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If You’re Not on Facebook, Do You Exist?

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
May 2009
If You’re Not on Facebook, Do You Exist?

I have to confess—I am a convert. No, not to Hinduism, Buddhism or Communism but to that newest quasi-religion sweeping the Universe—Social Networking! It’s the hot new belief system where you can sit meditating at a computer screen or Blackberry all day and yet connect with hundreds of your friends, network with thousands of business bigwigs and even launch a successful start-up company!

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter—these are words which did not even exist ten years ago. Now you have Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter evangelists and gurus, followers and the followed. Countless hours are spent communicating with fellow devotees. As a larger and larger part of the population is sucked into a cyber world where you can instantly connect with people worldwide, the whole dynamics of communication is being transformed.

In January of this year, Facebook had 150 million members, MySpace had 110 million, and LinkedIn, 50 million. And it’s a continually growing market: The New York Times noted that Facebook (which in just a few months has jumped from 150 to 200 million members), has a huge potential audience in older people. “Many over-30 graybeards have yet to sign up, so Facebook has a chance for astonishing growth. Each week, a million new members are added in the United States and five million globally; the 30-and-older group is its fastest-growing demographic.”

Best of all, all this super activity doesn’t cost you a cent.

Be it the sharing of hot chai in a dhaba, or dancing at a 10-day wedding feast, Indians, by nature, love to connect, gupshup, and get involved with people intimately. Little surprise then that Indians and Indian Americans are all over cyberspace and are active citizens of several social network worlds.

A strange new world

Now that everyone from college kids to movie stars to uncles and aunts and moms and dads are Tweeting and social-networking, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about. I took the plunge by joining both LinkedIn and Facebook, and in a way, it was like Alice falling through the rabbit hole into a strange, multi-colored, wacky new world. I learnt soon enough that the demigods of this world take “real time” quite seriously, when I shot out an email to the folks at Twitter, Inc., and was amazed to get an almost immediate response from none less than Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. Talk about Tweets! (For Stone’s comments on the prospects of Twitter in India, please see the sidebar titled, “Social Networking in and about India”)

It was strange to be encountering people I’d lost touch with or had chatted with years ago, strange to be sharing their snapshots, pages and music and learning minute to minute what was on their minds! It was fun too to find out what friends were up to, what causes were moving them. Indeed, on Facebook, nobody is shy—there are photo albums galore, videos, and Freudian quizzes they have taken, not to mention a daily analysis of what they’ve eaten and how they are feeling!

You can also send out bottles of champagne, gifts, jewelry and flowers to your friends – virtually of course with cute little icons of the real thing – and so now no friend’s birthday goes un-remembered because Facebook reminds you of the event like an efficient assistant.

It’s like being a complete kid again—go to any friend’s home and scribble on their walls! Yes, the Facebook walls that come with every home page are a place to shout out to friends, say what’s on your mind and get them to come to your home and write on your wall! Facebook is also terribly indulgent—it asks you what’s on your mind like a concerned parent or psychoanalyst, by the second! All great fun—and as one friend confided to me, you don’t feel the world is such a scary place anymore.

A web of friends and family unlike any other

There is certainly a cyber-togetherness built up that carries on to when one does meet in the flesh. A bond has been formed, the Facebook bond, in a world of so many names and so many faces. Of course, no one will argue, in this cyberspace world, quantity trumps quality. Some people have over 4,000 friends! How deep can such friendships be? The idea seems to be to get connected with as many people as possible.

Others keep it private, sticking with a handful of close friends. In fact, I came across some with just five or six friends—and they, too, get their fun with Facebook. Indeed, it’s like living in a small village, meeting acquaintances daily in the square, and being included in events, even if they do happen to be often self-promotional ones! It’s all really quite nice and very inclusive. And sometimes you do learn of wonderful new artists or books or real causes.

Facebook is becoming integral to finding lost friendships and sometimes is the resting place and port of call for last goodbyes and memorials. Geeta Citygirl, actor and artistic director of SALAAM Theatre, recalls how she got reconnected to Diana Nichols, a dear high school friend, through Facebook. When Diana recently passed away from a severe asthma attack, her heartbroken friends put up a memorial for her on Facebook. She says, “Near or far, we mourned her passing together—cyberly via FB. We continue to stay connected to her son Joshua and her fiancé Rusty via FB. And in a way, I know Diana is somewhere laughing and enjoying all this.”

