And, how marketers and app developers can tap into the phenomenon.
A recent TVC featured a liftman who asks a well-dressed smart professional, "Can I make friends with you?" The liftman reveals that his Facebook name is "Rocky". A viewer can't help but smile at the cool dude that this liftman seemed to have morphed into for a moment.
The democratisation of technology has made the impossible, possible. Over 50 per cent of internet users access the internet only through their mobile phones and approximately 35 per cent of social networking users come from the 2-5 lakh population, smaller towns as per an IMRB Google study done on internet users.
This implies that for the relatively less-exposed audiences, including low income groups represented by the liftman in the ad, the virtual world, with its innumerable new experiences and lifestyles, is just a button away.
Millions of low income or less exposed Indians will actually be able to bring alive their dreams and may be even their fantasies online.
The question one may ask is - Why is social media such an earth shattering phenomenon for the less exposed, less educated boy versus a relatively well exposed person? The answer is simple; a lot of relatively well-to-do folks have friends on Facebook who are of a similar educational and economic background. What they share or chat about on Facebook is a part of their real lives. Their posts on Facebook largely reflect either what they are doing every day or the kind of people they are - that includes their passions, interests and desires. They may lead alternative lives on Facebook but their updates on Facebook are largely rooted in their realities.
However, for the low income or the less exposed liftman or peon, there is a massive change that occurs. He often switches on a fantasy world into which he escapes. It could be compared to the dream world that Alice switched on when she was asleep. He actually lives a dream life online and portrays facts about himself that are figments of his imagination.
Imagine a boy residing in a slum in Mumbai, chatting with a well-to-do babe from a posh locality on Facebook, and portraying himself as a dude who has seen it all and done it all. This is the phenomenon that I term as 'Fakebook'.
But one does not have to imagine; this is reality now.
To deep dive into this phenomenon of Fakebook I conducted a research among people who had migrated from a small city to a much bigger city (for example, from Rae Bareilly to Lucknow or from a place in say, Orissa to a metro like Mumbai and Chennai). I also conducted research among low income groups across some of the slums of Mumbai in Ghatkopar and Goregaon East.
The methodology employed was a combination of in-depth interviews coupled with observations that included how they surf the net and what they do on Facebook. I also scanned their Facebook pages to gain first-hand information about their behaviour on Facebook. The research was done at their homes to get a deeper understanding of the realities of their lives.
My research revealed the phenomenon of Fakebook and I also realised how widespread this phenomenon is. Sudden exposure to a different set of people and lifestyles had created a huge gap in their lives which they needed to plug.
The people I met had faked their Facebook profiles or rather, exaggerated their profiles. With a few English words thrown in and of course image alterations with the PicsArts and the Instagrams of the world, they had become the unquestionable dudes of the virtual world.
The same shy person, who could not speak a word to girls in his life, managed a score of 50 girlfriends on Facebook. This was showcased to me like it was the greatest achievement of his lifetime. These were only friendship requests and acceptance of friendship. There was no physical meeting that followed these friendship requests and they remained virtual friends, yet he felt like a dude straight out of an Axe commercial!
Would these people I met dare to present themselves face to face with some of their better exposed, well-to-do Facebook friends? The answer was an emphatic 'No'.
But the virtual world has given them the platform to lead an alternative life where anything is possible. None of the limitations of the real world, such as education or class, seem to matter.
What you share or how you present yourself online makes you the man of the moment. It does not matter what you are or where you hail from. What matters is who shared it first and how may 'likes' or comments you got. The more popular your 'sharings', the higher your status.
I decided to explore this phenomenon of Fakebook further in the slums of Mumbai. With the help of my cabbie I met a few girls and guys there who confessed to having altered their profiles a little here and there to attract some attention.
A ninth standard kid staying in the slum, studying in a Marathi medium school, actually told me about how he tries his best to enhance his persona online, especially when he is chatting with some kids from an ICSE school. Also, some of the girls were excited about how tools like PicsArt can enable you to change your picture completely. In fact, one spoke about how a dark girl they knew had actually made herself look fair.
Imagine the opportunities that could arise from this. How can millions of underexposed Indians leading unreal fantasy avatars online be an opportunity for marketers?
The obvious opportunity could exist for people who are part of the ever-booming apps world. There could be apps that help people with conversation starters in English or quotes available at the click of an app to make a greater impression on an absolute stranger. Or, for that matter, instant knowledge tips that make you sound intelligent in a second, a video or some piece of entertainment that can be shared in a matter of seconds.
If really intelligent apps could help you design conversations depending on who is chatting with you at the other end, would it not be a boon?
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Brands could alter their relationships with audiences that are relatively underexposed and actually be seen as their soul mates in the virtual world.
There are huge opportunities for brands to enable the creation of alternative worlds online and enable people to lead their fantasy lives in the virtual world. If the virtual world is 'the better world', why can't brands partner individuals in their journeys in the better world?
Can't brands like Coke, Pepsi or Sprite be a part of this dream world and further fuel their dreams to establish a deeper emotional bond with these audiences?
One could also reverse this argument. For those who constantly seek solace in the virtual world, what can a brand do to reassure them and give them a greater boost of confidence in the real world, thus bridging the gap between the two worlds? How can brands smoothen out their journeys in the real world?
Brands can act as genuine companions by addressing the gaps in an individual's overall persona and enable them to make their virtual lives a reality.
With even the cheapest mobile phones becoming devices that can enable a person to create a self that is a figment of his/her imagination, imagine the extent to which this opportunity can be exploited.
(The writer is former VP, planning, JWT, and author of 'Beyond the comfort zone', a book about the tears, fears and cheers in the life of a single migrant)