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BEYOND FRIENDS

One of the most popular social networking sites decided that it was just not informative enough without unravelling your life online, starting with your birth. The “Timeline” was introduced. And as if the photographs, videos, comment-conversations weren’t enough to know all about a person, now every profile must have its information arranged on a timeline to help you navigate through a person’s history, stretching to before you knew him or her. How easy it is to find out that your friend used to be pimply and obese in 2005. Or that Timeline says so-and-so got a tattoo in March, 2004 (in Goa), which means he went to Goa with “that other girl”, because he has dated his current girlfriend only since July 2004. Stalking has never been easier.

Once upon a time, people would spend real time with one another and graduate from being acquaintances to friends. Now, who would bother? There are too many things to do, too many parties to attend. Relationships work faster, and more information has been circulated in social circles, and so, whom you meet, which places you frequent, “what’s on your mind”— everything is under the social glare. It is interesting because no one registered on a social networking site is a non-celebrity. At any point of time, there are more than just some people interested in you and snooping around the internet to ‘know’ you better. Of course, not all of them actually know you and not all of them are your ‘friends’. And there is nothing insidious about this, because this is the way of technology-enhanced relationships. There are other avenues — blogs, cellphones, forums — some of which are integrated with social networking.

One is prone to using social media to satiate emotions typical of closer relationships. People have been known to stalk their ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, riffling through their social networking details. I know of people who have created fake profiles to flirt with their partners, to gauge whether the latter are likely to cheat. People have thrown tantrums after their friends have hosted parties without them, and posted pictures. Crushes are stalked with such devotion that you wouldn’t be surprised if you were introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who knows your choice of music. That information can be gathered covertly adds subtlety, and that it can be gathered first-hand makes the operation more effective.

Social media also offer a potent platform for passive aggression. Few memes ring so true as the one that suggests that, instead of asking its users what is “on their minds”, Facebook should ask “What’s your problem now?” A music rehearsal studio owner posted a picture of a musician with a public message that read: “This man is a cheat; never rent him a studio. He doesn’t pay.” Both of them are well respected, but the musician has had trouble finding a rehearsal studio since. In spaces where the words, ‘friend’, ‘reader’ and ‘subscriber’, have acquired new meanings, how much of your virtual self are you actually in charge of?