Every day after lunch, 84-year-old Lila Handa tucks herself into her bed and reaches for her android phone. Lila, who has had a penchant for writing for years now, then finds herself logging into Facebook to start her daily ritual of writing a poem and sharing it on the platform.
Lila shared a poem she had written the day before, the day this correspondent reached out to her for an interview.
"Saheliyaan uljhaye, gussa dilate
Chahe bujhaye paheliyaan
Mushkil mein hoti sahara
Ji aisi hoti hai saheliyaan"
(Female friendships may complicate, they might irritate
And at times they might offend
but you'll find them by your side
when the need arises
yes!! Such are female friends)
Lila's teenage granddaughter created a profile for her on a whim, sometime in 2012. The resident of Mandi, Himachal Pradesh took a few months for her to get used to the platform.
However, over the past few years, the grandmother of five has been an avid user of the platform. In the last decade, Lila reconnected with some of her friends and colleagues. She claims that "chit chat hoti rahi aur silsila chalta gaya (chit chat kept happening and the story continued)". And then four years ago, she met her college friends, who she had found through the platform, and reconnected with them in person – after 60 years.
Lila and her eight friends planned a trip over long phone calls. Her friends came from Delhi, Nagpur, and Ghaziabad. They then met and stayed in Mandi for two days and travelled to Bajaura from there.
Sometimes Lila's poems get 100 likes, sometimes they get 10, mostly from people they knew. However, the retired government school employee makes a point to write a poem every day. This little Facebook ritual is her definition of 'me time'.
On 2nd February this year, Meta Platforms reported Facebook's first-ever quarterly drop in users. The report suggests that many Indian women have left the male-dominated platform citing a variety of reasons - safety concerns, rising costs of data packs, familial surveillance, etc.
Data suggests that out of the total number of Facebook users worldwide, 3.5% are women who fall in the age group of 55 - 64, and 2.8% fall under the age group of 65 and above. While younger women have been increasingly leaving Facebook, many women told Decode that their older women relatives have been spending a lot more time on Facebook and have even gotten interested in the platform in recent times. Decode spoke to some women above the age of sixty to understand what's keeping them on a platform that younger women rarely use anymore.
Finding friends back
Seventy-two-year-old Winifred Petrie joined Facebook in 2015 hoping she'd find friends she had lost touch with when they had to move cities and towns because the men in the families worked in the military. Winifred's school — Dow Hill School in Kurseong — was mostly attended by children who came from military or railways backgrounds, and for her, Facebook was the door to finding friends she had not heard from for over 40 years. However, Winifred admits that the idea was also somewhat overwhelming – what would it be like to talk to these women after so many years, she wondered.
"While I was overwhelmed by the idea, I could see myself gravitating towards the platform every day during small breaks between work," Petrie, a resident of Siliguri, West Bengal, told Decode.
Petrie soon found her school group named, 'Dow Hill School, Kurseong, Friends' and started looking for her friends. She recollects posting on the group, her name and batch and requesting her friends to connect with her. She soon found her friends and seniors who she has been in contact with till date. Owing to her age and her professional commitments, she has found this virtual means of staying in touch and updated about her friends and colleagues of great help.
Fifty-six-year old Anasuya Dasgupta joined Facebook almost out of need in 2009, three years after the social networking site was launched in India. Anasuya's friend was diagnosed with cancer and she figured Facebook — then flush with eager, new users finding old and new 'friends' — would be a good platform to run a fundraiser. The homemaker, who had moved to Kurseong, a small hilltown in West Bengal from her home in Kolkata, for her son's education had struggled to keep in touch with friends.
Her big worry, however, was how would she find these friends? "Is she using her maiden name or did she change her surname?" the Facebook user, then 43-years-old, found herself wondering.
However, much to her relief, while she struggled to find some of her friends, Anasuya's friends found her on Facebook easily. Anasuya had not changed her surname after marriage and used the same name on her Facebook profile, making it easy for people to find her.
In fact, her not changing her name, turned her into what Anasuya calls a 'mini Facebook within Facebook'. "Since I had continued to use my maiden name, people could easily find me. And through me, they'd be able to connect with other friends whose surnames they did not know of either. These were people who hadn't heard from each other in years," Anasuya said.
Through the friends who were on Facebook, Anasuya's schoolmates traced others who weren't on Facebook but wanted to rekindle old friendships anyway.
The women Decode spoke to all admitted to have faced this challenge. But that did not deter them. From Lila to Anasuya, all the women soon started looking for their long-lost friends by adding several layers of information - names of schools, colleges, or the places they might have moved to. A few rounds of trial and error and voila! They landed on the Facebook profiles of their friends.
Keeping In Touch With Busy Children
Rinku Ganguly, 61, joined Facebook soon after her daughter moved to Europe to study. First, Facebook helped her find old friends. But more importantly, separated by several time zones, Facebook made Rinku feel connected to her daughter who she couldn't speak to often.
"It allowed me to vicariously live through my daughter's many small trips or outings. It gave me a sneak peek into her life that Whatsapp or phone calls failed to do,"Ganguly, a former teacher said.
Though separated by timelines, Anasuya echoed Ganguli's sentiments about being connected with her kids through Facebook. She tells Decode that when her elder son had left for Australia to pursue his higher education, Facebook made her feel more involved in his life. "All the photographs and status updates were a window into his life. It allowed me to be 'chill', and not come across as a helicopter parent," says Dasgupta.
