CHENNAI: Social Media. The great equalizer. Where centuries of inequality disappears in a cosmopolitanism that is more global than ever before. At least, that is what proponents of the digital revolution claim. However, research done by scholars of the nascent field of Digital Anthropology from the University College London in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu’s capital city has observed several trends that contradict social media’s masquerade as the great equalizer. Social media has not changed the world. The world, it seems, has changed social media.
Shriram Venkatraman, who ran the field site in a peri-urban location called Panchagrami (a pseudonym) near the metropolis of Chennai, says that social media has only extended the dynamics of how individuals, communities and other groups interact within and outside their groups.
“The site we chose was a site of five villages, which is now a site of a government initiative to establish a major IT park. On a working day this field site not only hosts approximately 30,000 permanent settlers of, but also caters to over 2,00,000 IT workers commuting to work there,” he narrates. “We expected there to be a significant difference between these two groups. Instead there is consistent emphasis on the specific features of traditional Indian society and the ways in which they have impacted upon the local use of social media, involving factors such as gender, caste, inequality and the extended family,” he says.
What is striking is that these two distinct groups, so far removed from each other, were in fact united in how they used social media. “What social media reveals is that almost everyone remains characteristically ‘south Indian,” says the book How the World changed Social Media, a compilation of observations made during the study.
Venkatraman agress. “What we observed was an extension of identity. There is a practice where caste is prominently displayed on Facebook profiles, as are political affiliations. Other ground realities also find a way of being reflected in social media. For example, there is a village where the entire male population has Facebook accounts, including boys just 13 or 12 years of age. The same village does not have a single woman who has one,” he says. Ultimately, what Venkatraman observes is this. Quite contrary to the perception of social media as a medium where individualism has full reign, it is hard for people to use social media to develop themselves as autonomous individuals online unless they use fake profiles.