Same roads, different destinations

by December 3, 2010

India's leading matrimonial site, www.shaadi.com

The increasingly global participation in the development of technology and the universal reach of the world wide web (and the branded services that run on it) often lead us to assume that the world is gradually converging into a single society with similar values and practices. Yet we do well to remind ourselves that a common communications platform may be used very differently by different people, just as the streets of a city are used in one way by car-bound suburbanites and in another by downtown teenagers.

For example, to a typical Canadian user (of my generation, anyway) Facebook is a handy means of keeping in touch with people who are already friends, a case of technology being used to enhance a pre-existing social fact. By contrast, to a typical Brazilian user Facebook is often a means of “meeting” and keeping in touch with people that one has not actually met in the flesh, a case of technology being used to create new social facts. Same platform, very different uses. As further proof of this, media anthropologist John Postill has rediscovered a set of fascinating research surveys hosted on the now-defunct Futures of Learning project blog (the overall project, which seeks to understand “how people are adopting digital and networked media”, has since been subsumed by the Digital Media and Learning site hosted by the University of California Humanities Research Institute) on how different societies have used the Internet over the past twenty years. “Together,” writes Postill, “these reviews put paid to any notion of the peoples of the world marching in unison towards a common digital future. Instead of cultural convergence, what these reviews suggest is unique national trajectories shaped by distinctive political cultures, technological developments and historical contingencies.” Here’s an extract from a research survey on Internet usage in India over the most recent decade:

Of particular importance in the Indian youth context is the use of new media technologies as a bridge between traditional and modern forms of social networking, such as can be found in dating and marriage sites. Adams and Ghose (2003) discuss the creation and use of ‘matrimonial sites’ wherein parents and (now) individuals themselves place want ads describing their particular attributes and desires for a marriage partner. While in North American contexts, sites like http://www.match.com and other dating websites make the transactional nature of relationships more apparent, sites like http://www.shaadi.com and others have extended and (in some cases) made easier the practices associated with arranged marriages in India. By allowing young people to place their own ads, such social networking sites are enabling them to navigate the tension between arranged and love marriages, providing a sense of choice for Indian youth operating within the constraints of Indian values surrounding education, status, caste, religion and complexion (Sharma 2008).

Read the rest of Postill’s extracts on India, Brazil, China, and Ghana here.