Since they didn’t find Bush or bin Laden newsworthy enough to put on their year-end cover, Time magazine decided to name “You” the person of the year. ‘You’ is anyone using Web 2.0 technologies – web platforms that allow for ordinary individuals to be both creators and consumers of media, thus empowering anyone and everyone. The Indian media jumped on this bandwagon, including ‘You’ in a number of its own year-end lists. This could have been an opportunity to look into issues such as the digital divide, Jurassic-era e-governance in the time of Web 2.0, or even what Web 3.0 would entail. But the overarching concern in the mainstream papers and online was that ‘bloggers can write anything they want without fear of law’. Reminders were also ubiquitous of cases such as that of the social networking site Orkut, which has been getting in trouble in India this winter for its ‘Dawood Ibrahim fan club’.
|Image: James Hilston|
Such coverage of new, web-based media, especially on the part of Indian television channels, perhaps came from the experience of having been at the receiving end of unflattering if not sometimes slanderous comments on a blog called ‘War for News’. This blog (from web log) is almost dead now, as the journalist who runs it is rumoured to have been found out and threatened. ‘War for News’ would pronounce regular judgements on the coverage of events on TV news and make comments about the capabilities of a reporter or the pronunciation of an anchor that were not taken kindly. What was worse, the blog would refuse to censor objectionable anonymous comments on its posts that often had to do with who was sleeping with whom. The blog claimed to be committed to free speech, but it left a bad taste in the mouth of those at the receiving end of its attentions.
“Why is there so much hate and venom on blogs?” “Why do blogs hate the mainstream media?” I was asked these questions on a TV show the day Time came out with its ‘You’ gimmick, and I was expected to defend the blogging community against such charges. But I wouldn’t: blogs carry hate and venom because there is hate and venom in the real world. The only difference is that the venom now has a medium for expression. While everyone else is exposed to the critical eye of the media, the media itself is used to playing judge, jury and executioner. No wonder, then, that senior journalists are feeling uncomfortable at being nonchalantly criticised. Anonymous blogs seem to cause the most unease, but it can be argued that these are the blogs that help push the boundaries of fearless speech.
The conflictual relationship imagined between blogs and mainstream media (‘MSM’ in blogging lingo) because of the criticism conventional media often faces in the blogosphere ignores the fact that many bloggers in India and across the world are journalists. Indeed, the writer and most readers of ‘War for News’ were journalists. Recent instances in which plagiarism in film reviews and other articles in the Indian press have been brought to light by bloggers perhaps can also be explained by this close cohabitation. If there is a war, it is as much within as it is without. But the relationship of cooperation between blogs and MSM is one that is often not acknowledged: journalists in India and the world over follow blogs for story ideas, leads and contacts and to track what their audiences are interested in.
Apart from this more recent spate of coverage, there have been some other occasions on which blogging has made news. One instance was when bloggers created a collaborative tsunami help site in 2004. This not only collated information from the world over but also had Indian bloggers visiting and reporting on tsunami-hit areas for their blogs – sometimes relaying information via SMS where the Internet was not accessible. On another occasion, a management institute sent two bloggers a “legally notarised email” in an attempt to intimidate them into deleting certain posts critical of it. The bloggers made this a public issue, and their outrage gained wide sympathy and brought irreparable disrepute to the institute. In the brouhaha that followed, the management institute even managed to pressure the employer of one of the bloggers into sacking him. The incident established an important precedent for commercial organisations dealing with bloggers. Many Indian companies, especially in banking and telecommunications, now hire specialised Internet marketing agencies to watch what people are saying about their services online. Those expressing dissatisfaction with a company’s services are often approached directly in order to provide solutions to the problems they have faced.
In a third case, the Indian government arbitrarily ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block 17 websites last year. Four of them were blogs hosted on Google’s Blogger service – essentially sub-domains on www.blogspot.com. Incompetent as they were, and unable to censor specific sub-domains, the ISPs blocked www.blogspot.com as a whole, thus impeding access by the entire country to millions of non-Indian and Indian blogs. The government and ISPs took a week to correct the mistake, after bringing themselves international embarrassment which included somewhat exaggerated comparisons with Internet censorship in China.
What was common to all three cases was that a few dozen bloggers had come together to share information and resources and to petition government officials or file Right to Information applications – all over the Internet. This was like 50 journalists working on one big story, together and at the same time. The term collaboration is too mild to describe the excitement of such an experience. In the case involving the management institute, the bloggers that united in protest managed to unearth information about actions that the institute engaged in that were even more questionable than those that had originally caused offence.
