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The Revolution Is Not Spreadable

Parmesh Shahani
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When I consider India, the main question that comes to my mind about spreadability is what is being spread and what is not. But which India are we talking about? There are many. A popular practice is to differentiate between “India” and “Bharat,” the Hindi name for India. You could say that India is rich, while Bharat is poor; India is English speaking, while Bharat speaks in regional languages; and India is urban, while Bharat is rural. All of these would be partially true oversimplifications. (There are rich farmers and landlords in rural Bharat, just as there are poor slum dwellers in urban India, and so on.) I think of the divide as all of these but, most of all, as one between those who have for decades been able to avail of opportunities for growth and those who are now catching up.

“India” is on par with anywhere else in the world in terms of sophisticated technological practices. The mainstream media is becoming fairly savvy in seeding spreadable content. Indian telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel ran a contest in August and September 2010 inviting Indians to upload their own new “crazy” cricket fandom videos to an Airtel YouTube channel, with the makers of the most popular videos winning a trip to watch the Airtel Champions League Twenty20 Cricket competition in South Africa. Airtel’s channel became one of the top sponsored channels on YouTube from India in terms of subscribers as well as views.

Today, it can seem as though almost every actor in Bollywood tweets incessantly, from superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan to newly famous directors such as Punit Malhotra and actresses such as Sonakshi Sinha. Bachchan was perhaps the earliest leader of the blogging trend among Bollywood stars. Each of his daily posts on his personal blog receives several hundred comments on average. Bachchan also has several hundred thousand Twitter fans, and his tweets and blog posts are amplified by the mainstream press that tracks him, as well as by his legion of fans, some of whom—for instance, Rahul Upadhyay—translate each blog post within a few hours into Hindi to further spread his message to non-English-reading Internet audiences. Bachchan also innovatively maintained a voice blog (that claimed to be the first of its kind in the world) called BachchanBol (Bachchan Says), where fans could dial into a number for 6 rupees per minute on their mobile phones and listen “in the most intimate and personal way about what he is doing, his thoughts and feelings, his experiences throughout his life—anytime and anywhere—at the push of a button” (OneIndia Explore n.d.).

Further, in India, social media is being increasingly leveraged by campaigns aimed at creating societal change. Some of these, such as Tata Tea’s Jaago Re! (Wake Up!), have focused on youth empowerment. Tata partnered with the nonprofit Janaagraha to create the very well spread “Jaago Re! One Billion Votes” youth voter-registration movement in 2008, ahead of the country’s general elections in 2009. The Jaago Re! team collaborated with several outreach partners across the country with the aim of organizing offline voter-registration drives in more than 200 college campuses and corporate offices across India, through both online and offline communication.

Others have focused on protesting human rights violations. The Pink Chaddi Campaign began in early February 2009, after a horrific attack by right-wing extremists on women in the south Indian city of Mangalore in the state of Karnataka. A further series of attacks on women by right-wing extremists occurred in Karnataka’s capital, Bangalore, shortly after the Pink Chaddi Campaign launched. In the first attack, about 40 men from a then little-known organization that called itself Shri Ram Sena (Lord Ram’s Army) assaulted customers inside a Mangalore pub, particularly targeting women and leaving two of them hospitalized. The organization’s president, Pramod Muthalik, declared that not only was it unacceptable for women to go to bars but that he and his followers would further target dating couples they found to be together on Valentine’s Day and forcibly have them married. The Mangalore attack was videotaped, and the viral spread of the video online as well as its broadcast on national TV news bulletins helped bring the country’s English-speaking middle-class audiences shocking visual evidence of the event. Almost immediately after, journalist Nisha Susan and a group of volunteers started a Pink Chaddi Campaign blog as well as a Facebook group called The Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women, which attracted about 30,000 Facebook members, including men, within a week and ultimately about 40,000. The campaign urged people in India to protest nonviolently against the right-wing extremists’ attacks on women’s rights by sending pink chaddis (underwear) to Muthalik on Valentine’s Day, which they did, by the hundreds. The Pink Chaddi Campaign exploded to become one of India’s most prominent spreadable media activist campaigns. Besides the underwear sending, the campaign extended to encompass other activities such as writing protest letters to state ministers, marches to the Bangalore Police Commissioner’s Office, and “Take Back the Night”–style antirape protests in Bangalore and Mangalore.

These activities are taking place in India, but Bharat exists quite separately. It is young (more than half of India’s population is below 25 years of age, and about 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas) and ambitious and desires an improvement in its economic circumstances like India. However, Bharat’s values are often quite different from those of India. The Pink Chaddi Campaign, for example, resonated very differently within the Hindi-language blogosphere that it did within the English. Social media commentator Gaurav Mishra wrote, “In the Hindi blogosphere [. . .] detractors of the Pink Chaddi Campaign were on the offensive. [. . .] The discussion here was dominated by the irrelevance and indignity of the campaign and the shamelessness of the women supporting it” (2009).

