Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Retweet Your Revolution

My young politically conscious friend, the lovely Shruti Rattan, continues to view my cynicism about the internet and its effects on the worldview through her own sceptic spectacles.

When I claim social networking is instrumental in reducing the human free will for decision making and makes the derived species of netizens more and more susceptible to the phenomena of easy manufactured consent, she retaliates vociferously. The networked world, powered by Web 2.0, according to her, is more ideally evolved for social revolution than at any point of history. With one click of the mouse or flick of a thumb across a touchscreen, it is now possible to make the news of social evils available across the world. Tweets were what made Tehran stand up for freedom and democracy – and the Moldova revolution against their communist government can be called a Twitter revolution. Social networking brings unlimited empowerment to social activism. In one of our cannabis conferences, she even went on to state that the Berlin Wall was ripped down as a result of better communication through digitisation.

Mark Pfeifle, a former US  national-security adviser, has even written calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors are all across the cyberworld, spreading awareness, pushing for change.
“You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, according to Glassman, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

Let us look at these puzzling claims, which have a strange whiff of overdone hype. With the screening of movies about Facebook and numerous instant best sellers about the power of the social networks, with a industry expectedly growing around the networking tools, it is natural that hype will be voiced and will be tweeted and retweeted, shared and reshared, posted and liked across the cyber world. But does it really
mean that much, even if one chooses to ignore the audacious claim that Al Qaida is stuck in Web1.0?

Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had limited  internal significance in Moldova. Very few Twitter accounts exist in the country. Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Pos that the entire revolution may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. 'In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.'

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

The fact remains that there is a developing false consciousness about the past through our connectedness, that communications did not really exist in the pre internet days. All the new stray facts and experiences seem to be herded into the category – social networking innovations.
I will again revisit the statement of my young friend as stated in the beginning of this article.         'With one click of the mouse or the flick of a thumb on a touch-screen, it is now possible to make the news of the social evils available across the world.'

My problem with social revolution aided by Twitter and Facebook is exactly that. One click of a mouse, one flick of the thumb on the touhcscreen. All done in the comfort of air conditioned offices or on a smug bedside table.  This is not instigated by a large racist white policeman throwing one off the train in South Africa. There is no palpating heart which skips every time a member of the local gang of white toughs enter the restaurant in Greensboro in the 1960s where one sits protesting because the establishment refused to serve a black man. Facebook, Twitter and their clones are at best armchair activism where involvement and outrage last about thirty seconds before moving on to the next  post announcing someone's procuring  a Cow on Farmville.

To me, what passes for socially networked activism is often in large quantities the kick one gets from nursing narcissism. From communicating his own political consciousness and scoail conscience to the whole wide world at the press of a button. It is often giant ego boosting self promoting propaganda. And sometimes an apology of social principles - throwing small change of Like, Comments, Retweets and Share into the donation box of issues while the juggernaut of life carries us hurtling along.

A little more probing gets down to the nature of the relationships involved in social networking and social activism. The freshmen who launched the crucial protest in Greensboro – leading to the emancipation of the black American people – were classmates and shared dorms. Let us look at some more examples. The revolutionaries in the Italian Red Brigade, the anti Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, the opposition groups in East Germany, the freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Jaigopal, Rajguru and Sukhdev … All had one common trait shared with the four freshmen who sat down in protest against the 'We don't serve negroes' rebuff. They were connected through strong ties of friendship. The groups were formed by closely knit young men who knew each other intimately before being joined by a common cause. The East German, the Italian and the Afghan activist groups shared the trait of having close friends in the revolution before plunging in it themselves. Bhagat Singh teamed up with college buddies.

Activism is always built a cause, but it also involves taking substantial risks and standing up for one's team. The primary features of social activism is taking a stand where dangerous implications are involved, and to do this one needs faith in one's mates. That is one of the reasons we see friendship and bonding being core differentiators in every successful activist group.

Contrast this with Facebook and Twitter. Facebook at best is a tool for managing weak ties that would not have bound otherwise. People with whom you would probably not be able to remain in touch in normal life. As noted in a previous post, people collect more friends on Facebook than they would be able to have a casual drink with in real life.
And Twitter is a place to follow the instant thoughts of people one hasn't even met.

So, can one hope to achieve social revolution through Social Networks? I would not put my money on it.
Facebook and Twitter have their serious uses. They work on weak ties and hence it is a great place to spread the news where not too much is asked from people – what suffices is exactly a click of a mouse or a flick of a thumb on the touch-screen. For example, forwarding petitions for the change of legislation, for reporting the requirement of blood of a particular group for a particular terminally ill patient. All these have their uses.
The other advantage is that new connections, new ideas and new opportunities are most likely to come from weak associations. Scientifically speaking, if you have strong ties with some individuals, you would be likely to know the avenues and the opportunities they can introduce you to … and chances are that you have already explored them. However, with people you don't know that well, there is always the chance of stumbling upon some prospects that come as a complete surprise and open up new avenues.

However, as far as social activism and revolution is concerned, weak ties are not exactly what I would recommend. We have already covered the area of armchair activists of whom not a lot is asked for. Added to this, two more reasons make it very difficult for Facebook and Twitter to lead social change.
One, every successful 'people revolution' need someone like a Martin Luther King Jr., or a Nelson Mandela – a leader with charisma to combine the connected activists into a functioning machine. By their very structure, Facebook and Twitter have no chain of command. There is absolutely no hierarchy, and it is difficult to imagine leaders leading the people who 'Like' their fan pages.

Secondly, there is the question of accountability. For an organisation – and social revolution is something brought about by an organisation – to be effective in bringing about social change, there have to be properly handled tasks assigned to individuals. Be it the American Civil Rights movement or the Boston Tea Party, successful social revolution follows assigned tasks and accountability. This is fundamentally against the very principle of the social networks, whose selling point is being cool, characterised by a single icon on which to click and share. Anything more than navigating three links – the social revolution will trip, tumble and totter.

Networking is fine … but virtual social activism will remain just that … virtual. It brings a complete new meaning to Thomas Jefferson's words : A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

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About Me

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A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces