What would you prefer: spending your life on a deserted island with all the modern conveniences—from a smartphone to high-speed internet—or with your loved ones, with no access to technology?
“First one, of course,” laughs Nimisha Ghorpade, 30, an ecologist from Mumbai. “Life without the internet is no life any more.”
That might sound like hyperbole but it isn’t. Today we live out most of our lives online. We share, gossip, shop, celebrate, study, work, have sex, even grieve, on the World Wide Web. Any gap there may have been between the real and virtual worlds was bridged in the pandemic-stricken past year, with the screen becoming a window to the world, and the internet strengthening and sometimes breaking relationships. And Ghorpade is part of a generation that has experienced the internet’s influence on relationships first-hand.
Over the past 25 years since the internet came into our lives through the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd service, it has influenced the way we express ourselves and understand the world. Back then, it opened up a world of choices and possibilities: We could make a friend in Spain in a chatroom, fall in love with someone in Thailand while sitting in a Kolkata café, or learn about what was happening in Armenia with just a click. It made the world smaller and more accessible. Over time, it has changed how we seek and negotiate relationships, how we show (or withhold) compassion, and the shortcomings in human interactions.
The covid-19 pandemic has been a reminder that it’s no longer possible to divorce relationships from the internet. It has also reminded us of our constant search, and need, for empathy, especially during tough times, whether it is staying in touch with old friends, seeking safe community spaces, or finding compassion during isolation from strangers online. It’s ironical that we seek something so intimate and warm in the algorithm-led universe of the internet.
In the pre-internet days, explains social commentator Santosh Desai, relationships of all kinds—from friendship to romance—were based on contiguities such as geography. After 1996, however, distance was no longer the primary determinant. “The internet allows you to connect fully. You might have been good friends with someone but not have known their opinion on many things, including politics. Today, if you look at school alumni WhatsApp groups, you will see bitter fights erupting over political views some 30 years after having become friends,” he says.
Love in the time of cyber cafés
It was the summer of 2000. The internet was still a novelty, and the millennial generation—then in their teens—had just begun exploring chatrooms and online messengers. That was the time when heartbeats would rise and fall with the whirr of the internet modem, as it struggled to connect. This was when alice_lookingglass and traveller79 met in a Yahoo! chatroom. The 19-year-olds, classmates at an MBA coaching centre, had known each other for two months. They had felt the spark of romance but been unable to explore it since they were always hanging out with a big group of friends. One day, they exchanged chat IDs, and slowly, the masks came off, online. Things small and big, which they might not have found out about each other at the coaching centre, came to the fore: her deep love for Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll (hence the chat name) and desire to be a writer, his hero-worship of cricketer Sourav Ganguly and a recent bitter breakup. The screen became a medium for heartfelt conversations—slightly erratic since the modem got disconnected whenever friends or relatives called on their landlines—and a two-year relationship.
“Cyber cafés were also sites of heartbreak. I remember getting an e-rakhi from a girl I had a huge crush on,” laughs Vinay Abhishek, 33, who was in school when he first experienced the magic of the internet.
In 2000-01, several such cafés started sprouting in his area, some 25km from Hyderabad’s Hitec City. “Many of my school friends created their first email IDs in these cafés, some of them with really outrageous names,” recalls Vinay Abhishek, a communications professional and theatre artist who is now documenting memories of internet cafés 25 years ago through a project supported by an India Foundation for the Arts grant. He has created a 25-minute audio play, ASL Pls: Log In Log Out , recollecting the excitement, frustration, love, loss and resignation of those years, and a website. “These cafés served as closed, safe spaces for young couples, away from prying eyes. Most café owners didn’t mind. It is much later that cops started conducting these surprise checks and started asking for ID cards,” says Vinay Abhishek.
