Social fission on the Internet

Written by Rakesh Raman | Updated: Oct 29 2007, 04:20am hrs
Can everyone talk to everyone else Theoretically, yes, on the Internet. If you look at the mushrooming social networking sites, you might actually think its happening. Following the success of big American social networks like MySpace (over 70 million users) and Facebook (more than 40 million), myriad players in India are crowding in. Reliances BigAdda, Rediffs iShare and Googles Orkut are among the sites trying to lure Indian social networkers. Even Sabeer Bhatia has launched something called ApnaCircle.

But why this unruly surge In the Internet space today, most marketers are confronted with saturated markets with ever-declining eyeballs. As sites multiply faster than a nuclear chain reaction, its increasingly difficult to attract and retain visitors. Estimates suggest that a whopping 150 million sites target nearly one billion Net users. Great numbers. However, research also says that even on a frequently visited social networking site, a user doesnt spend more than an average six minutes a day on it. Since most users are promiscuous with site membership, they hop sites at the click of a mouse.

Content sites story is more tragic, as over half the visitors dont have more than just 30 seconds a day to look at even those in which they are interested. They mostly throw just a cursory glance on the homepage of a site, and thats it. (There are exceptions, of course.) Search sites like Yahoo and Google are used as springboards. Clickety click, they go, site to site. Net surfers are now Net sprinters.

To counter this increasing-sites-decreasing-visitors menace, Net marketers have been trying numerous gimmicks, ranging from animated ads to content video clips. But their sorry plight persists. This has led some prowlers to lure gullible wanderers with sensation and sleaze under the garb of social networking. This explains why so many sites are pleased to have such unseemly heat and hate being aired online through structures designed for the sharing of profiles, visuals, comments and so on. Orkut, for example, faced the Shiv Senas wrath in India a few months ago when the site allegedly carried content that hurt religious sentiments. In Turkey, a court ordered a ban on the video-sharing site, YouTube, for content that was deemed to have insulted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Thailand blocked YouTube when it refused to remove video clips that ridiculed King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Other forms of obnoxious content, pertaining to sex and organised crime, is also floating around these sites. A popular Brazilian model and MTV VJ Daniela Cicarelli, for instance, sued YouTube saying that the site showed her with a boyfriend having sex on a Spanish beach. Lurid content is alarming people almost everywhere. Earlier this year, the Australian state, Victoria, banned YouTube in 1,600 state-run schools when it carried vulgar clips involving a teenaged girl. And by introducing a Senate Bill known as the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, Senator Ted Stevens supported by some other US politicians tried to ban social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Digg in US schools and libraries.

So, is there a lesson for social networks in India Driven mostly by tradition and necessity, Indian societies have aped the West shamelessly. Such is the impact of Westoxication that anything of Western origin is accepted unquestioningly nowadays, and there is much evidence of this mindless deference to all things global on social networking sites. There are also incipient signs that excessive e-interactivity is turning some human relations dysfunctional, with a generation beginning to display cognitive deficiencies with respect to facial cues, voice intonations, emotional inflections and the like. India, thankfully, continues to cherish some of the social values that prevent us from becoming digital zombies. It may be a globalising world, but still, copying successful sites without any independent thinking may not be a good idea. Online antakshari may be Indias idea of social networking, perhaps, for all you know. The onus is now on Indias own marketers, who seem all too enamoured of the social networking fad, to stop promoting the sort of networking that is more antisocial than social.

The writer is a technology market analyst. These are his personal views. Email: rr_thakur@yahoo.com