Encounters of a virtual kind

Remember the phrase "It's a small world"? Well, the world just got smaller, all thanks to social networking

Using laptopWikipedia, the wealth of information, describes social networking as, "A service that uses software to build online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others."

A while ago, temptation won over techno-trepidation and I finally succumbed. I signed up with a few social networking sites, the invites of which my friends had been flooding my mailbox with, for sometime now.

On their homepage, one site proclaimed "Everyone can join" and boy, were they serious! Within minutes of signing up, creating my profile page and using the search option to its optimum, I'd found old friends, neighbours, long-been-out-of-touch relatives and some old enemies too!

In an hour's time, I had 40 people on my "friends" list. By late evening, the count went up to 63 and when I logged in to check my profile for the 1000th time in the day I had 79 friends. Wow! In a short span of time I'd found people I had lost touch with years ago, some of who now lived in different cities or even time-zones.

My profile even had "News Feed" to inform me of every development -

"Meera and Shelly are now friends", "Ravi is out for a run", "Arun is home", "Alicia is the happiest girl in the world!", "Puja has a headache" - I was amazed. I hadn't met some friends for weeks and others for years. But, I now knew where they were, what they were doing, how they were feeling and even who they were befriending.

Besides knowing exactly what my friends were up to, the years fell away as we exchanged photographs squealing with delight ["You still look the same!/Gosh! You've changed so much!"] and filled each other in, on the years gone by. We chatted, even as I was munching on toast for breakfast while my friend at the other end of the world was having dinner.

I was enjoying social networking immensely and fretted about why I hadn't been brave enough to sign up earlier, till I received a friend invite where the name sounded eerily familiar but the accompanying profile picture baffled me. The profile picture got me wondering since when did Christmas trees learn to access the computer? Turned out, the invite was from Mum's old friend, cookie aunty, who we had lost touch with years ago, after she and her family moved out of the country. The mystery behind looking like a tree was happily explained under the picture "I dressed up like a Christmas tree for a fancy-dress party." It didn't end there; cookie aunty had pictures of herself attempting to imbibe two mugs of beer at once. In yet another picture, she was wearing fluorescent pink lipstick and a cap worn backwards and flashing a hip-hop backhand peace sign. I was appalled. Sometimes it is good to learn things about someone you've known and respected. But being too close - even virtually - can mean being too close for comfort.

I soon realised that social networking sites provide a definition of the word "friend" so expansive that it includes perfect strangers. Yet, strangers are the easy part. It can be a lot creepier to interact intimately with someone you sort of know than someone you don't know at all. Nothing changes when a stranger invites you to be a friend. But when acquaintances or people you know on a professional level "friend" you, it's slightly bizarre. When you see your corporate-honcho client dressed up as Superman [at his kid's birthday party], it's kind of weird.

Besides shrinking the world and bringing people closer, social networking has redefined the parameters of privacy. There's no escaping friend-requests from the boss, that pest who sits a cubicle away or your mum-in-law. It also makes you feel a little claustrophobic to realise that you end up knowing at least someone on somebody else's friend list. Avoiding people in the real world is far easier than avoiding people in the virtual world today!

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