At that time, spending pocket money on 30 minutes at an internet café was part of the routine. Most chats on Yahoo! started with the then ubiquitous ASL Pls (age, sex, location, please). You were doing it, as was your friend, often saying hello on email or a chat, even though you might be meeting each other the next day. “This was also the time people—from school students to adults—started having free access to porn, as there were no regulations in place. There was no concept of deleting history or cookies. Someone just left a page open and walked out of the café. Someone who might have taken the booth to send a harmless email suddenly found himself or herself staring at a porn site,” adds Vinay Abhishek, who will keep adding to the documentation on his website.
Improving communication and building relationships was, in fact, the dream when the internet came to India, explains Gopi Garge in a Zoom call from Milton Keynes in the UK. He was a project assistant at the Union government’s Education and Research Network (Ernet) Project, which laid the foundation of the internet in India over 30 years ago. He left Ernet and the Indian Institute of Science in 2011 and moved to the UK.
The aim of the ambitious project was to bring technology from labs in the US and Europe to India and set up a network here. “The idea was easy communication,” recalls Garge, now 58.
The Ernet project was started in 1986 in eight institutions—Mumbai’s Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (then the National Centre for Software Technology), the erstwhile department of electronics in the Union government, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur and Kharagpur. The team often debated whether it was a good idea to allow personal emails (since it would affect connection speeds) or restrict it to formal exchanges. “Once the net spread across the country, emailing was what people did the most. Then instant messaging came in and that became a favourite. Now, email is back to being more of a formal way of communication, which kind of shows the evolution of the internet,” says Garge.
He believes the net’s biggest benefit has been giving a voice to every person. “The access has given people a sort of anonymity, which gives them the courage to speak up. You can talk nicely, be sarcastic, or plain toxic—social media platforms offer that kind of space. You can even share your innermost thoughts with a complete stranger and that’s perfectly okay.”
Friendship without boundaries
Debarshi Kumar Brahma, a 41-year-old assistant professor in the department of multimedia communication and design at Assam’s Central Institute of Technology in Kokrajhar, cannot imagine what life would have been like without the internet. Friendship without boundaries is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the virtual world, he says. The time of snail mail, telegram and the culture of pen-friends, he says, offered an “element of suspense whether a reply would come or not. The internet brought in spontaneity.”
His first brush with the internet was in 1999, when an internet club was set up at Cotton College, Guwahati, where he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree. One had to pay ₹55 a month to become a member and access a black and white computer, with a technical person there to help. “Available browsers were just Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The bandwidth was terrible. We did not have the patience to wait till eternity for the pages to load, so we went in search of an internet café,” says Brahma. The browsing charges at one place were ₹120 an hour, and the friends pooled money. “Somebody told us that we could chat with people from all around the world via instant messengers. We discovered mIRC and Yahoo! Messenger. Later, I made a lot of friends from Brazil on Orkut. I used to wait for scraps (testimonials on Orkut) from them, through which I learnt about their country, their culture and even tried learning a little bit of Portuguese,” recalls Brahma.
Long before Facebook became popular in India, Brahma had an account, to connect with like-minded people around the world. As the popularity of platforms waxed and waned, Brahma has moved too, still keeping in touch online with friends made on Orkut or Yahoo! Messenger. Over the years, his interests have become more specific and he has made friends in the gaming community. “I have been in touch with alliances and clans that allow you to interact with people, coordinate, strategise or simply chat. I have a lot of friends from the gaming community now and we talk about everything and anything. The internet has opened up horizons, impacting who we seek as our companions,” he says.
The biggest change in the way we navigate relationships has been the shift of the World Wide Web from cafés into our homes. “Cyber cafés were still social spaces governed by certain rules and the element of time. You couldn’t visit them at 4am to access the net. Today, the net has come to the phone and now you can decide when you want to be online and what you want from it,” says Amitabh Kumar, founder, Social Media Matters, which describes itself as a “team of young, feminist, social media ninjas, working for social change”.
