Thursday, June 9, 2011

Media in the social

Your memory of your first wrist-watch can be far more valuable and fulfilling than that first watch itself. I bet we all love to indulge ourselves in small talks about our first bicycle, first air-travel, first car, first exposure to or ownership of a gadget that we really loved.

We fondly recall our first visit to a favorite relative, our local picnic spot, our first attempt at swimming, etc. And I find it interesting that our many such first experiences are often stirred up these days by new technologies.

The other day, a kin appeared ecstatic, unusual for a person generally considered detached from the usual going-ons. He said he had opened a personal email account! Now he was also on Facebook and Twitter and had actually dropped his first posts, his little contributions to the ever-expanding sea of virtual ephemera.

Fine. Another new prosumer, another soul in the wilderness of social media, another digital denizen. It seems everybody is on board with the great cyber surf of the twenty-first century. Welcome pal.

One of my own fond first memories is about my long-abandoned hotmail account. How can I forget that moment of edgy emotion and the sense of impending empowerment in the November of 1998 while a Japanese friend was personally helping me to create the email ID. The phantasmic mail was within my reach, finally. Before that, I occasionally approached a tiny cybercafé at Thamel that charged its customers for its ID to do whatever had to be done with that email thingy!

Here’s a more relevant personal experience that expounds on my own thoughts on “social media”, a buzzphrase and a topic of increasing contention these days. In 1994, I got married, not only to my wife, but also to a computer. I spent all my savings to buy a Macintosh 128 machine, the original Apple personal computer. For a journalist on a meager wage, it was, indeed, a tough decision to own a personal computer then. I had ignored my family’s “social” pressure to invest the money in dui-char anna, the real estate, rather than on what they believed was a piece of luxury equipment.

So, you see, where I come from in my “social” orientation to “media”? More don’ts from earlier years: Don’t watch those movies, they will corrupt you. Don’t read that pulp fiction, that Prakas Kobid, they’ll spoil you. That magazine, that newspaper—they just poison your mind.

Nonetheless, I did and many young people watched them and read them, often secretly, behind their parents, many of them illiterates. I think their “content” were more social than anything else. Their appeal had very little to do with the medium itself. Away from the political chatter, that endless talk of pervasive repression and grand emancipation, those novels and movies helped to develop some real social skills, to understand genuine issues of every-day life, and relationships in earnest in a society with taboos and other cultural complexities. I think those media, discredited in the eyes of many conservatives, may have played an important role in making me a “social” animal, if not fully “human”.

Now, as “social media” span, as some of us embrace them and spew out our gusto, and as Facebook users begin to spill over at Maitighar Manadala to tackle some issues of our society while others mock at their real-life efforts, I find myself challenged to look into the disconnect between the social and the media, or between the media and the social. What makes the online interactive tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr, RSS, and blogs “social media”? Conversely, and more importantly perhaps, how do we feature in our “social” orientation to these tools and their impact?

I think the general understanding of social media remains confined to what the technology does, not what we are doing with them. The tools’ immediacy, easy access and usability, widespread reach, and interactivity have been emphasized much. The hype surrounds user-experience, the ability to surmount traditional media, the sense of novelty in technology.

Literally, “social” is of or relating to human society. Dictionary provides more variations: involving allies; marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with friends or associates; the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society. The word also denotes cooperative and interdependent relationships; relating to, or based on rank or status in a particular society; or of, relating to, or characteristic of the upper classes.

In practice, we don’t know for sure, besides our anecdotal experiences, how these tools relate to our society in general. One crude estimate suggested recently that there are some 800,000 Facebook users in the country. The number of twitter users is also increasing. As users expand, we will begin to see the need to analyze more frequently the users’ orientation and actual social impact of these tools.

For now, we may welcome the cooperative and companioning side of these users and their experiences, but we also may need to be equally concerned with their hierarchical tendencies. Besides the interrelationships, defined by friending and following or being followed, there is little activity on these social platforms that properly merits as social. Already, even as a casual user, we see these platforms inundated only when Baluwatar makes a new move or some among the “601” cry foul. That is the political in the social. Most of our leaders and their cadres, including our prime minister, as well as our many professionals-in-politics on Facebook and Twitter carry on with this virtual activism.

In no particular order, there are other socials. We see a gradual rise of the diplomatic social in recent months, especially after US ambassador Scott H. DeLisi started his Facebook account and embraced other online tools for his office. Then the Indian mission, under rajdoot Rakesh Sood, plunged on Facebook. Our government officials may be unreachable, inaccessible, but our diplomats are now just a click away and they make every effort to put out the best words to describe our country, now in turmoil. No doubt, we can hope that more missions will turn social in the days ahead.

The other is the economic social. Rising prices, falling shares, incredible perks to bank managers, petro-crisis, etc. Good to be in the know. But sometimes these socials go to the extent of spams, directly from the mighty, invincible brands. Some I find really useful, like a promo on new cell phone or computer, outsourcing opportunities, etc. Others I just ignore or delete. I haven’t yet seen a tweet selling spinach from Jiri or potatoes from Dumre.

Professional in social is something I do a bit myself and this cross-cuts other socials in the public sector, industry and academia. Because the overwhelming content from traditional media as well as the social networks serve the political social, I find little original professional social activity in these networks. Many have joined merely for a virtual presence and as a means of professional contact. Yet, a new breed of young professionals is on the rise, some to the status of personal branding, leading the way, with an increasing volume of link journalism and original posting.

Finally, there is the personal social, perhaps the most ubiquitous, and hence largely invisible. It signifies the triumph of the individual either by way of economic freedom and empowerment, or merely in being a part of the network and its close-knit community. We can expect more of the personal socials in the days ahead who may ultimately evolve into the social socials, those who use media for social transformation, the true measure of social media.

This will require some serious measures aimed at increasing access to everyone in the country. New media environments also require new media literacy. With them, when the new netizens will drop their first tweet, they know it is worth their social effort, and a memorable one at that.

Published in the Republica, June 8, 2011