Lila, who was living in Mandi with her daughter living in Dubai and son in Canada, found it easier to be connected with them and their kids, through Facebook. She recollects her granddaughter introducing the platform to her as something "younger people" were using to chat. So, not only did these older women find their friends through this platform, but they also found a way to be connected to their kids, in a new way.
Vanity Is Fun
Surabhi Jain, a 68-year-old Facebook user, feels that the platform has left her in a "UNO-reverse" like situation. Owing to her addiction to the platform's video content, Surabhi complains of occasionally being scolded, alongside her grandkids, by her daughter for her supposed "screen addiction".
"I do get headaches from over-exposure to the screen and her being my only caregiver, I believe I can be a handful. So, I know where she is coming from. However, I do really enjoy seeing videos of old songs and the 'Uncle Roger' videos". In between raising kids, managing a family of eight people, and working as a librarian in Korba, Chhattisgarh, Surabhi rarely found time for leisure for which she is making up now.
Like Surabhi, Winifred also found 'content' through Facebook, something that helped her fight the boredom of TV. "I discovered the OTT platform, Netflix, through the snippets that I came across on Facebook! Generally I am not someone who watches a lot of videos but I genuinely enjoy watching and discovering new content on Netflix through Facebook," Winifred said.
Rinku on the other hand was stoked to find a whole new world of "digitised art" through her Facebook groups on Vincent Van Gogh and Monet. "I had seen a few of the portraits myself but I had no idea about live installations of these paintings so it was a revelation". Apart from being awed by the coming together of art and science, she also appreciated the nuggets of information about the history of the artwork that is shared on this platform.
While Surabhi complained that sometimes the videos of White people preparing unappetizing dals and calling them lentil soup annoyed her, most women agreed that Facebook was how they broke their boredom of regular television content.
This trend might not have gone completely unseen on OTT platforms as well. Lavanya Rakesh, Social Media Associate of Pocket Aces, a video content creation firm, told Decode that platforms like Netflix have not paid much attention to this demographic in India. "Netflix caters mostly to a younger audience. However, they are of great value to platforms like Hotstar and SonyLiv, who have a lot of content targeting this demographic."
Owing to the multiple gender roles that these women have to shoulder, their act of finding time to log into the platform for reasons ranging from - connecting with friends, posting pictures of their artwork or anything of their personal interest, sharing thoughts or just scrolling, have transformed in their need to the right to leisure.
Chasing The Entrepreneurship Dream
"In the last few years, my school group on Facebook has been one of the saving graces. I have vented on this group, cried about my anxieties, and even discussed my business venture here, for the very first time", says Renu Nair, a small business owner from Delhi. The sixty-two-year-old until 2019, had been a homemaker who had migrated from Mangalore to Delhi, after her marriage.
Renu was known to be inclined towards arts and crafts since childhood, and like most women, she was never taught or encouraged to monetise her skills. The last couple of years has seen the growth of multiple small businesses on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. On receiving encouragement from her friends and daughter, she started selling hand embroidered bags on Facebook in 2019.
Since then, she has received orders from different parts of India. "I received my first international order- a batch of 200 hand embroidered potlis for a bridal function", says Renu.
With only seven out of a hundred entrepreneurs in India being women, Renu feels that Facebook can be a good platform to pursue their ambitions for women like her.
...And Then The Threats
Despite being hopeful, Renu is not entirely unaware of why women are quitting Facebook. The fraud wariness has caught up to her as well. She narrated an incident when she received an order from a Facebook user which turned out to be a fake account. The possibility of it being an international client, indicated by the name and display picture, had excited her. However, when the customer refused to pay via UPI and insisted on having bank account details and her CVV, she started feeling unsure. "I immediately consulted my daughter who then pointed out that it was a fake account and the user might have been anyone who was using a stock image," Renu said.
Shreeja Sen, a Feminist Lawyer, IT For Change, points out how Facebook's India-specific transparency reports reveal that in the last three months, the platform has received over 2000 reports through the Indian grievance mechanism, a majority of which have been on the creation of fake profiles and impersonating the individual, hacked accounts, loss of access to a page they managed, or bullying and harassment. "While this can impact individuals of any age, women and other marginal groups are quite vulnerable to such forms of violence," says Sen.
Aware of these threats, Winifred too restricts her engagement with Facebook to accepting friend requests from folks she already knows, watching videos and talking to people she knows. Like many her age she believes in monitoring her online activities to avoid 'unpleasant' situations or content.
META's report on Facebook suggests that 20-30% of overall users have been estimated to have seen nudity on the platform. According to the survey conducted in August 2021, India in particular ranked highest globally on the latter metric.
Decode reached out to Facebook for data reflecting the kinds and extent of risks older women in India might face on the platform, but they have not responded yet.
"The threats to cyber violence or safety that older women might face are dependent on the level of knowledge on digital safety and security", says Shonini Banerjee, member of Tech Sakhi, an initiative by Point of View to counter digital harassment, abuse and violence.
For older women who joined Facebook much later, questions around privacy, potential fraud and harassment seem to have not deterred them from using the platform and having a good time. Some people like Winifred navigate this risk by keeping a check on their Facebook settings every few days. Followed by people like Rinku who likes to take a more moderate approach where she is aware of the possibility of such things happening but is not consumed by the fear. While people like Lila believe in not caring one bit about it!