The idea of the event is to bring together concerned and thinking Facebook users from all walks of life,” said Sanjeev Chhiber, an organizer of Face to Face, one of the first large gatherings of Facebook users in India. “Combine that with the incentive of networking, and you see the sense in making the transition from virtual to real life,” added Chhiber, a surgical oncologist.
A large number of Facebook users in other parts of the world have already made that transition through Facebook parties. Given Facebook’s popularity as the second most visited social networking site in India (with 8.63 million users according to ViziSense, an audience measurement service), it’s surprising that it hadn’t happened here earlier. But now, it seemed a small group of India’s growing number of Facebook users was finally ready to meet. The only difference was that they didn’t seem keen on calling it just a party.
Participants at the event, held on the lawns of a sprawling farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi one Sunday evening earlier this month, trickled in hesitantly. If you didn’t know what the event was about, you could have easily mistaken it for a Delhi wedding, complete with fairy lights, loud music and liveried waiters. Or a college reunion where everyone vaguely recognized each other but had to stare for a few confused seconds before they managed to put a face or grainy profile photograph to name.
Tie me down: During one game, women mummified their husbands with rolls of toilet paper. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Face to Face was conceived a little more than a month ago. A Delhi-based lawyer and a few friends suggested the idea to some of their friends. Word spread and soon they had a group of 25 people, most of them Facebook friends who’d never met in “real” life, who wanted to be part of the organizing committee. It included a surgeon, a few media professionals, traders, an architect, a chartered accountant and an assortment of other people.
Each invited a few of their Facebook friends, who in turn invited theirs, until they’d gathered 1,000 participants. Then a “rigorous vetting process” took place, says Chhiber. “Since there are all sorts of people on Facebook.” The organizing committee went through the lists. Only those Facebook users known to two or more members were selected.
The transition to real life wasn’t easy. Ideas and agendas for the evening, which had coexisted amicably on Facebook, pulled the event in different directions. One organizing committee member thought of the evening as a way to “network with like-minded people, influential in their own fields”. For Shilpi Jain, another member, the evening “was an opportunity to meet over 60 Facebook friends, who’d hopefully become friends for life”. Yet others, like Chhiber, had grander activist agendas.
The only common denominator, as it turned out in the end, was Facebook.
After registration, the participants drifted into smaller groups to various corners of the lawn. Little bursts of exultation rose at regular intervals as people recognized each other. At 7pm, the music kicked in and an emcee took over for a whirligig of party games designed to break the ice. Men and women gathered on stage to sing, dance and in one bizarre game, mummified their standing husbands with rolls of toilet paper. Some people sat chatting animatedly at their tables.
R.V. Sharada Prasad, a columnist and corporate consultant, and Hartej Baksh Singh, an elderly IT consultant, were Facebook friends of different organizing committee members. This was the first time they were meeting. But they seemed to have plenty to talk about.
As I sat chatting with them, another gentleman walked up to our table. He looked at a visiting card he was holding in one hand and then at Prasad. “You’re on my profile,” he said with manic enthusiasm, “You’re on my profile. I saw your photograph on your card, and I knew I wanted to meet you.” A look of recognition dawned on Prasad’s face and then a smile spread across it. Ten years of virtual friendship, first on a tech mailing list and then on Facebook, was finally for real.
It was one of many such encounters. At another table, Govindaswamy Devaraj, a businessman from Chennai, was chatting with a few people. His Facebook profile proclaimed him a “goodwill ambassador”. It was perhaps in that capacity that he’d flown in from Chennai just for the event. “I’ve got over 600 friends on Facebook, but I don’t believe in just virtual friends,” he explained, “I’ve been discussing humanitarian issues with 15 Facebook friends from Delhi. I felt that I now wanted to meet them.”
A few participants, however, weren’t happy with the way things were going. Abhishekh Jha, a steel company executive, felt that “a forum like this should have been used to disseminate information on certain issues of common concern. Otherwise,” he said, “it becomes like any other party.”
Party games. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Sylvie, celebrity hairdresser and special invitee, seemed a little nonplussed. “I’m not really into all this, I’m on Facebook because one has to be on it,” she said, sighing. And then, either as an afterthought or explanation for why there weren’t more people around her, she added, “My hairstyle changes every day, so nobody would recognize me from my Facebook photograph.”
But for most, it was a good, if slightly chaotic, start. “My Facebook friends have turned out to be much livelier than I’d expected,” said Manpreet Oberoi, a marketing consultant. “It was a good way of blending Western technology with the Indian emphasis on social interaction,” added Devaraj. Cartoonist Sudhir Tailang smiled mischievously when I asked him if the evening had been productive. “I might make a cartoon,” he said, “check tomorrow on Facebook.” The last time I checked, Tailang hadn’t got down to doing that cartoon.