Are ‘We, the Tweeple’ finding a voice on the world stage or are we merely contributing to meaningless chatter?
The week gone by gave some easily excitable Twitterati in India much cause for hashtag hubris. That’s because on two proximate days, India-related discussions made it to the top 10 trending topics on Twitter, a real-time barometer of the volume of chatter worldwide on the engaging – and even borderline addictive – social media platform.
The first was on the day of the Allahabad High Court verdict in the case relating to the dispute over the land where the Babri Masjid stood and which is claimed as the birthplace of the Hindu martial-god Ram. As a digital brigade of Indians clambered onto the Twitter board to discuss (as much as 140 characters would allow) this much-anticipated verdict, the terms ‘Allahabad High Court’ and ‘Ayodha’ burst through to the top 10 trending topics, ahead of scintillating discussions about the private lives of debauched pop stars and suchlike other weighty topics that typically engage Twittering minds.
The second was on Tuesday, when the India-Australia cricket match at Mohali ended in a thrilling one-wicket win for India, made possible by valiant knocks from VVS Laxman and (somewhat improbably) Ishant Sharma. The names of both these batsmen made it to the top trending topics worldwide, propelled by countless Tweets singing their praise; the fact that, first, Ayodhya’s Ram and, subsequently, Laxman had put India on the Twitter map came in for much mirthful commentary. These were then shamelessly plagiarised by thousands of others without observing the due process of ReTweet protocol, but the echo chamber effect was enough to send their names soaring up the trendline charts.
The news that a 500-year-old dispute centred around the birthplace of an ageless god had fleetingly acquired wide publicity on a modern-day social media platform facilitated by the wonders of technology appeared to trigger indescribable excitement among many Indians. Likewise, the news that Laxman had momentarily edged ahead of pop singer Justin Bieber in the celebrity chatter-list drove some Twitter users to breathless ecstasy. Some saw it as a sign that India was beginning to acquire a strident social-media voice on the global stage and that it was implanting itself on the world’s consciousness.
There are of course many Indians on Twitter who enrich the platform as thought leaders who disseminate astute, insightful observations relating to their domain expertise; equally important, there are many others who electrify Twitter as rollicking entertainers who keep up a steady motormouth stream of ‘lol-worthy’ Tweets. But as with most sample sizes, these meaningful contributors to debates – either as educators or entertainers – account for a tiny fraction of the overall group. The rest – like me – are only adding to the decibel level, and to claim on the basis of that collective buzz that Indian Twitterati are planting their flag on the world stage is to mistake ‘noise’ for ‘voice’.
Given the very low Internet penetration levels in India, and going by Twitter demographics by country, India actually ranks very low on the social media scale; these occasional bursts of trendline highs are achieved only because – to paraphrase Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech – India is awake when much of the world that Tweets in English is asleep. Last year, a study of Twitter usage worldwide by a leading market research agency established that India accounts for barely 1.3 per cent of Twitter users and less than 1 per cent of total Tweets contributed. The US, for instance, accounts for over 50 per cent of Twitter users and over 56 per cent of Tweets. In China, where Internet penetration levels are far higher than in India, the parallel universe of Chinese-language microblogs are rather more popular than Twitter; in any case, the restrictions on social media use in China inhibit Twitter from acquiring a critical mass. And in Japan, too, English proficiency levels are relatively low. Which is why India’s English-language shadow on Twitter seems relatively longer.
In his recent book, When A Billion Chinese Jump, on China’s looming environmental crisis, The Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent Jonathan Watts recalls a childhood nightmare: that if a billion Chinese jumped together, they would knock the world off its axis. Much the same effect may apply to the Twitter world: when a billion Indians jump, they can momentarily sway Twitter trendlines with their chatter. But that may not mean ‘we, the Tweeple’ are finding a voice on the world stage; it may only be that we are merely contributing to meaningless chatter. But perhaps that’s the defining characteristic of a platform like Twitter…
(This column was published in DNA edition of October 8 2010.)