Found this in my e-mail archives. I’d written this opinion piece nine years ago — while I was still in India — and it still rings true, especially because of the rise of social media and our need to be acknowledged online by a mix of real-life friends and complete strangers. We’re more involved than ever in each others’ online lives (that are, most times, reports of our not-so-remarkable real lives), but how many of us are taking that online connection further to truly form lasting friendships … the kinds where you meet face to face, share a cup of coffee, and give each other a hug?
It’s been 30 years now that e-mailing came into existence but it caught on only about 7 to 8 years ago in India. Now it has become a necessity. I am not getting into statistics, but most of us depend on this means of communication more than ever before. And for obvious reasons.
Another revolution that has swept across our country is chatting. People spend endless nights yakking about miscellaneous stuff with all and sundry on Yahoo, MSN, Rediff Bol, Indiatimes, ICQ and countless other messengers. And, of course, in the surreptitious chat rooms. Crossing territorial, regional and continental barriers was never easier. Since it’s such a fad, I tried being a part of the brigade that forms the statistical report for many surveys. I chatted last night.
I have Yahoo and MSN messengers and I use them to keep in touch with friends and family across the world. But entering a chat room and talking to complete strangers is, well, a different ball game altogether. Since all my married friends were attending a “couples only” party and there really was nothing worthwhile being aired on the idiot box, I decided to experiment. And boy, what a learning experience it was!
The first rule I understood upon entering the chat room was never ever to use a girl’s name as your chat ID. Oh! Believe me that’s the worst thing you can do to yourself. If, on the other hand, it’s been male attention you have been craving for in real life, nothing could be better! Out of the 25 odd people in that particular chat room, 18 of them pounced upon me the moment I entered. Daunting as it was, I tried being decent, courteous and extremely gracious by providing them with my a/s/l. And when “a” equals 23, “s” stands for female and “l” is Delhi you are nothing less than a goddess! I don’t really know what I had expected out of those faceless strangers, but I do know that I received a lot of unanticipated and unwanted talk. The most common query of course, was “Wanna cyber?” I refused politely to the first few invitations but things got nasty after that. Never in my life have I heard such profanities being thrown left, right and centre.
When online life is more exciting
I am no prude, but I have never been so shocked. It’s amazing how people, who perhaps in real life would never use such abusive language, feel so uninhibited about such unabashed rudeness. You can’t even imagine what such a verbal assault can do to one’s psyche. And it’s not the language as much as it is the attitude! The good part, however, was that I could exercise my right to block such messages.
Not one to be cowed down so easily, I tried striking a conversation on the main platform. And what started on a flirtatious note caught the attention of some of the intellectual variety scouting around for companionship. It was indeed mentally invigorating to enter into a debate on arranged versus love marriages. And surprisingly enough I realised that my initial impressions were perhaps too biased against the entire populace that elects to air their views using this medium. Some people got bored and left the conversation in between, newcomers to the room chipped in with their opinions while the rest just served to increase the count of people on my ignore list. But it was four males who very coherently kept up the discussion till the wee hours of the morning.
Filling a void
And it made me wonder why these guys were whiling away their time with strangers over a wire when they could actually be spending it with real people! Why was it that they, and many others like them, were able to speak their hearts out on the Net but found it awkward to do so with existing friends? Where was the hitch? And all these questions made me think how detached we are becoming from our real lives … and from the real people surrounding us.
We don’t have time to exchange a decent conversation with our parents but we sit till 4 in the morning talking to people we’ll probably never meet. We don’t share our sentiments with friends we have known since school days, but we overflow with emotions in crowded chat rooms. We don’t have time to read or cultivate new skills but we have enough time and money to kill on spewing profanities on those we don’t even know! Why are we moving away from secure territory into unforeseen lands? Is it the attraction of the unknown? Is it the allure of promised happiness? Is it escapism? Or is it that our generation just does not believe in putting its time and effort in nourishing existing relationships?
Whether we blame our not-being-able-to-talk-to-our-parents on the convenient “generation gap”; or declare that our lives are too hectic to spare some time for get togethers with friends; or say that it is relaxing to be our uninhibited selves in the ignoramus chat dominion, I think there’s something missing in our lives. It is subjective for each individual in those chat rooms but that elusive “something” is what they all seem to be running after.
Taking stock of reality
My four hours of chatting experience in one night revealed a lot to me. I went there with a desire to know what it was all about, but for so many others out there it is a part of their daily regimen. They log in every day hoping to find that missing link. I realised that even in that crowded room each person was lonely. Everyone wanted someone to talk to. There was such a crazy need to be noticed. To somehow attract attention. It was poignant to see strangers turning to each other for solace from the harsh realities of life. And as much as some of you might find the entire experience to be an exciting, fun thing to do, I was saddened. Ironically enough the room was called “Friends Forever”.
I agree that the daily grind is monotonous. I accept that making new friends helps us grow. But this entire episode made me understand one thing: A virtual relationship might provide the answer to your despairing needs but nothing can beat a real hug from a real friend.