR, computer or the next new gizmo which changes every few years. There are others who however think that it has opened the possibilities for faster and closer chatter among the likeminded apart from enabling globalised friendships.

Another area of concerns relate to loss of privacy, peer pressure on people liking your 'profile', the narcissism that the whole process engenders, and the sexual fantasies that these sites generate. Specially the young are under enormous pressure of acceptance -- or its converse, fear of rejection -- and these networks can compound their tensions.

'What is the effect of this phenomenon on human relationships?' I had asked rather pompously, at a seminar. My question was addressed to a psychologist who had spoken on 'The web and the personality'.

"It makes distant relationships seem closer, while rendering close relationships less personal," she answered. It sounded like a glib line, but when I reflected later I realised its truth. Like email, there is the possibility of easy and ready communication anywhere and at all times, which widens the circle and quickens the pace of connectivity, but the process gradually makes the contacts shorter, more perfunctory, less intimate.

It is friendship without a smile -- or at best with a virtual smile -- and certainly without an embrace. Is it less real, then? As someone from a heritage which speaks of degrees of Reality in Vedanta or Change as the only permanent state in Buddhism, how can I say that the virtual is less real than the physical?

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is the Indian ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

B S Prakash

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