From family and friends to Facebook and Twitter, social networking has taken on a whole new meaning. But what about those who are not networking online?

A nephew of mine, whom I always enjoy meeting and who was going away overseas, asked me, in what I hope was an earnest desire to stay in touch with me, whether I was on Facebook. I'm not. Orkut (since I was an ‘older' person)? No again. Did I tweet? I'm not a bird. Or, at least buzz? Not a bee, either. He looked at me with the authentic mixture of bemusement, horror and disgust that teenagers and young adults do so well. “Get yourself a life, man,” was his conclusion. That I was on e-mail and sms, and could Skype till he was blue in the face, failed to impress him. Maybe the fact that I text in English and not smsese (which I can barely understand) had something to do with this. As far as he was concerned, I was simply not cool enough or connected enough. I could live with being ‘uncool', but I always thought I was reasonably well connected. Or was I?

As extraordinarily socialised life forms, human beings have always had social networks. Sometimes small networks, but, usually in our fertile country, largish ones. For our networks comprised essentially family members and family members of family members, whom we usually met up with at weddings and other assorted religious and family functions (of which we have no dearth), and whose progress (or more gleefully, the lack of it) we kept up with through the family grapevine. However, those days are now behind us and our relationships are now more likely determined by the speed of our broadband connection (the 21st century's grapevine). And therefore, maybe my nephew was right when he implied that I'd fallen off the grapevine. Happily this was not a viewpoint shared by some of the people I ‘network' with, who believe that social networking websites offer only virtual comfort and virtual support, and that these can never replace the real thing. So, what's the official word on social networking?

Underlying narcissism

One definition (maybe by a wag, for the source is not quite clear) has it that social networking is “the intersection of narcissism, attention deficit disorder and stalking”. This argument, even if offered tongue-in-cheek, is not entirely without merit. Most social networking pages concentrate as much, and sometimes more, on projecting one's own image, as on keeping in touch with others. An element of underlying narcissism is certainly strongly in evidence. And when one's social status is determined by the number of friends or followers one has, it's hardly likely that one gets into too many deep equations online which indicates that one's attention does flit a bit, whether or not this amounts to a deficit. Also, hostile activity does take place on social networking sites and it's not unusual to see people peeking into other people's activities, sometimes voyeuristically, sometimes jealously and sometimes with malafide intent, even if all this doesn't add up to actual stalking.

The greatest criticism of social networking sites is that they facilitate only superficial relationships and give people a false sense of security about having large virtual social networks. However, this need not necessarily be a problem. Sociologists differentiate between ‘strong ties' and ‘weak ties' and have concluded that ‘weak ties' too are an integral component of social well-being. They add to what is referred to as ‘social capital'. A recent study conducted at the University of Michigan in the U.S. convincingly demonstrated the benefits that social networking sites have on the social capital of American teenagers and young adults. The study also documented that such networking sites added to the self worth experienced by their users. From my experience with Indian teenagers and young adults who are active on such sites, I would imagine that our situation wouldn't be too different. But before one concludes that social networking sites are the next best thing, there are a couple of caveats to remember.

Face to face

Weak ties alone are not enough to maintain one's social capital. If one is anchored in face-to-face relationships and has built up a sufficient base of strong ties, then facebook-to-facebook relationships can enhance one's well being. Also, the way we use networking sites is important. If our focus is only on having a larger network of friends than anyone we know, we're in trouble. Or if you're like some tweeple (people who tweet, for the uninitiated) who smirk that they have more followers than other tweeple, do remember that there are enough instances of one false tweet bringing even the mighty to their knees. But as long as we use social networking sites to strengthen our social capital and not let them take over our lives, then we can genuinely enhance our sense of well-being.

So does this mean I'm going to get on Facebook and become a tweeperson? I honestly can't see that happening just yet, even if it means I have to forego the joys of ‘unfriending'. I've got myself a life that is full and rich, populated as it is, with real people, who I can touch, see and have coffee with. And even though I have nothing against online networking, I like my network the way it is. Maybe, it's just me. But, know something? I don't really think so!

The writer is the author of the just-launched Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com