People are always telling Sheena their movie-like love stories. They probably find it easy to tell her things. She is 21, a student who grew up in Hyderabad. She is bright, giggly and non-judgemental. So it isn’t surprising that the young woman on the train told her everything. The young woman on the train was crying as she said goodbye to her young man. Sheena asked after the train started, “Newly-weds?" She got the whole story, the long, unlikely online romance of strangers that had ended in a wedding. But here was the detail Sheena told me with eyes like an anime girl. “They met in her Other inbox."
It takes me a moment. What are the chances of that ignored Facebook messages folder starting an epic romance? But when I repeat this story in one brief line to 18-year-old Lakshmi, she sighs immediately, gustily making her curly hair fly. “In her Other inbox? That’s so beautiful!"
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Lakshmi is a student in Bengaluru. She believes in fairy-tale romance, love at first sight, grand gestures, everything. Romantic moments on TV make her toes wriggle involuntarily. She was 6 when she first went online. She logged on to Facebook when she was 13, though her mother got all her notifications too until last year.
The Other inbox story starts Manasi off, not on romantic sighs, but howls of laughter at her younger self. She is 23 now and learning music. She tells the story of her first online romance, laughing, mocking her juvenile patois of love, “Sup, yo, nothing. That’s all we would say and I was like OMG he wrote to me!" She made her first profile on MSN Messenger. “I was in a girls’ school. He was a family friend. It’s before we called it status messages but MSN had it. And I couldn’t figure what mine should be so I was always putting Dylan lyrics." Did he like Bob Dylan? “No!" she collapses laughing, “He was all Eminem. On my birthday, I wanted him to come online and he didn’t and I was crushed." How old was she? “9."
In the immortal crutch phrase of actor Carrie Bradshaw, “I couldn’t help but wonder," could any of these women imagine romance without the Internet? Many of them can’t remember life before it.
For them, the Internet isn’t at all like what it was when I was 19—I’m 37 now—and my family got a cordless phone enabling late-night melodrama punctuated by battery death (this was when we had search engines called Lycos and Ask Jeeves, websites had an amazing DIY quality that included animated puppy backgrounds, and all of us got our first email accounts on Hotmail). Or when I was 17 and my classmate DIY-ed herself a secret phone connection in her bedroom. Love fears no locksmiths or fibre optics. All this was in the brief couple of years before we got cellphones that could get into bed with us, walk in the rain with us and be on public transport with us and be, in the words of a colleague, like a handy Mani Ratnam hero.
But for younger women the Internet is not just a handy aid for romance, it is everything: a playground to frolic in, a stream of judgemental Spy Maamis, the repository of old romances and the mundane everyday air, water and wallpaper, all at once.
They have thousands of photographs on Instagram and are often peer-pressured to keep the number of followers higher than the number of accounts they follow—a Marie Kondo-meets-Jack Welch approach to social media. They have complicated ways of taking screenshots of Snapchat without being detected. They are nostalgic about Myspace. Their social norms are online norms. They know, for instance, that it is now too passé to say “sapiosexual" in your dating profile and soon it may be passé to say “not a sapiosexual". They use Instagram for the personal statements and Facebook to share the huge albums of party pictures so that everyone who didn’t come feels a bit crappy. They are used to oversharing, and to having multiple social profiles. Hasna, for instance, told me that in her early 20s she got married secretly to an unsuitable boy and everyone in one of her Facebook accounts knew about it. Her family, who only saw her second Facebook account, only came to know of the marriage a couple of years later.
Tanya, a Bengaluru-based high school student, is much younger than Hasna and her phone is her life. She treasures a screenshot of the Facebook friend request from the boy she currently likes a lot, will “probably always like but knows she can’t be with". She has archived entire romances conducted on Facebook Messenger. She and her crush were nudged into a romance by schoolmates who would take Snapchat pictures of them talking innocently in the corridor. “We kept saying, we’re just friends, we’re just friends. I knew the Snapchat would disappear in 24 hours but still…"
Tanya and her friends have grown up hearing all the warnings about the Internet. Her classmates may post frisson-giving photos, you-go-girl each other but also slut-shame each other. Life is a constant negotiation of how much make-up in your photos is too much, how much skin is too much, which filter is passé and which boys are allowed to do more than post unsmiling muscle photos in black and white.
Dylan-loving Manasi says that after those early years on the Internet, she wasn’t really online for a long time. “It didn’t help that my later boyfriend found some picture of us making out and put it online to show off. I became totally phobic about the Internet." These days, after a couple of frankly terrifying encounters on online dating application OkCupid, she has abandoned it. She has, however, forged a sceptical relationship with Tinder.
For Nina, a 35-year-old writer from Chennai, the Internet was never scary. “It was the wild, wild West but we just didn’t know it then. We were deeply puzzled but not particularly troubled by the senders of dick pics." Nina says: “Somewhere online is a picture of me, naked, but that’s not the problem. I am naked wearing pearls!" She is joking, but also not. The possibility that someday her ex will lose his precarious grip and the photo will wander online is not completely ridiculous, though it’s not something she worries about.
She went online for the first time in the 1990s, at 19, to stay in touch with boys she had met in other colleges, before revenge porn sites, when “cyber cafés" were sometimes two computers in a store that sold milk, bananas and biscuits. For our generation, the screechy sound of a dial-up modem was the passage to a wider world full of lovers outside our own circle, beyond college and the neighbourhood.
Though the Internet is not a place today where you meet total strangers, the way it was for my generation, this is the one thing we have in common with much younger people. The Internet still represents the possibility of unexpected love somewhere outside the mohalla of your mind. We get fed up, delete dating app profiles, then get back online again, because where else are you going to go?
Sheena, the collector of love stories, tells me she went on a date with a boy whose first comment was, “Oh your collarbones were showing much more in your profile photo." She went home depressed and changed her DP to that of an inanimate object.
Even Tanya, enmeshed in high-school social media drama, tells me, “I don’t put up anything personal online but my best friend, she is in another school now and she says: “If you don’t put anything personal out there, how will you meet someone?"
Love and the Internet have that one thing in common: to be a time machine, ready to make you older, ready to make you younger, ready to freeze that one moment.
Tanya tells me: “I mean people are so obsessed with stuff sometimes. Why did she put up this guy’s picture? Why did he snapchat her? I tell my friends, it’s like Chloe Bella learnt in Pitch Perfect 2. At some point, you have to graduate. You just have to move on. Life is not high school."
But maybe it is.
(Only first names have been used to protect the identities of the women.)
Nisha Susan is the founder-editor of The Ladies Finger and Grist Media.