TOI Story on Caste-Based Communities on Social Networking Sites in India

I was recently quoted in a TOI story on caste-based communities on social networking sites in India.

I have earlier written that caste-based communities on Orkut and Facebook are a reflection of India’s splintered society and argued that we will see more caste-based communities as internet penetration in India extends to smaller cities.

I have also argued before that, as we use our Facebook, Twitter and Google IDs across the internet, online identities are becoming more real and persistent. On these social platforms, and increasingly on the wider web, our social graphs (identities, relationships and activities) root us in reality, and force us to be as responsible as we are in real life. So, the argument that online anonymity leads to irresponsible behavior is becoming less and less relevant, because online anonymity is becoming increasingly rare.

Here is the full text of the TOI article –

Social networking sites have become caste wide
Mansi Choksi, TOI Crest, Mar 27, 2010

Social networking sites have become a fertile ground for groups based on ethnicity and caste.

When 3,000 members of an online community of scheduled castes were asked recently whether they felt they could match up to their upper-caste counterparts, one user admitted that his caste identity had been a “hurdle in life”. Another user promptly replied with a prescription: “Ignorance is bliss.” The conversation was then interrupted by a user who accused the two of being undeserving “beggars” who had cornered seats in schools, colleges and government offices. Soon, the thread was ablaze with hundreds of responses in a free-for-all mudslinging competition and a crash course in the choicest Hindi expletives.

Social networking sites Orkut and Facebook have become a fertile ground for scores of groups based on ethnicity and caste. Key in the word ‘caste’ into either site, or indeed others, and up pops a cascading list of virtual caste colonies, some of which aim to unite members and some which spew venom. Orkut has thousands of these communities — for instance, ‘Brahmins Culture and Tradition’ , ‘I Hate Intercaste Marriage’ and ‘The Great Maratha’ — which have hundreds of members.

Interestingly, participants of these groups are increasing rather than dying down. A study by Sunil Gangavane and Urvi Shah, researchers at PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) found that 32 random Orkut communities based on caste showed an increase of nearly 30,000 members in just three months. Gangavane and Shah, who joined these communities to keep tabs on them, primarily wanted to document the involvement of middleclass youth and their understanding of caste identity in these spaces.

Gangavane says that most members of castebased groups are highly educated: “Very few are only graduates — they are mostly engineers, MBAs, post-graduates and doctors.” Another finding is that most are from metropolises like Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Bangalore. “Social networking sites have the power to reproduce stifled opinions on taboo topics. People discuss things here that they can’t face-to-face,” he says.

But social media expert Gaurav Mishra, who is the CEO of online marketing firm 2020 Social, argues that it’s not the anonymity that comes with a virtual profile which is breeding online caste communities. “The phenomenon is only a reflection of the fact that caste is an important part of identity for many urban Indians,” he says. “Identity is more persistent and real in the virtual space. You are connected to friends, they can see what you are up to. There is nothing unique about it and it is not more or less pronounced in the virtual space. The dysfunctionality exists in the real world, and that is being reflected.”

While Facebook has fewer caste-based groups, friend requests from people who identify one’s caste through their name is not a rarity. Most groups are updated almost every minute, and some of them spew so much venom that scraps are reported and subsequently deleted. Hearteningly, there are also communities against casteism, but, again, sometimes these too are prey to casteism. In one community called ‘We hate caste feeling’ , for instance, a member posted a discussion asking how many members were from the upper castes.

Another finding of the PUKAR research is that there are many more upper-caste groups, with many more members. Mishra believes that the low number of Dalit communities says something about Indian society. “Higher, more powerful castes like Brahmins, Rajputs and Yadavs tend to have more money and better access to the internet. Old disparities are further accentuated by the net,” he says. “Not that the Dalit community isn’t active on the net — it is. But most of the sites have been started by NRI Dalits.”

The caste polarisation on social networking sites is also being used by several political parties. “Politically influenced communities like RSS, BSP, MNS and Shiv Sena are the most updated ones,” says Gangavane.
According to social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan, who is also a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, caste is not an old-fashioned system. “It has adapted to politics, diaspora and technology too. Social networking sites are only newer platforms ,” he says. “The fact that people are still discussing their gotra means it’s important to them and they want to discuss it in a group they feel they can trust and in an environment in which they are sure they won’t be laughed at. Social networking sites provide just that.”

In the ‘modern Yadav girls and boys’ Orkut community (7,924 members), members are asked whether they think Yadav girls are ‘masoom’ (innocent), flirtatious, stylish or ‘dramebaaz’ (dramaqueens) and whether Yadav boys have attitude, are handsome or hot. In the ‘Brahmin Culture and Tradition’ community (8,453), members are asked to name great Brahmins in history. Responses include Parshuram (the Brahmin god who cleansed the world thrice), Chanakya (advisor to Chandragupta) and the Marathi Peshwas. In the ‘I hate caste feeling’ community (42,891), members discuss what they have lost because of the caste system. Responses include “love of life”, “frndship” , mental peace and “seat in good college” In ‘Dalits’ (858), members take a poll on what they think of “Mayawati joining hands with Brahmins in UP”.

I build and nurture online communities as CEO of 2020 Social. Read my bio, interview me for a media story, invite me to speak at a conference or ask me how we can help you. E-mail me at [email protected], call me at +91-9999856940, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Slideshare.

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