For close to six generations, the Kumbanad family lived in its ancestral village in Kerala. Then, in the 1960s, members of the family began to move out. One of them, C.K. Mathews, moved to Mumbai as a 23-year-old to join the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Over the years, subsequent generations lost touch with their roots. In 2003, Mathews visited North America on an official tour and stayed with some first cousins. “I met many families of the clan who had no knowledge of the presence of the other families in the same country!” says the 73-year-old, now living in Bangalore. To ensure that the younger members of the Kumbanad family could trace their lineage, a dedicated family website, www.kumbanadfamily.org was set up. And it’s through this website that about 180 members of this 250-year-old clan, spread across 14 countries, keep in touch.
Opening a window: The Gargs named their family blog after their ancestral home in New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Nita Mallya, 42, of Phoenix, Arizona, met New Yorker Prathama Rao, 32, her niece by marriage, for the first time about six months ago. The two women and their families have lived in the US for seven years but had never met. Yet, Mallya had no trouble recognizing Rao’s two-year-old son Ravi, even though she had never set eyes on the toddler. Neither did she need to flip through family albums for updates on his “achievements”—she already knew exactly when Ravi’s first tooth came out or when he took his first baby steps. Thanks to the Mallya clan’s Facebook group that Rao set up in 2008, the grand-aunt was completely clued in on the new member of her family.
Social networking, along with online applications, blogs and videos, has revolutionized the way people use the Internet. The phenomenon, often referred to as Web 2.0, saw the Internet transform over the last five years from being just a repository of content to be browsed into a platform for users to create and share information. Blogs have made journalists out of citizens; YouTube has inspired thousands of armchair film-makers; and social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Orkut have brought together people with shared personal and professional interests. According to an August report by online traffic measurement firm comScore, at least half a billion people visited social networking websites in the six months up to June. By the end of 2008, says a report by market research firm IMRB International, the number of active Indian Internet users alone has nearly touched 50 million.
Social networking has been one of the drivers behind this growth.
“Our research showed that families were beginning to realize the benefit of connecting online. And for the last three-four months, we’ve been quietly testing an exclusive networking product for families,” says Ashish Kashyap, CEO of Ibibo Web Pvt. Ltd. Besides running the popular social network Ibibo.com, Kashyap’s company also launched www.onefamily.com, a sub-brand of the Ibibo network, around August. “Unlike many other countries, in India there is a huge tendency for families to separate and migrate both within the country and outside,” says Kashyap, “and unless there is an easy platform to meet, members can fall out of touch.”
Onefamily.com has a family tree creation function. “Users can easily create very long and inter-connected family trees on the site. All you need to do is click to add branches and then you can invite more relatives to complete their branches as well,” explains Kashyap. And families, according to Kashyap, are lapping it up. He estimates that the site has around 75,000 family trees, with an average of 8-10 members each online at the moment.
Ashok Garg, 59, an anaesthetist at the OrthoNova Hospital in New Delhi, is among the most active participants on a family blog* that is followed by three generations of the clan. Started last year by sisters Nidhi Mittal and Preeti Garg, it is named after the address of the family’s ancestral home in New Delhi.
“A few years back on Diwali, our aunt Dr Meena Garg wondered why we all send out so many greetings over emails. She felt having a family website would keep us better connected,” says Preeti, 35, a molecular biologist-turned-stay-at-home mom, in an email interview from Germany. Rather than a website, the Gargs opted for a family blog.
Nidhi, 32, a New Delhi-based technology consultant with the National Institute of Information Technology and a veteran blogger, got to work: “Our grandparents’ house was a constant during our childhood, so that’s why we thought the blog’s name should be the same as the address.”
From updates and pictures of current family events and festivals to little-known stories about the grandparents, this blog is an example of how the World Wide Web can unite families in a matter of months. “The blog has been up for a year now, and since then we are communicating with each other more often,” says Shravan Garg, 32, one of the New Delhi-based Gargs.
If two sisters drew 17 relatives online in the case of the Gargs, then Mathews’ website serves as a forum for dozens of members to share updates. “Members now locate people geographically close to them and then meet up personally. This way they never feel too far away from home,” Mathews says proudly.
Besides a remarkably detailed family tree—it dates back to the first Kumbanad, an Essaw Panicker who lived in the mid-18th century in Eraviperoor, Kerala—the site has a comprehensive family history compiled by Mathews from a number of sources. The history is deeply entwined with the history of the Christian church in Kerala, as reflected in Mathews’ detailed 2,400-word profile of the family. The website had an unforeseen, though important, religious benefit. “The church does not allow people within four generations of each other to be married. Normally this can very difficult to check. The website is very helpful for our family to stick to that rule,” explains Mathews.
But don’t let the Kumbanad project give the impression that the Internet is only for the large, meticulously researched communities. Good technology works just as well for smaller, more intimate groups.
How small? Say, a single family of four. Or, a happy party of two.
