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Social network sites like Orkut have attracted a lot of attention lately. Social net works on the web are a new global trend of seeking friendships or relationships online, but it’s not all fun and games. Orkut has recently made news for all the wrong reasons and it’s been claimed that such networks makes stalking and soliciting much easier. However, Orkut-addicts are not deterred by the bad press. Instead of paranoia, we need greater awareness for young people, and more effective legal measures for cyber crime,” said Dina Mehta, new media researcher . 


I would agree with Dina. I am a part of Orkut as well as of a few other such networks and although I haven’t found Orkut particularly helpful in any way yet, I have found in my own experience that online connections can certainly be used wisely and cultivated. I have benefited from them in many unexpected ways.


A couple of years ago, while surfing the net, I came across a yahoo group whose profile interested me and I signed up. Those days, there was no orkut or HI5 – only yahoo groups, ICQ groups and MSN groups – which of course are still around. The yahoo groups were and possibly are still a dressed down version of the social network sites. Any way, I signed up for this yahoo group, found that it had some members whom I happened to know but many, many more that I didn’t. The group demonstrated activity in spurts, especially when androgen laden topics like sexuality were debated and discussed.


A favourite topic in the group was discussing whether being gay was a genetic thing or a behavioural trait. If a behavioural trait, then they should be bashed up – so the thinking went, if a genetic thing – then may be they could be pitied a bit. Some times, I participated in the discussions, some times, I would just sit back and watch the flow of thought and it was a good straw poll as to what young people in general or at least people in the group believed about a particular issue.


Most members of the groups were from the larger towns and cities where internet was easily obtainable and though it officially called itself a youth forum, there were people of all ages active. Eventually I got to virtually “know” many of the participants through their postings and thought that it would be a good idea to meet many of them in person. As it so happened, my job involved travelling and in the course of a year, I would often travel through all the major cities and towns. Eventually I started posting in the forum whenever I would be in a particular city and my cell number with the note that I would love to meet as many of the members as possible. Many responded positively and we would meet in coffee houses, homes, cafes … just about any where. Although there were no fixed agendas in these meetings, common values and interests often forged deep bonds which would continue to be nurtured off line once the brief coffee house meetings were over.


Over time as the relationships deepened, some of us got to know each other really well. A couple of years ago, I was looking for collaborative authors to work on a book. When I had tapped all my locally available friends and still needed some more people, I turned to the online community friends, many of whom were now good friends and they made up the difference. When the book was done and was published, I could only sit back and marvel that a big chunk of the work was the contribution of people whom I had first met on line and whom in the normal course, I would never have known. Then eventually, I decided to attempt a second collaborative work and again a chunk of contributors came from the on line community.


The yahoo group I was part of was (and is) a mature, sensitive one and my experience has been almost entirely positive. Many others too have had rewarding experiences – there are other stories we keep reading from time to time about on line romances ripening into off line marriages and these are all good things.  Also of course, there are the online horror stories we hear about too. But while it’s true that cyber crime is largely unmonitored in India at the moment, the potential dangers on social networking communities are minimal if one takes reasonable precautions. Like it or not, a major part of our lives is going to be played out online in the future. So instead of moral panic, we need to confront and deal with the risks of the technology, as well as tap into the huge possibilities of a networked world.

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