You can chat with old college friends on WhatsApp, keep abreast of what members in your food or music communities on Facebook are doing, while swiping right on a dating platform—all at the same time. “There are way more customisations and it is far cheaper now. The internet has moved on from being an aspiration, something that was earlier the domain of the urban middle class,” he adds.
Desai says this has led to more experimental behaviour. “You can control the degree of anonymity or have personae. In the early days, there was hesitation followed by a heady excitement. Hence some relationships from those days translated into marriages,” he says.
Today, people have found their own comfortable space within the internet. For Desai, it serves as a way of keeping in touch with people he would otherwise have grown distant from, and he has curated intimate networks over the years. “The pandemic has coincided with this desire to form personal connections rather than to have a theoretical large number of friends. People have pruned their list of FB friends, and this is a trend that will outlive the pandemic,” he adds.
Mind the generation gap
Each generation uses the internet differently, but the shift is clearest in the way millennials, who were in their late teens when the net came to India, and Gen Z, who were born with it, use it to forge bonds. Gen Z are explorers, open to novel, fleeting and good experiences. Millennials, on the other hand, are comfortable nurturing connections forged over the past 25 years. Each generation has found its own comfortable space within the World Wide Web.
Udita Bansal, 33, director of trueBrowns, a size-inclusive, everyday- to occasion-wear e-commerce brand for women, remembers being on Orkut as a teen, spending time chatting with school friends. “Back then, there was no way to connect with friends beyond the landline, which was also regulated and watched over by parents,” she says.
Bansal joined Facebook in 2008 after she moved from her home town of Ludhiana to Delhi for her graduation. “It was more about keeping in touch with friends left behind. After the initial excitement of wanting to share everything in life, I have now reduced the time I spend on the platform,” she adds. Though she describes herself as a very social person, she is now more restrained on social media platforms, preferring to devote her time to interacting with close friends and content that adds meaning to her life.
Delhi-based communications professional Kritika Lalchandani too has found her niche on the internet, especially during the pandemic. “All the riff raff got filtered out. Those who mattered stayed on and connections got a little bit more thorough,” says the 32-year-old. Her journey with the World Wide Web has gone through many phases. Lalchandani grew up in a joint family in Jhansi—her folks still live there—and she remembers her father getting a computer home when she was in Grade 5. At that time getting a Yahoo! ID and chatting online was an “in” thing. But this sudden exposure to the world of strangers prompted her parents to have a child lock put in, and her mother would always be around when she went online.
“I moved to Delhi for college, and Orkut came into my life. At that point of time, one went on some blind dates with boys we met on the platform. It helped me stay in touch with friends back home. And Facebook made this stronger,” she adds. But, while Orkut was about meeting new people, Lalchandani didn’t go down that route with Facebook. The latter was mostly used to stay in touch or regain lost connections with people she already knew in the real world. “Because of the online communities, I found my pet, Bruno, because of a post on Facebook. I met all my flatmates there, most of them are now very close friends. And now, I use Instagram to connect with people for work. I think I have now carved out a space for myself online.”
Though there’s a lot of criticism about the shallow nature of online interactions, the internet has also become a space of solace for some.
Meenakshi Chauhan, a 37-year-old human resource professional, has been lucky in her second attempt. She first turned to an online dating platform in 2019, two years after her divorce, but didn’t find any “interesting people”. She was simply looking for someone to speak to about her struggles in handling the pressures of a job while raising a child as a single parent. During last year’s lockdown, she gave online dating a second chance and explored apps like QuackQuack. “I ended up connecting with five-six people who have now become really good friends. I communicate with one of them on a daily basis. It’s an emotional connection, where we make suggestions, guide one another and understand each other’s struggles,” she says.
The web has also helped create community spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. Sakshi Juneja, 40, writer and founder of the Gaysi Family, a site for people from South Asia who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, found colleagues, friends and a partner via the internet.