Kamini Anand, a project architect in Alpharetta, Georgia, says that the greatest aspect of Facebook has been the ability for her to get back in touch with her extended circle of friends and geographically dispersed family spread across the US, India, UK and Australia. “I have not had contact with several of my cousins for about 15 years until I re-engaged with them on Facebook,” she says. ““I now feel truly connected to the day-to-day happenings of someone living across the globe. I can see that my cousin in Australia loves surfing the waves, while a friend in Bangalore had a great birthday. This dynamic feed engages you in a lot better way than typing a long email and keeping in touch with everyone.” Recently Anand’s 63-year-old dad surprised her by sending her a friend request on facebook. This was soon followed by her 65-year-old uncle from Scotland. “Facebook has transcended social background, age and is truly an awesome tool for everyone,” says Anand.

Pros and cons of this and that

Sundip Arora, a sales engineer in Boston, says, “In this age, Facebook, My Space, Friendster, Orkut and others have become as much a part of our lives as calling friends once in a while to check up on them.” He adds that there’s definitely a major reduction in his cell phone bill as all the interaction with friends seems to be through the social network sites.

Arora admits he’s a Facebook addict and spends a few hours on it daily to get his dose of Friend updates, pictures, status updates, relationship statuses and the many other ways that people share aspects of their lives through Facebook.

“Facebook is the new business card, you meet someone new and instead of asking ‘Do you have a business card?’ I find myself asking, ‘Are you on FB?’” says Pooja Dhawan, a New Jersey entrepreneur in contemporary women’s wear. “It’s been incredible—I connected with high school friends after more than a decade last summer! I find Facebook more addictive than Myspace. I use FB for personal networking and Myspace for my business networking.”

Sidharth Sahoo, a consultant in Atlanta, is a veteran of Orkut and MySpace but now uses only Facebook. He says, “MySpace is too public and poorly designed, plus you have to deal with all the spam. Orkut was great for getting back in touch with old friends in India but in the last two years almost everyone there, too, has moved to Facebook. I also just signed up with Twitter to see what all the hype is about but am not so sure I am a fan.”

Asked if these outlets help his work life too, he says, “Indirectly they have. There are some benefits to maintaining relationships in both worlds, particularly in consulting, but there are associated risks. For the most part I try keeping my professional and social networks separate. I am a member of LinkedIn and Doostang and both seem to be taking off especially in the current economy with a lot more people spending time on these sites.”

Of course, most young people started with MySpace and Facebook while they were still in school, and have grown up with these tools. Zankhana Desai, a high school student in Atlanta, has not one but three social networking accounts-—Facebook, MySpace and Orkut, and has also tried others such as Flixster and Zinch.

“I have had Facebook ever since I was a freshman and it is pretty addicting. There is even a group on Facebook called ‘I Was Doing My Homework, Then I Ended Up on Facebook.’ No surprise that this group has 750,483 members!” She also utilizes Facebook for reasons other than socializing, since many businesses have made their own groups on Facebook that allow people to get discounts or apply for a job right on the site.

Beyond social: impacting everything from pop culture and business to careers and politics

As more and more desis take to the social networking sites, every South Asian cause, movie star, rock group and issue seems to be on Facebook! King Khan has over 500 fan groups. Facebook has over 250 Amitabh Bachchan Fan Clubs and appreciation groups—but there’s also a We Hate Amitabh Bachchan Group! Among the 135 fan groups for Preity Zinta, there’s even one called ‘The Only Reason I watched the Kings XI Punjab Was Because of Preity Zinta!’ While some of these groups have just 11 members, others have over 50,000.

For artists, deejays, authors and performers, social networking is a great way for them to keep in touch with their fans and to inform them of upcoming concerts and events. Pop star Tina Sugandh, who is known as the Tabla Girl, says, “Facebook allows me to tell everyone all at once what I’m up to. I love that, unlike a press release or a magazine article, you can deliver career info to fans in a very informal and personal way that makes you feel much closer to them!