These are examples of what is somewhat pompously called ‘citizen journalism’, a phenomenon mainstream media outlets in India and the world over are desperately trying to co-opt. TV channels, for instance, have begun asking viewers to send in pictures of newsworthy events or stories on video tape – such materials are used particularly in times of calamity. But on an average day blogging is hardly journalism, and although the media features stories from time to time in which ‘prominent’ bloggers are displayed like exotic animals in a zoo, none of these have been able to capture the mood of the Indian blogosphere or to analyse the place it holds as alternative media.
Perhaps it is difficult to understand the world of blogging if one has not experienced the bliss of creating a media platform single-handedly in which one is writer, editor, and marketing agent all at the same time. Blogging truly begins to excite once one’s site has a hit counter, which tells how many people have visited and from where, and who has read which posts. The stereotype that bloggers are lonely individuals sitting in dark rooms and typing away to catharsis is untrue as bloggers actively participate in a public sphere. As Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN journalist and co-founder of the blog aggregator ‘Global Voices Online’, famously said, “We use the Web not to escape our humanity but to assert it.”
Instead of repeating ad nauseaum that blogging is trash, as The Times of India does, the mainstream media should be interested to see what this ‘sphere’ is actually up to. What are the concerns, motivations and trends it reveals? If the blogosphere is an adda – and it can well be likened to a teashop where people meet and discuss the day’s news over a cuppa – what is being said there?
What is perhaps most fascinating about the Indian blogosphere is the great presence here of right-wing voices – far greater than is to be found in the mainstream English media. Many bloggers, for instance, have long insisted that the India-Pakistan peace process ought to be scrapped, as Pakistan has not given up the use of terrorism as a state policy. When the Bombay train system was bombed in July, these blogs seemed to say “We told you so.” This stands in direct contrast to the insipid way in which the media toes the South Block line on relations with Pakistan, at the present time in an indulgent tone.
Debates on economic policy in India often centre on whether or not profit-making public sector units should be privatised. A group of bloggers who would insist that the answer is obvious have organised themselves into what they ironically call “the libertarian cartel of Indian bloggers”. Given that they bring to pubic attention an ideology that has few takers in India, it is no wonder that the “cartellians” have their critics. The blogosphere allows ideologies such as libertarianism to surface because writers here are independent individuals who need not follow an agenda set by an editor or a big media house. This is only one example of issues, debates and ideologies found on the web that are absent in mainstream media. Comparison with the blogosphere brings to light the uncomfortable truth that much of the B JP-voting middle class does not find its perspectives reflected in the Indian media in English, which is largely dominated by various shades of left-liberal opinion.
Of course it is not only when it comes to right-wing views that the blogosphere provides a space for issues and opinions that otherwise do not receive coverage. The Blank Noise Project, started by Banglore-based photo-artist Jasmeen Patheja, is one example. On the eve of Women’s Day, Patheja’s site invited visitors to write posts on street sexual harassment, abuse that is suffered by virtually every Southasian woman but which receives next to no space or airtime in conventional media. The web thus once again became a space in which people frustrated with a problem could become the media themselves. The Blank Noise Project soon expanded from its origins on the internet to become a movement on the street, and the coverage it attracted on primetime news brought the issues it raised to much wider attention.
When the Indian government announced its intention to extend reservations to the Other Backward Classes, coverage on TV channels and in newspapers was overwhelmingly in opposition. Many publications and programmes recalled the protests against the first measure to bring about reservations for OBCs in 1991. Images of a student immolating himself that year were played and replayed, as if the media were calling students out into the streets: can we have some protests please? The protests did come some ten days later, but until then there were only taking place on the web, and especially on blogs. It was perhaps the first time in India that an internet protest became the lead story in a paper: “Mandal II is being fought in Cyberia”. But among the voices the MSM missed, and it seems deliberately so, were those that defended the government’s move. These included a new site called ‘OBC Voice’, written by a Banglore-based copywriter and definitely the best blog to be found on the subject. At a time when the media – conventional and online – was piling wholesale on to the anti-reservation bandwagon, OBC Voice had stepped in to fill a gaping void in the counter direction.
Bombings in Bombay and Delhi tend to receive much attention in the blogosphere while those in Guwahati do not. This is once again a reminder of the insular nature of the middle class. The insularity of the Indian blogosphere becomes even more apparent when one realises that events in the rest of Southasia, let alone in the wider world, are immaterial to it. Even diasporic blogs rarely write about the politics of the countries from which they are written unless it directly involves the Indian diaspora. National boundaries do not exist on the Internet: why do Indian bloggers act as if they do? Perhaps it is not surprising that international news has been a dud as far as the Indian media is concerned: Indians don’t want to read it. To draw lessons from citizen-generated media for mainstream media and vice versa, and to have more and better discussions between the two, would surely lead to the broadening of public debate in India. It is time that the two media put personal differences aside to pursue the wide world of journalism that awaits them.
~ Shivan Vij is a features correspondent with Tehelka. His writings can be found at www.shivamvij.com.