“As a queer woman, the net has been a most helpful tool. When I came back to India and wanted to communicate with the community, the internet gave me the opportunity to set up Gaysi Family in 2008,” Juneja says. Social media has allowed them to broadcast messages about meetings and offline activities to facilitate gatherings, rather than people meeting in silos or in unsafe spaces. “The narrative around queer rights has picked up in the past 15 years. Borders are no longer an issue,” says Juneja.
More people from different parts of the country started connecting online during the lockdown. “The need for companionship is the basic need of a queer person, not just in terms of a relationship, but a community space or a friendship. And we understand that,” Juneja says.
Looking for a match
In some instances, the internet has provided freedom of choice. You can as easily find a potential match for yourself on your phone as order food.
Deep Priya Sharma, 28, grew up on a hearty diet of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. So mesmerised was she with Bollywood romances that her 13-year-old-self would imagine bumping into a stranger on the street who would turn out to be the love of her life. Fifteen years later, she’s looking for a potential match on the personalised matching service MatchMe. “I got inspired after watching the Netflix show (Indian Matchmaking),” says Sharma, a communications professional based in Gurugram, Haryana. “I have told the agency all that I want in a guy and now they will have to find it. It’s like I have given them all the ingredients, now they have to bake the cake for me,” she laughs.
Earlier, she would have entrusted this hunt to her parents, not an online database, she admits. But their idea of an ideal partner for her differs from hers.
Jeevansathi.com’s business head Rohan Mathur has seen this trend accelerate over the past five years. “People are looking for more than salaries, or a ‘well-settled’ person. In fact, 90% of the profiles on our portal are made by the people who are looking for a match, not their parents (it was 50% five years ago), which clearly shows today’s generation is clear about what they want and they are ready to wait for it,” he says. “Social media profiles offer enough insights into what kind of a person a potential match is. So you are, in a way, spoilt for choice.”
When it comes to dating, people are taking things slow. Love is no longer the clichéd one-sized definition, claims Anukool Kumar, the marketing director and official spokesperson for OkCupid India. “It’s no longer saath janamo ka pyaar (loosely translated to one true love). People are more practical now. They are seeking long-term love but their kind of love, which can be anything. And in the past few years, especially after covid-19, the taboo around looking for love online is almost gone,” he says, adding that women, especially, are becoming more vocal.
In fact, a recent OkCupid study showed that since February last year, women have been more likely to expand their preferred location to “anywhere” so they can connect across borders. Globally, there has been a 30% overall increase in messages sent on OkCupid each day since 11 March. Women are sending 40% more intro messages than they did previously.
Of course, there’s a grey lining
The web comes with its own perils, the most worrisome of which revolve around security. As Juneja points out, the queer community doesn’t just have to face trolls but also people who want to take advantage of their vulnerabilities.
“There is a growing threat of cyber stalking. When you share photos on Snapchat or do Insta Lives, it’s not your friends but your cyber stalker too who has all the information of what you are doing and where you are. This can lead to real-life harm,” says Kumar of Social Media Matters.
There is also an overarching feeling of anxiety. When the net had just made an appearance in our lives, there was always the option of stepping out of the virtual world, back into “real” life. “There’s no real life as such now; you are always online. And no matter how much you try to avoid, you have to be present because… FOMO (fear of missing out). There’s definitely more anxiety now, especially when it comes to dating,” says Ghorpade.
She recalls the time when Indians were still picking up MTNL phones, and teens with strict parents used a “code phone ring” to connect with friends and partners. Ghorpade had a two-and-a-half-ring trick. “There was this boy in my class I liked. We must have been 13-14. I had told him to ring my house phone 2.5 times and then cut it so I would know he’s trying to call. Then I would call him back. There was this mystery and excitement then. Thanks to the net, you can text anyone anytime now but when they leave you at ‘seen’ or blue tick (in other words, never reply)…. That’s the weird thing about the internet: It has brought us closer but also pulled us apart.”