“I get excited about things in my career and so I really love to share and hear their feedback. For example, I was so excited to be at Ringo Starr’s house playing tabla and singing on his album, and to be honest, one of the first things I did when I got home was to tell my Facebook friends since I knew they would share in my excitement.”

One young Indian American who has become quite savvy at this, and jokingly refers to herself as a Social Networking Goddess, is Anjula Acharia-Bath, CEO and founder of Desi Hits, a company founded on the back of social networking. Desi Hits got the Top 100 NYC OnMedia and OnHollywood Award for 2007-08, and was also the winner of the UK AMA’s Best Website award in 2008.

“Hooray for social networks!” she says. “I am a classic social network junkie that has used social networks throughout my professional life to drive whatever I am working on. I was one of the early ones using LinkedIn; I was a partner at the search firm called Forsyth Group and Linkedin was my network to thousands of candidates and clients.”

She then founded the multi-platform media company Desi Hits! and used LinkedIn to grow the business, raise the second round of capital, employ people, find partners and push out the content offering to South Asians worldwide, using third party sites such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Orkut, getting increased exposure.

Social networking is vital for getting the word out about every rising star and every new venture, and is especially loved by writers, artists and musicians. Geeta Citygirl, actor and artistic director of SALAAM Theatre, the first South Asian American theatre and arts company in the United States, has used social networking for personal and professional connections. She says, “I have noticed that casting directors, filmmakers, writers and fellow actors are ‘meeting’ via FB. In some ways, FB is the new ‘community corner shop’—the place to hang out, meet your friends and maybe even connect with your friend’s friends. The pace of things in our lives has definitely accelerated.”

One of the disadvantages, she says, is that you can get lost in the FB traffic—especially if you try to connect with everyone you have ever been in contact with! She says, “It’s crazy! Sometimes email feels safer and in a strange way, more personal. But then I get a reality check from one of my younger cousins who can’t believe I still do email. She always laughs at how ‘ancient’ I am. There’s a real reality check, huh?”

The fact that there is this very lucrative, captive audience available has not escaped corporations, big and small—and now nearly every business and product has a Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter presence! Even Kauai Hindu Monastery, creators of Hinduism Today, devoted to higher things, has realized the value of this very materialistic venue! An email from the monks who run this popular magazine on Hinduism stated with humor: “Everyone knows Facebook, right? Kauai’s Hindu Monastery has been receiving suggestions from devotees to create a Facebook Page for months. A recent visitor to the monastery told us, ‘The time when people asked themselves the question “Should I be on Facebook?” has passed.’ We realized that, just as we have a daily blog as well as a presence on iTunes and YouTube, Facebook would be yet another way to be a part of the lives of the 100+ million and growing Facebook population, which is expected to reach a billion in the near future.”

Indeed, the hard reality is that the arena of communications is changing dramatically and a web 2.0 presence has become mandatory. Businesses are fast realizing the need to utilize all aspects of social networking.

As these social networks spread across the world, they are doubling as wonderful professional resources, too. A number of sites, notably LinkedIn, help in everything from networking to finding a mentor to landing a job in these hard economic times. Geographical boundaries are absolutely no obstruction for these global networks. Executives from all Fortune 500 companies, for example, are LinkedIn members.

The youth groups amongst Indian Americans have realized the value of social networking and are utilizing it in a very savvy way to connect community members. NetIP (The Network of Indian Professionals) is such a social networking group that has taken enthusiastically to these sites both as an organization and in the personal lives of its members. They are a valuable tool in promoting NetIP events and in educating the online community about the organization as a whole, and publicizing events via Facebook has been effective in generating widespread awareness. While formal membership and registration for NetIP events is required, there are new members joining NetIP related groups and events on Facebook everyday, which ultimately impacts membership.

Sriram Narasimhan, an account manager with GE and on the board of NetIP−Phoenix, says, “Facebook has been vital to our marketing efforts, for creating awareness about the new Phoenix chapter, recruiting members, and publicizing events. We would not have been successful without Facebook. It is the first site people turn to when they want to meet others in the community.”

These sites have also demonstrated their power in politics—as candidate Barack Obama showed when he harnessed social networks to get a real movement for change going. In fact, Obama had more than three million Facebook Friends who further used the tools on Facebook to spread the message. More than 900,000 people joined the “One Million Strong for Obama” group on Facebook, and there are scores of other Facebook groups for Obama, with many young South Asians participating.