While the active debate about the Pink Chaddi Campaign in the Hindi blogosphere indicates growing digital connectivity, let us not forget that this is a population which, in contrast to India, has limits in both education and resources to participate in a spreadable media culture. Corporations such as ITC have achieved success and valuable insights with initiatives such as e-Choupal (an IT-based agricultural-export supply-chain project managed by rural farmers using village Internet kiosks); however, such Internet-based initiatives have so far typically required literacy. And, while Bharat is quite multilingual, it is in many cases not literate.

Conversely, Rikin Gandhi’s Digital Green offers a model case study for how spreading media content might work in such an environment. Rikin is a U.S.-born software engineer and pilot who studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and aeronautical and astronautical engineering at MIT and gave up his U.S. Air Force job offer (and childhood NASA ambitions) to reverse-migrate to India. Rikin’s Digital Green, with its roots in a project at Microsoft Research India, launched as an independent organization in May 2009. It aims to help small and marginal farmers to share agricultural information with other villagers using low-cost video production, screening devices, and a participatory philosophy. Within its first year of operation, Digital Green enabled the production and distribution of more than 700 videos “produced of farmers, by farmers, and for farmers” (Gandhi 2010), involving more than 400 villages and over 26,000 farmers in their efforts.

Digital Green has been adept at harnessing digital technologies (such as low-cost cameras, pico projectors, and sophisticated computer analytics). However, the real reason for its success is the spreadability of its content. It achieves this by tapping into the power of people and village-level social dynamics and by spreading content through DVDs. As its website explains, “Local social networks are tapped to connect farmers with experts; the thrill of appearing ‘on TV’ motivates farmers; and homophily is exploited to minimize the distance between teacher and learner” (Digital Green n.d.).

In fact, many great initiatives utilizing digital technologies are happening throughout Bharat: Nokia Life Tools, a service for Indian villages without Internet access which preloads software for agriculture, education, and entertainment on cheap Nokia phones and functions through SMS; and Nano Ganesh, a US$15 device that can be connected to irrigation pumps so that a farmer can dial a number from his mobile phone to turn the water pump on or off, saving the time and effort that had previously been needed to reach a remote field.

Yet these amazing and revolutionary stories happening within the country are not the types of stories people are most often spreading in India. While there is exciting work happening in Bharat, India is on the whole pretty ignorant about it, caught up as it is in its fan contests and celebrity culture. Thus, the content that spreads isn’t necessarily the best out there or the most relevant. For instance, India is a world leader in hunger, with 350 million hungry people that make up about 35 percent of its population, or nearly half of the global count of hungry people. Kashmir, external terrorism, internal civil strife, corruption—it has a laundry list of serious political, economic, and social challenges.

In this context, is spreadability a curse? As India’s mainstream media too often tends to focus on urban, feel-good news, bolstered by private treaties that blur the line between news and advertising, is “spreadable media” an intoxicant that is keeping India’s middle classes happy and ignorant, while Bharat whirls by, as though on a different planet?

Even when spreadable media focuses on the significant rather than the inane, is spreadability enough? Does asking people to spread the word about a good cause create a dangerous sense of complacency and false security in people that they have “done something good” when, in reality, there is still need for a lot of hard work on the ground for change to actually be achieved? During Iran’s 2009 election, we saw that spreadable media might have made the world aware of citizen protests, but it did not lead to significant change. To paraphrase the saying, “the revolution was not spreadable.” In India, no amount of forwarding messages about Teach For India is going to help unless people actually sign up for the program and eventually their participation leads to a systematic shift in the country’s educational ecosystem. No amount of Facebook status messages about the 2010 film Peepli Live by middle-class urban Indians (who go to see the film by buying multiplex tickets that cost 300 rupees each, or about six or seven times the World Bank’s global extreme poverty income threshold of US$1.25 a day) will alone reduce the rate of farmer suicides in Bharat that the film addresses.

Indeed, meaningful change doesn’t come about by simply “viral-ing” videos. It needs to be accompanied by hard work on the ground.

 

References

Digital Green. n.d. “Key Principles.” http://www.digitalgreen.org/keyprinciple/.

Gandhi, Rikin. 2010. “Annual Report: Introduction.” Digital Green. http://www.digitalgreen.org/annualletter/.

Mishra, Gaurav. 2009. “Hindi Blogosphere’s Reactions to the Pink Chaddi Campaign Show the Divide between Bharat and India.” Gauravonomics Blog, Feb. 26. http://www.gauravonomics.com/blog/hindi-blogospheres-reactions-to-the-pink-chaddi-campaign-show-the-divide-between-bharat-and-india/.

OneIndia Explore. n.d. “Bachchan Bol.” http://explore.oneindia.in/detail/8/bachchanbol-com.html.

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