Whether Twitter encourages inanity or topples hierarchies, Manjula Narayan is certain its future in India is rich with possibilities
SOMETIME IN August this year, the buzz around Twitter suddenly got louder in India. For months before that, the ‘tweets’ of everyone with something to say (and those without as well) had been crashing noisily against each other in the amorphous enormity of cyberspace. Then, this incessant chatter got some ‘real world’ sonic boom: Saif Ali Khan spluttered angrily in the colour supplements about Pritish Nandy’s acerbic tweets on Kareena Kapoor’s pathetic performance in Kambakkht Ishq; Mallika Sherawat sashayed into Twitter’s San Franscisco office in a frightening wool dress the colour of the ether, and Shashi Tharoor was dragged over the political coals for, well, being himself.
But what is Twitter, really? A free microblogging service that lets users send and read messages of a maximum of 140 characters, Twitter, which was created by American Jack Dorsey in 2006, stands at the junction where social networking sites like Facebook (in its older pre-lite avatar) intersect with cell phone text messages: it allows a user to reach out to an infinite number of people with unprecedented urgency and immediacy, yet allows privacy. A user’s tweets or status messages — which could include shortened links to multimedia content — are displayed on his profile page and also sent to other ‘tweeple’ who’ve chosen to ‘follow’ him. Tweets are sent most frequently through the Twitter website or through SMS on a mobile phone, which automatically allows the user to post messages about events as they happen.
In June this year, the world witnessed just how potent a political instrument Twitter could be during the unrest surrounding the elections in Iran – thousands of protesters tweeted about anti-government demonstrations and subsequent police brutality. Others ‘retweeted’ — or copied and re-posted protesters’ tweets — and so the news of what was happening in that country spread rapidly across the world.
Back in India, if someone in the far future were to document this particular moment in the intellectual life of the nation, the currently beleaguered Tharoor would be listed as one of the early ‘thought leaders’ who unintentionally pushed the Twitter phenomenon out of echo chambers peopled merely by smart geeks, media superstars, Bollywood “zeroines” and their ‘followers’ into the shared mind space of this country. Before Tharoor’s guileless cattlegate tweet, few socially networked Indians could be bothered to push away Facebook — which they are still avidly flipping through — to even think about Twitter. According to Internet market research company Comscore, in fact, as recently as February this year, Twitter was receiving just 1.19 lakh unique visitors from India. The numbers are miniscule when you consider that a recent Synovate study commissioned by Business Today found that 1.7 crore Indians visit social networks regularly. The same study that also uncovered that 30 percent of people across all segments were bored with social networking.
#1 ACCORDING to a recent pluggd.in poll, 17 percent of Indian Twitter users are still figuring out what to do with it. 16 percent of the medium’s regular ‘tweeple’ use it as a news service
#2 30 percent of Indian netizens have no clue about Twitter
#3 11 percent of Indian users love the ego boost of updating their Twitter status
#4 11 percent use Twitter to stay in touch with friends. 10 percent use it for research. Another 10 percent use it to meet interesting people
#5 SOCIAL networking sites had better watch out. 68 percent of those who want to stay updated with news on Twitter also chose to stay in touch with friends on the microblogging site
Enter Twitter. For the refugee reeling from overexposure to friends’ party and family pictures and attempting to dodge gifts of donkeys from Farmtown and calls to combat on Mafia Wars — both wretched applications on Facebook – Twitter seems like a haven from the assault of social networking sentimentalism.
Here, the rules are clear: Seek out a friend or a celebrity and follow him — well, at least to begin with. And unless you are an exhibitionist, your tweets don’t have to stray into the mawkish swamp that is Facebookland.
A recent Harvard case study suggests that the top 10 percent of prolific Twitter users accounts for over 90 percent of tweets. Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher and his partner Demi Moore, who together have a startling 5.8 lakh followers and seem like the most ardent tweeple on the planet, don’t have any desi equivalents just yet. But, it’s only a matter of time before that happens.
