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Facebook, Orkut and the caste system

Ancient, meet the modern. How are India's complex social interactions playing out across social media?

“Social networking sites are giving [youth] a platform to discuss caste,” said Sunil Gangavane, of Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR), who is conducting research on how caste identities are reproduced on Orkut.

Gangavane said students in Mumbai rarely discuss caste among themselves. Yet Gangavane said that online, young people seek out caste-related communities and engage in debates related to those identities.

Not everyone agrees.

Social media expert Gaurav Mishra said Orkut and similar sites do not increase caste discussions. Rather, they accurately reflect that Indians still very much identify with their caste and want to form groups around them.

“Surprisingly with urbanization, with education, with more people traveling and getting exposed to other cultures, these divisions have not really gone away. Caste even now — even in urban, educated India — is still an extremely big issue,” said Mishra, CEO of online marketing firm 2020 Social. “So therefore it is not surprising given how deeply entrenched caste is in Indian society that it manifests itself online also.”

About 45 million of India's 1.1 billion people are active internet users, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Orkut claims to have has 13 million active users.

The PUKAR researchers said they have seen an increase in caste activity on Orkut. Over a four-month span of following the activity of 32 caste-related communities, the groups’ total memberships have grown from 445,000 to 485,000.

Facebook also has groups that represent castes, and they appear to be multiplying. In June, there were less than 50 Brahmin groups, according to Mishra’s research. A search today finds more than 300. This is most likely because Facebook, though not as popular as Orkut, has seen a steady growth in popularity in India, as reflected in a comScore report posted on techdusts.com.

As more Indians go online, and the internet reaches beyond the most urban and educated layer of society, caste activity will become only more prevalent, Mishra said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/100108/social-media-castes