Shashi Tharoor and Hari Kunzru talk about the asset and liability that is the social media, with Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra (moderator): We are talking about the promise and the perils of new media — and who better than Shashi Tharoor to talk about the perils of it. I can’t think of many people who may have lost their jobs thanks to new media.
Shashi Tharoor: I think the perils of it are greater for the likes of Hosni Mubarak than the poor old Shashi Tharoor. One generation earlier, mass telecom, satellite television and SMSes may have had a bigger contributory role in what (eventually) happened in the Arab world. Going viral over an issue is an effective way of intensifying feelings. The protest we saw in Tahrir Square or in Tunisia may not have sustained without that new media.
Hari Kunzru: That’s a fair comment. It’s an organisational tool rather than something that is going to create the political sentiment that will drive a movement. Like many people around the world, I became obsessed with what was going on in Egypt and Tunisia, frustrated by the poor coverage, certainly in the early days, from the broadcast media in UK, US and other places. Had I relied on CNN and various other news sources, I really would not have understood the situation as much as by following key people on Twitter. I had a particularly intense experience following people from Bahrain when this flurry of tweets came, saying the police are moving in, they are beating us, they are shooting us. I started forwarding this information to my followers, as many other people were doing. It’s that kind of involvement.
VC: Shashi, this is, of course, the promise of new media. But in India, so many people are just not connected: I’d say 90-95 percent of people. How far is it going?
ST: Iran was actually the first poster child of the Twitter revolution. You have to accept that it perhaps may have contributed to sustain global interest for two or three months. In the end, the authorities’ crackdown worked. So let us never assume that a means of communication can determine an outcome. It can’t. Your Indian example may not entirely be the right one. We have an Internet penetration of about 15 percent of our population but a great number of those who are left out can have access if they wish. For example, as an MP, I get petitions all the time. Very often, they come with things I need to forward. They’ll find an Internet café or they’ll find a friend who has a friend who has a computer. Having said that, they are obviously not going to be in some protest square — their SMS is going to be more important. In India, you will find that mobile phones and SMSes will probably matter more than Twitter and Facebook.
VC: Obviously, ‘Occupy Dalal Street’ wouldn’t have had the same effect.
HK: The Occupy Wall Street movement has full force because it’s virtually present and it is available for use as a set of ideas. It’s available to people globally. There is a huge debate.
VC: Shashi, you must be exposed to a lot of bigotry and hatred. Do you get riled when people are tweeting horrible stuff?
ST: I think I’ve developed a thicker skin over time. The fact is that all media is liable to misuse. There was a time last year when I wasn’t sure you guys in the electronic media were particularly more responsible than the most brazen on Twitter. The fact is that some self-restraint has to come. You find a lot of abusive stuff. And that is partly because people can take shelter in an anonymous handle, which you can’t do in real life, you can’t go up to somebody and say something nasty. In fact, I have actually been at conferences where people have come up to me and been absolutely unctuous. They had been abusing me on Twitter. You know, sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.
VC: If Twitter or the new media can become the catalyst for revolution in some cases, it can also become a catalyst for certain negative thoughts, congregating, coming together, being expressed… like religious hatred. You’d normally not find that being openly expressed.
HK: People can use free speech to call out ‘fire!’ in a crowded cinema, but that’s no reason to place limits on free speech other than the ones that arise socially. That is a slippery road towards a censorship that has dire social consequences.
ST: The thing is: does bad information drive out good? Because obviously reputation management can be affected by stuff on the Internet. And there are people who live in fear of false or nasty things being said about them.
HK: It’s my experience that people are abusive because they don’t really feel emotionally that there’s a human being at the other end. When they’re made to realise that, often the normal rules of civility kick back in.
VC: Tell us, how you can transform writing a book into 140 characters?
HK: Well, you can’t. They are different forms.
VC: We used to have haiku at one point of time. Is this the haiku of the modern era — trying to be as creative as you can in as few characters as possible?
ST: It limits creativity beyond a certain point — although Salman Rushdie has done a limerick on Kim Kardashian on Twitter. So I guess you can, but not very seriously. I’d rather see the Ministry of External Affairs or India Post or even Delhi Police going on Twitter to give necessary information — rather than our trying to turn it into a form of literature.
VC: Do you agree with that, Hari?
HK: I must confess to not being terribly interested by most of the literary attempts being made on Twitter. I concur it is about the flow of information. And it is about the extraordinary moment when you realise that you have direct access to somebody’s desktop, very distant and perhaps very powerful.
VC: Sometimes it seems to me it is centrally about marketing. It is as much about marketing a new book or a new movie.
ST: If all you are doing is marketing, they’ll lose interest and you won’t be able to market to them anymore. Common sense. So also using your Twitter handle to communicate observations, thoughts about yourself and information that they might not have, when tomorrow you release your Bollywood blockbuster, they will pay attention to that.
HK: People will follow or unfollow, pay attention or not, depending on whether what you are saying is of interest to them. I find that phenomenon fascinating: what actually attracts people, what bores them. And often slightly humbling when your tweet about Kim Kardashian gets (retweeted by) 1,00,000 people.
VC: If you look at the top tweeters in India, the most followed are you, Priyanka Chopra, Shah Rukh Khan.
ST: And Sachin Tendulkar.
VC: Those who are only on Twitter would be lucky to get 5,000-8,000 followers.
ST: That may be true but I personally try to follow ‘ordinary folks’ who send me an interesting tweet. I look at some of their other stuff. So I have a mixture. I suspect most people do. Everyone follows personal friends who might not be household words themselves. But yes, it is often the individual tweet by someone with 10 followers that is picked by a person with million followers that can make an impact. Probably, you are right there.
VC: How concerned are you both about the fact that it is all moving digital, onto iPads? People are reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in perfect e-book format minutes after it was released because somebody had pirated it on the Internet. We have already seen this in movies and music. Is the publishing industry going to change completely?
HK: Clearly. The downside of easy copying is piracy and loss of revenue for creative people. The upside is a possibility of a much more direct relationship between the reader and the writer. And those who need to be very worried are large publishing firms who depend on physical distribution for their revenue.
VC: Any closing comments from you, Shashi?
ST: I think the social media is here to stay. We overstate its impact sometimes at our own peril, but we certainly should not underestimate it. Some might suggest there is information overload: about 140 million tweets a day, a billion a week. Obviously, that’s more than any human being is capable of digesting. But I think it also represents an opportunity for those who actually want to use it constructively. In a democracy, social media can be an asset if used well.