Be it business or politics, social networking is vital. As CEO of V-Empower Inc, and ezCampaigns.com, and as founder of StateDemocracy Foundation, Shukoor Ahmed of Washington, D.C. specializes in providing solutions to advocacy groups, political parties, candidates and nonprofits. He has utilized LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube to connect with people across the United States, building up an impressive list of connections that help him in furthering his entrepreneurial and civic efforts.

Causes in a digitally divided world

Partha Banerjee, a writer, academic and activist in Brooklyn, New York, has used several social networking tools for a variety of purposes. He says, “Social networking is a new Internet phenomenon, and just like upper and middle class Americans with a flare for online ‘friendship,’ Indians are also taking advantage of it.” His Facebook and LinkedIn networks have a large number of Indian friends. While he publicizes his writing agency The Scriptline, Inc. on LinkedIn, he has also been teaching a Labor and New Media class this semester at Empire State College where he is finding ways to popularize the various networks for the labor movement.

“Others working for humanitarian or political causes have invited me to be a part of their Facebook page,” he says. “The question is: What does it all have to do for people who don’t even have access to education, let alone computers with an Internet connection? Isn’t it making the world even more digitally divided?”

While this is true, social networking is providing an empty canvas and a large, compassionate audience for just about any social cause in the world. Be it illiteracy, corruption, the tragedy of Darfur or that of child laborers, there is a group banding together to protest it. The younger generation, especially, has idealism and a hunger to solve problems, and social networking is providing a common backyard to reach like-minded people across the globe.

The net waves of the future

Social networking is certainly opening up new avenues and creating new ways for things to get done—such as creating content online—and on the go! Rajesh Setty is a cyber entrepreneur and author of the popular blog Life Beyond Code. You can also follow him on Twitter at @UpbeatNow.

“Most often these tools captivate people rather than people capitalizing on them,” says Setty, who uses LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. “Popularity of a tool does not automatically mean that it’s right for you. Twitter is popular but if you can’t express cool ideas in less than 140 characters or you don’t have a strategy to capitalize on Twitter, it is not worth venturing into it.”

Ask him how he’s harnessing the three networks for his work, and he says, “I have connected my blog feed to Twitter and my Twitter stream to Facebook status updates. So there is an automatic way of getting the word out on some of the things that I am doing.”

Recently he used all three networks to create an e-book in less than four weeks! “Being in Silicon Valley, I see people getting laid off almost everyday,” he says. “Actually, I see more people who are in the ‘fear of a layoff’ everyday. Talking to them in the last couple of months, I think the ‘living in the fear of facing a layoff’ is worse than being laid off.”

So he decided to write an e-Book titled Defiant: Facing a Layoff And Doing it Well Anyway. He says, “Rather than writing everything on my own, I decided to get help from other experts that are out there. I posted a request on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and on my blog. In less than four weeks, I had more than fifty people submitting a tip to help people facing a layoff. The book is now complete and ready to be released in the next few weeks!” No writer’s block here!

Zankhana Desai, student and citizen of tomorrow, with the exuberance of youth, prophesizes this about the future trends, “I think Facebook may be the major place for all news, stories, gossips, and pretty much everything that goes on, creating a sense of unity. I can see the rise of a universal website bringing the world together.”

It may not be Facebook—it may be some other networking tool not yet invented. But things are going to get only more exciting as access becomes more and more easy. For Indians who are spread across scattered parts of the Diaspora, social networking unites them in a wonderful way that even email cannot do—it creates a tenacious community, a floating homeland where they can indulge in all their common interests.

Often living far from desi networks, these Indian immigrants and their children can connect with their roots, their rhythms, their Bollywood, their huge extended families worldwide. Now they don’t have to send out a telegram or shout out over crackling phone lines. All they have to do is sign in to Facebook, LinkedIn or simply Tweet—and the emotional payback is as rich as getting to slurp on the juicy core of a fragrant Alphonso mango. As technology continues to scale new heights, the frenetic roller-coaster-ride to the future is only just beginning!

