As 2011 draws to a close, dire predictions are being made about India’s future. A quick scan of headlines and comments in newspapers and television suggests that we are losing it: our politicians have lost the plot; India Inc. its sheen; the media, its sense of proportion; and a certain 74-year-old man by the name of Anna Hazare his mental balance if you believe various secretaries of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC).
The glum mood all around is hard to miss. A Harry Potter veteran may suggest invoking Protego Horribilis, the spell used by Prof. Filius Flitwick to protect Hogwarts from dark forces. But all is not lost, because social media is coming of age, despite the attempts to put a lid on unbridled free expression over the Internet.
“After a special request from Kapil Sibal, No Facebook for Obama’s daughters,” tweeted Mango Baba @KommanMan as news broke last weekend about US President Barack Obama banning his daughters from using Facebook because he believed it “does not make much sense” to put the most private details of one’s family life on public view.
Mr Sibal is predictably in the line of fire of tweeple following some of his recent statements on screening of potentially “offensive” content in the cyber world (which he subsequently retracted). But he is by no means the only target. In the virtual world, irreverence knows no barriers.
“Congress wants to ban jokes, BJP wants to ban meat, Anna Hazare wants to ban alcohol. Looks like Punjabis are gonna face extinction,” tweeted Swaty Singh Malik @SwatySMalik, a Delhiite who describes herself as “a proud mother and optimistic lawyer”.
In the encircling gloom, is the ability to continue laughing, even when the joke is on us, worth fighting for? Definitely yes. The jokes are one way of preserving sanity. They also signal something deeper — in the cyber world, hierarchies and barriers melt away. Anyone connected to the Net can take potshots at those connected to the corridors of power. All are at par. Fame, power, position, no doubt yield followers. But to survive the slings and arrows on Twitter, one simply has to be wittier. There are no VIP seats, no Z-category security. The real world is not yet flat, Thomas Friedman’s wishes notwithstanding. But the cyber world is, or more so. That’s its charm, and its power.
As the events of this year across the globe and in India have shown, the ordinary netizen can challenge the mightiest. No matter what one’s views may be on the rights and wrongs of the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption (IAC), one thing is clear — IAC’s supporters have proved to be far more canny in using the Internet and social media than the government. In 2011 it also became amply clear that the Internet genie is tough to rein in, once it is out. It not only connects people, it is also the backbone of commerce. When then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had the Internet and mobile communication switched off in Cairo and elsewhere to destroy the ability of protesters to coordinate and mobilise, this also had a devastating economic effect, and the measure couldn’t be sustained for long.
In a country where millions of villagers are not connected to the electricity grid, some have asked if the Internet — and by extension social media — is not a preserve of the elite. The point is partially valid. The gap between India’s digital haves and have-nots is enormous, worse than in other emerging economies. But there has been progress. There are around 112 million Internet users in the country, according to a recent study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB).
Last year, the figure was 87 million. IAMAI says around 37 per cent of Net users access it from home, 23 per cent from cyber cafes, 22 per cent from office, nine per cent from mobile devices and the rest from schools and other places. Youngsters in India continue to drive Internet usage. More and more schoolchildren are using the Net. No doubt, Internet connectivity is still predominantly urban. But Net usage is going up steadily in small towns.
As Anke Schwittay of the Centre for Development Studies, University of Auckland, pointed out in a 2011 report in the International Journal of Communications, “An important way in which young men join the Net is by way of public access points. In urban areas, Internet cafés are the primary space where first-time technology users become initiated… A recent large-scale survey by the Nielsen Rating company of 12,000 cyber café users in eight urban centres (in India) showed that 90 per cent of users were male and between 15 and 35 years of age.”
So while those who use the Net and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are more likely to be urban, male and young, the netizen community is expanding rapidly and can no longer be pigeonholed as elite. Many people now access the Net through mobile phones. And as everyone knows, while village India lacks many things, it does have mobile phones. The number of mobile subscribers in India is around 881 million, far more than the number with access to a toilet.
So now we have the new order where a growing number of those who are connected to the internet are challenging the old order connected to the corridors of power. WikiLeaks has shown what the new can do to the old. The old order is now trying to scramble on to the new platforms. But social media have shown that the very terms of engagement have changed.
The situation today is not so different from the aftermath of the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. The ability of many more people to read led the way to Enlightenment, the challenge to the feudal order and a growing national consciousness in Europe. The Internet is just as big a revolution, and the year social and political causes went viral on social media may ultimately be judged a milestone in history.