What do parents do when they want to share thoughts with their growing daughters? If you are K. Srikrishna and Chitra Srikrishna, you would set up a private blog, as they did for their girls Ragini, 13, and Malini, 10.
Connecting people: (clockwise from top right) Manghani (left) and Rastogi used their wedding website to reach out to a large network of friends. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint; the Kumbanad website catalogues around 180 members across 14 countries. Hemant Mishra / Mint; sisters Ragini (in green shirt) and Malini Srikrishna read messages from their parents on a private blog open only to the family. Hemant Mishra / Mint
“I was inspired by the Hal Urban book 20 Things that Matter—Life’s Greatest Lessons and felt that it would be a good idea for me to communicate some of the more deeper things about life through a blog,” says Srikrishna, a business consultant, over the phone from Bangalore. “Most of that stuff is about day-to-day happenings. On the blog, we say things that we know the girls don’t really want to talk about but we want to say those things.”
The topics that the couple have posted include why the girls must learn to love themselves the way they are, and how and why being happy is important. “A lot of times these posts are not directly related to them and their current problems, but can be something nice that we read, something thought-provoking,” explains Chitra, a Carnatic music vocalist. “It is stuff that would have the girls rolling their eyes if it were said in a conversation.”
Whenever either parent writes, a mail is sent to the girls to check out the blog. But the girls admit that most of the time they don’t read the post right away. “Dad always asks us about it and then we end up reading it,” says Ragini who, like her sister, has to follow a strict Internet usage routine. Both girls are allowed only one email ID and even though Ragini’s friends have their own blogs, she and her sister are not allowed to have one just yet.
Vineet Manghani and Shiti Rastogi in New Delhi, meanwhile, set up a website to add to their pre-wedding festivities. The couple, who married in November, decided to take things online when they had to deal with a deluge of emails from friends and family asking for photos, dates and venue details. Manghani, 24, a solutions consultant with Oracle, says, “We were overwhelmed and found ourselves recycling emails to deal with queries.”
By combining a couple of simple online services, the couple was able to effortlessly set up a website to offload its troubles. Manghani set the ball rolling by getting a domain name www.shitiwedsvineet.com registered with Znetindia. The fee for domain name registry for a year was Rs450 and monthly hosting charges were extra. Meanwhile, Rastogi, 25, a marketing manager with HT Media Ltd, New Delhi (which publishes Mint), chanced upon FirstPhera.com. “It seemed easy to set up a wedding site through them,” she says. “What I liked was that they had features like a wedding day countdown counter, stock images to choose from and fancy fonts. And there were no setting up charges for the first three months,” adds Manghani.
Their friends loved the website. Shafali Arora, Rastogi’s friend from the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad, who had not met Manghani, found the site a great way to get introduced to her friend’s life partner. “Reading about their romance, about their plans made the wedding so much more exciting,” she says.
But there is one point of concern: security.
Most content posted on the Internet is not only universally accessible but also permanent. With plummeting costs of storage, most blogging and photo-storage sites leave your data online indefinitely. Unless specifically locked with passwords, the data will also get thrown up in public places such as Google search results. Ibibo’s Kashyap explains: “There is always the issue: How much content about yourself do you want publicly accessible? But it is a trade-off that most networks leave to their users.” On Kashyap’s Onefamily.com, for instance, families can make family trees and all related content available only to members with password-enabled access.
On the Kumbanad site, the family tree is open to searching by any curious browser. And some members have remarkably detailed profiles. Mathews acknowledges that some members had raised concerns about security in the past but he says blocking access with a password-only interface would be troublesome: “There are already so many passwords to remember nowadays. And the older members always get confused if you put too many access restrictions.”
Rao, who created the Mallya clan’s Facebook group, says: “I have never felt a privacy issue. Being online enables one to get really personal. The way I look at it...same situation with no Internet would mean my family would miss out on the 100-plus pictures of my kid’s first birthday and (have) no videos at all of my kid or my home.”
Children are particularly vulnerable to this sort of online legacy. It is quite possible that as they grow older, children will find themselves having online presences they were not aware of. Photos posted by parents, videos on YouTube or even unflattering anecdotes on an aunt’s blog can be, at the very least, embarrassing. Till February last year, for instance, there was no way to completely remove an account on Facebook. Even if users “deactivated” their accounts, personal information was retained on the company’s servers. It was only after an uproar among users and in the media that Facebook announced a not-so-user-friendly way of removing user accounts in their entirety.
Despite this point of caution, families such as the Gargs’ continue to expand their presence and involvement online. “My son, who lives in the US, feels that we should protect the site because there is so much of family information up for anyone to see,” says Ashok Garg, adding that they are thinking of creating an access password for the blog. But as of now, the family has no plans to curb its Web activities. Next on its list of online to-dos is a series of scanned photographs of earlier generations, and, of course, favourite family recipes.
*Name of the blog withheld on request
Seema Chowdhry and Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this story.