[Lavina Melwani is on Facebook and LinkedIn and is considering Twitter. Check out her blog at www.lassiwithlavina.com]

Sidebar 1

Social Networking in and about India

What is amazing is the number of groups that are fermenting all over the global Indian world. Just key in the word “‘Indian” into a search on LinkedIn, and you come up with more than a hundred groups aimed at NRIs, PIOs and OCIs or anyone else with a bond to India. Want to return back to India and take up a job there? You have groups like Returning Indians, NRI and even “Proud to Say We are Indian!” This is networking across continents, finding jobs and friends in cross-country moves.

And how does the social networking scene look within India? A report by comScore Inc. shows that Orkut is the clear leader, with more than 19 million visitors in December 2008. Orkut’s audience was three times the size of its nearest competitor in the category. Facebook captured the #2 position with four million visitors, up 150 percent versus a year ago, followed by local social networking site BharatStudent.com with 3.3 million visitors (up 88 percent) and hi5.com with two million visitors (up 182 percent).

Top Social Networking Sites in India by Unique Visitors December 2008 vs. December 2007Total India – Age 15+, Home/Work Locations*Source: comScore World Metrix

    Total Unique Visitors (000)

Dec-07 Dec-08 % Change

Total Internet : Total Audience 26,240 32,099 22

Social Networking 12,795 19,369 51

Orkut 7,123 12,869 81

Facebook.com 1,619 4,044 150

Bharatstudent.com 1,736 3,269 88

hi5.com 714 2,012 182

ibibo.Com 1,970 990 -50

MySpace Sites 352 741 110

LinkedIn.com 293 513 75

PerfSpot.com 2,106 433 -79

BIGADDA.com 515 385 -25

Fropper.com 256 248 -3

*Excludes visits from public computers such as Internet cafes and access from mobile phones or PDAs.

Source: comScore

The Latest: Twitter and SMS in India

While Facebook and LinkedIn have become popular in India, I was wondering where Twitter, a very much newer phenomenon, stood with Indians. Twitter asks one question, ‘What are you doing?’ and answers have to be under 140 characters and can be sent via mobile texting, instant message, or the Web.

I shot out an email to the folks at Twitter, Inc., and was amazed to get an almost immediate response from none less than Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. Talk about Tweets!

“We are beginning to think about internationalization and localization but so far we have only translated our Web site into Japanese,” he wrote. “There are other ways that we are reaching out around the world, including a special SMS short code provisioned for India. One of the most inspiring ideas about Twitter is the idea that we can extend the power of this real-time network to the weakest of signals around the world through the simple and ubiquitous technology of SMS.” Knowing the power of SMS in India, people will surely soon be Tweeting away.

Sidebar 2

Meet me in Facebook!

Individual voices of Indian Americans who believe in social networking

“I started with Friendster, passed on MySpace and have graduated with honors on Facebook. I am definitely addicted! I like that these social networking sites keep you connected to friends near and far, and despite the distance and time difference, you always have a good idea of what they may be up to.

“Thanks to Facebook, I have been able to stay tuned to the wedding planning process of two of my closest friends from high school, both of whom I had been out of touch with for almost 15 years until we ‘ran across’ each other via Facebook this past year!”

—Aruna Paramasivam, Management Consultant in Philadelphia

“Facebook has become a sort of one-stop resource center for me where I can catch up with friends and stay current with events around town. Through features such as status updates, photo sharing, and message postings, I’m able to provide a snapshot of what’s going on in my life.”

—Anita Ramakrishna, advertising professional in New York

“I used to use Xanga and MySpace, but now I’m addicted to Facebook. It’s a huge distraction from studying and other activities. People tend to go on Facebook chat, post comments, reply to messages, and look through pictures. It is also a great way to keep in touch with people that are far away. I was in the pageant last summer and I still keep in touch with the girls through Facebook.”

—Divya Swamy, 16, a junior at Chattahoochee High School in Alpharetta

“I have effectively used LinkedIn and Facebook to help my multinational clients serving the Indian-American community to meet their goals by reaching a wider belt of ethnic audiences. I have also strategized viral media campaigns, corporate blogs and Web sites, depending on the brand’s needs.”

—Shruti Tiwari, CEO, MediaSphere, a New York event management agency

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