TWITTER REGISTERED its first big traffic jump in India in March this year. It was around then that journalist and producer Pritish Nandy and television anchor Barkha Dutt both got onto the Twitter bus. “I had read about how women in Iran had put across their political point of view through Twitter. And I had read about how Obama’s team stays on Twitter to lend transparency to his government. It provoked my curiosity so I went in there and found it cool,” says filmmaker and media personality Pritish Nandy, whose 5,208 followers include techies, new generation film professionals and media watchers, as well as those who’ve been tracking him since the 1980s when he first shot to prominence as the editor of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly.“Unlike Facebook, which is too invasive, Twitter is a public space and if you ignore a guy who says he’s a great actor and wants a role in your films, he’s so embarrassed, he’ll leave you alone. Twitter doesn’t push you,” says Nandy, who believes tweeting is an extension of the art of conversation. “You have to interact with people otherwise nobody will follow you. A lot of people who follow movie stars love it for about 15 days then start drifting away. The star’s list of followers might grow longer but, really, there is zero interactivity between the stars and their followers. Compare that to those of us who interact and you’ll see there’s a lot of comment.”
Nandy says Twitter’s potency is that the medium allows you to make a public statement and defend it too in real time, as he did in the case of his tweets about the “disgraceful” killing of Ishrat Jahan. “When I said that, a bunch of guys jumped on me. It was like a lynching. I told them I don’t agree with Narendra Modi and I don’t like him, but that they have the right to say what they want. They are still in conversation with me,” he says, adding that Twitter is sharpening public discourse. This, he believes, is because the medium allows users to really connect as opposed to newspaper articles that are long monologues that don’t allow for multiple levels of dialogue.
Like any dynamic medium, Twitter can either be a conduit for provocative political statement and the exchange of useful information or a cacophonous zone of banal natter. However, Ashish Sinha, founder of Pluggd.in, who has been actively tracking its growth in the country, believes much of the inconsequential chatter within Twitter will die down in due course, just as it did within the blogosphere, where only the truly committed have survived.
“While there are loads of social media consultants and selfproclaimed gurus who add to the noise on Twitter, it also opens up a plethora of opportunities when it comes to meeting interesting people and breaking communication barriers. Talking to @shashitharoor is a lot easier than talking to Mr Shashi Tharoor,” says Sinha, who adds that a recent Pluggd.in poll discovered that a majority of Indian internet users still do not know what Twitter is. Clearly, Karan Johar and Priyanka Chopra who have been using the site to generate publicity for their forthcoming films, Kurbaan and What’s Your Raashee? are ahead of the twittering curve, as is NDTV’s Managing Editor Barkha Dutt, who, incidentally, has an impersonator with the cheerfully honest username: ‘The Fake Barkha Dutt’. (The impersonator occasionally spoofs the original and has 109 followers.)
The real Barkha Dutt sees Twitter as an adjunct to her TV programmes. It allows her to tell viewers about incidental things that happen behind the scenes — as she did with her tweet about Sanjana Jon’s livid response to the programme on her brother, designer Anand Jon, currently serving a 59-year sentence in an American prison.
“Twitter is an interactive platform where you can talk to a lot of people in quick time. I use it as an interface between television and the viewer, much like SMS and email. I use it to gain an insight into what people are thinking,” she says. Isn’t it threatening to submerge everyone in an ocean of blah, you ask. “It depends on what you’re looking for,” says Dutt. “Twitter is not about journalism or analysis. Like its precursor, webchat, it’s an opportunity to talk. But I wouldn’t call it shallow. Indians are an opinionated people and when I post, I often get a volley of responses.”
Professor Sree Sreenivasan of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, whose Twitter bio describes him as a “technology evangelist/ skeptic”, amplifies Barkha Dutt’s brief for Twitter. “Twitter can help reporters find new story ideas, trends and sources,” says Sreenivasan. “It can help them connect with readers and viewers in new ways and promote their own work to new audiences. This is true of businesses of all kinds.”
AS WITH any interactive platform, Twitter users can expect a range of reactions from followers. Dutt, for instance, is open to engaging with disagreement online but is prompt to block abuse. “The Internet empowers people to talk to you in a direct way. People have been animated, but I haven’t had to deal with much abuse,” she says.
