Saturday, September 22, 2007

Orkut as theatre

Orkut, the social networking site hosted by Google Inc., is surely and quickly emerging more as a well-choreographed spectacle, than as a genuine and spontaneous forum for social interaction.

A caveat at the outset: this is not a critique of Orkut alone, but of all similar networking sites, that were set up with the promise of helping the youth to socialize and make friends.

The way Orkut has shaped out, nay its new raison d'être, is about making members look good to their friends and peers on the site. It is less about spontaneity and more about theatre.

Members upload their best snaps, chronicle their travels with well-selected snaps clicked in exotic locations, update peers on their wonderful new jobs, and generally convey through their sites that everything is hunky-dory and on the upswing at their end.

Social status on Orkut is predicated largely on the number of persons in your friends listing, even if you barely know some of the persons, or didn't exchange a call or a scrap with some of them for months.

Another measure of Orkut status is the number of scraps in your scrapbook, which most folks on Orkut treasure and accumulate, even though Orkut provides a facility to delete scraps.

The best way to increase the number of scraps is to scrap others as frequently as possible, even if they have nothing much to say, or if what had to be said could have been better said on phone. Hence you have husbands scrapping their wives to say they will be late for dinner, or as banal a comment as “Hey nice to c u here”.

The upshot is that nothing serious actually gets discussed on Orkut. If social networking in the physical world is about the sharing of common themes and ideas, bouncing out of new and unusual ideas, and generally trying to build community, Orkut has become by and large about mechanical scrapping and collection of friends.

There aren’t many new, original ideas of singular importance discussed on Orkut. There is nothing online like the “fiercely agonal spirit” described by the political theorist Hannah Arendt. In contrast, Orkut and other social networking is about conformity, being one with the crowd online, and doing your best to get accepted.

There have been frequent attempts to bring in political debate into Orkut, with communities like “I Hate Pakistan” or “Bush Sucks”(login required). But don’t expect a cerebral, well-informed debate on these communities.

On “Bush Sucks”, for example, besides referring to George Bush as responsible for killing thousands of people, members of Orkut said they hated Bush because “he was born”. Another “Orkuter” hates Bush because “he wants the abstinence of sex...before marrieg (sic)”, while still another dislikes the US President because “i don't know... just hate bush”.

The lack of depth in political commentary largely reflects the psyche of the generation that is currently on Orkut –-- they are primarily in their teens or early and mid 20s. This is the MTV generation that grew up with one credo – hedonism even if most of them can’t spell the word. For them Che Guevara is a picture on a T-Shirt to impress your girl with.

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