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Old faces on new books

Spare a thought for poor Chico. He has just joined college and has a hip set of friends. They hang out together and chat on the Internet till late at night. Then one day his mother breaks the bad news to him. No, she is not going to control his Internet access. She is going to join him on Facebook.

It’s any teenager’s nightmare — having to share space with an older relative on a social networking site. A generation ago, horror was a father who wanted to accompany you to college on your first day of term, or parents who sat proudly in the front row at a college festival to see you act in a play. These days, dread comes on the net — with a coloured picture of mum in a conical paper cap, and dad strumming the guitar, singing, no doubt, an anti-war song.

But let the youngsters crib — oldies are having a great time. People in an age group that stretches from the frolicking forties to the still-frolicking seventies are exploring social networking sites such as Orkut and Facebook.

Take Pune-based author and poet Dilip Chitre. He is 69, has 110 friends on Facebook and makes generous use of the Booze Mail interface, which is to exchange virtual drinks between friends. “I thought earlier it was a little juvenile, but soon came to like it for its entertaining features,” says Chitre. “After all, Facebook has space for people from every age group, who can bond among themselves without getting in the way of younger or older people.”

Ha, says 18-year-old Pune student Tina Malhotra. “I definitely wouldn’t want my folks to have free access to my page. Thankfully, I don’t have anyone from my family on Facebook yet. But I know it’s going to happen soon,” she moans.

Some children, clearly, take a grim view of their parents’ bid to jump on the techno-bandwagon. A Delhi-based writer says her 18-year-old son refuses to acknowledge her online. “When he first heard I was planning to join Facebook, he said he’d block me,” says Padma Rao, 48. “He still hasn’t unblocked me, but now says many of his friends think he’s got ‘a really cool mom’ who happens to be on Facebook.”

His mom is actually cool — sorry, make that kewl — for she is part of a small group of older people on such sites, which are still dominated by the young. In a survey of eight countries including India, Google — of which Orkut is a part— found that 68 per cent of its members are in the 18-25 group, 2.9 per cent are 40-50, and 2.3 per cent above 50.

Why do the 40-pluses seek such sites? “What’s the need when you can always communicate on the e-mail,” asks a bemused professor of sociology in Delhi, whose 44-year-old husband is active on Facebook. But the older addicts have their reasons. “We like these small breaks from work. It’s actually ‘time pass’ with a capital T, but it’s fun nonetheless,” says Rao.

For many, it is a way to keep in touch with — or rediscover — old friends. “I find Facebook very useful as a global citizen,” says a media consultant whose work straddles England, India and Africa. “Facebook is like throwing a party at your place where a lot of your friends from around the world are invited, and they actually fly in! Recently, a student of mine from Vietnam hooked up with someone from the U.S. who went to school with me in Delhi!”

Some, it seems, sign up because they don’t want to lose touch with the new media. “This is one of the best ways to keep in touch with the world,” says Mumbai psychologist Farah Bhiwandiwala. “Parents find it useful to keep track of current trends and use it as an insight into dealing with their kids.”

It was to keep an eye on modern trends that senior Calcutta cop Naseem Ali opened an Orkut profile while working on a cyber crime. But today, the 50-something assistant commissioner of police checks his account at least twice a week to touch base with his friends. Fortunately for him, his daughter, Saba, has no problem sharing virtual space with him. “In fact, it was my father who introduced me to this virtual world,” she says.

Social networking, its advocates hold, keeps loneliness at bay. “Increasing urbanisation makes people seek refuge in such sites,” reasons Dr J.R. Ram, consultant psychiatrist, Apollo Gleneagles, Calcutta. “Members of this group have children between 15 and 20 years, which means they are busy with their social activities. This makes older people want to interact with others with similar interests.” Many, in fact, get to know about such sites from the younger generation — and then log on to keep in touch with their children, studying or living in other cities.

Dilip Cherian, 51, was invited to join Facebook by his daughter’s friend. “Currently, there are almost 390 people on my friends’ list — and more than half are in my age group,” says the founder of Perfect Relations. “Facebook caters to people with different needs. For some it’s plain time killing, for others, a forum for the exchange of interesting but brief ‘bites’ and maybe for some, yet another ‘soft’ network for business development or linkages.”

Some argue that you don’t need a reason to log on, for age has anyway no place in a world where grey is fast turning a cool shade of burgundy. “What makes you think 60 is old,” asks active Facebooker John Dayal, national secretary, All India Catholic Union. “I’m as young as I think myself to be.”

Dayal has started a group called “Senior But Not Yet Geriatric” on the site. “As of now, I’m the only member, because I have just started it! But I’m sure there’ll be many more to join it soon,” he says.

His group is a dead giveaway that older adults are invading the world of the young. The status messages — one-liners that give a clue to what the netizen is up to — are clear age pointers, too. “I AM A GANSTAH,” writes a 15-year-old student, referring to her picture on Facebook, and using the language of her generation. “Missing Stockhausen,” writes her 49-year-old uncle, referring to the recent death of the German composer, indicating where his interests lie.

There are some embarrassing moments, too. Dayal, for instance, got a nudge-nudge-wink-wink message from one of his friends, asking him if he liked “that beautiful girl” on his page. “‘She’s my blinking daughter,’ I replied,” laughs Dayal.

But here’s some good news for the young: the revenge of the nerds is just being scripted. Recently, Annie M, a 40-something consultant who had embarrassed her young nephew by popping up on Facebook, got a message from her aged aunt, who wanted to connect on the site. “I certainly can’t have my aunt on my page,” says Annie with a shudder.

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