“Twitter means learning a new etiquette. But what’s common sense in real life is also common sense on Twitter. What you say can live for a very long time. So my rule is, use Twitter in a spirit that’s generous and helpful. Don’t make it about yourself,” says Sreenivasan.
As in life, Twitter users who blather on about their breakfast menus or their pet cat’s yowls, or worse, are rude or indecent run the risk of being blocked – the social networking version of ostracism. “You have to be careful to follow the rules of public discourse. Remember that the Internet is, in a sense, the published world,” says Dutt. And like the published world, Twitter has its almost puritanical etiquette that looks askance at self indulgence and encourages engagement with the useful, like the exchange of information through forwarded links or the discussion of niche interests like, say, Nandy’s posts on the use of the MacGuffin device in Hitchcock’s films.
“You need to be able to convey a complete idea in 140 characters. Sometimes I take six points and string them together. But each tweet should be complete in itself. It’s very precise. It allows you to use language effectively,” says Nandy, who believes that in a media environment that encourages sycophancy, Twitter provides a space for debate. “Like all young platforms, it is charmingly anti-establishment and argumentative. There are inane conversations going on but you also have abstruse thinking, which other broad-based platforms don’t allow,” he says, adding that the medium is set to explode in India within the next eight months.
Much of its success in the country will have to do with how easily Twitter lends itself to advertising and marketing. “Priyanka Chopra subtly markets her upcoming movies on Twitter. Similarly, brands have started harvesting tweets to figure out customer feedback. TV channels too are promoting their Twitter ids in a way that was never done with blogging,” says Sinha.
As with most technology, only time will reveal new and unexpected functions. Chennai- based Dr AK Venkatachalam’s twitter cast of a knee surgery in July this year and Infosys’ recent closure of a deal via Twitter are proof that the future of microblogging in the country is rich with possibilities. But not everybody is enthused by the technological utopia glimmering in the future. Unnerved by the increasingly complex online environment that requires a preternatural awareness of the sensitivities of those at the other end of a thought stream, some people are retreating from the whole shebang. “Living in the age of mobiles, SMS and email, we are already too tyrannised by the idea of immediacy. Everything needs to be responded to immediately, everything needs to be known immediately,” says legal researcher Lawrence Liang, who admits to already feeling a little out of breath in cyberspace. “There are people who can use it productively and for whom immediacy is a need, but I believe in the importance of slowness. This is alien in the world of Twitter, which demands a 24×7 updating of my status,” he says.
This attempt to slacken the pace of life is not for the enthusiasts whooping it up online right now. Most of these pioneers, with the notable exception of the diplomat- turned-politician Shashi Tharoor have emerged from film and media. “Twitter has become synonymous with self-expression. It isn’t about getting in touch with your roots like Facebook and Myspace are. It’s about you having a word and wanting the world to hear it,” says psychotherapist Neetu Sarin, who believes the tweets of those in the public domain are a manifestation of their fractured selves.
“Whether you’re an actor or a journalist, a part of you wants to be out there, while another part wants to retreat into a cocoon. Twitter gives you the legitimacy to do that. Hardly anyone makes shocking personal revelations on it. So while it’s voyeuristic and invites the reader to peep into a life, it also firmly draws the line. It seduces without really giving anything back,” says Sarin.
Which puts the spotlight on your own conflicted feelings about Twitter. Does its emergence mean a general decline in the intellectual engagement with issues? Will the greatest struggles come to be dismissed in a 140-character tweet? Or, as a victim of technostress, are you frightened by the freedom presented by the succinct tweet that could topple entrenched hierarchies? Perhaps the unease about Twitter is actually a fear of its free spiritedness, a quality both admired and discouraged in an outwardly democratic society that’s still largely swathed in old feudal ways. Will Twitter change the way Indians think? Will it encourage people to participate in a full life of the mind or will it push them further down the road of idiocy, even more than low-brow television?
Perhaps you should tweet that dilemma. Someone out there’s sure to come up with the right answers. In 140 precise characters.