Social Media, Revolutions and the Meaning of Community

I know I promised another post about the ComScore report – which I haven’t finished reading.  In the meantime, I had great fun chiming in with the excellent people at BBC India on a G+ Hangout about how social media is (and isn’t) creating change in Indian society.

The other panelists were a motley crew, including entrepreneurs and academics.  We didn’t really get to a consensus about some the main questions – for eg, could social media drive a revolution? – but here’s what I took away.

Community. Indians often complain that this country lacks civic sense.  Social media user data, unfortunately, support that conclusion.  A Pew research report from December 2012 polled social media users in 21 nations and found that a median of 80.5% of social media users in  four Arab Spring countries – Tunisia,  Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – discussed community issues online.  The median for the 21-nation sample (which included developed and emerging countries) was 46%.  When it came to politics, a median 65% from these four Arab Spring nations talked about political issues online, while the median was 34%.  Meanwhile, what are Indians talking about online? Turns out, 41% of Indian social media users have discussed community issues online, way less than the 21-nation median.  Forty-five per cent (well above the median 34%) have talked about politics, but a whopping 85% talk about music and movies (well above the median 67%).  So in India, at least, religion is no longer the opiate of the masses – Shah Rukh Khan is.

Of course, there are huge issues in comparing these samples.  The Indian user base for social media is dominated by young men and middle-aged women (this bit courtesy of the ComScore report).  Still, it can’t be denied that the difference in the number of people talking about community issues is important, and bears further consideration.

The conversation around how social media drive change depends on defining “community,” and what that terms means for Indians.  After the Hangout officially ended, a few of us stayed to chat, including Ashish Tandon of Gram Vaani and Sachin Taparia of LocalCircles.  GV builds audio networks in rural areas, LC does the same for urban ones.

I asked Ashish whether he’d noticed a sense of community among GV’s target audience (GV’s sets up IVR-based audio networks in rural Jharkhand).  After all, one of the things that we hear a lot is that rural India has preserved a village-y sense of community wellbeing.  Interestingly, Ashish said that one of GV’s big challenges and lessons was that although people within villages often relied upon and found common cause with each other, their notion of “community” was incredibly limited.  Their communities encompassed one or two villages, at most, and sometimes even fewer.  So the challenge was to get rural indians to start looking at community in a broader sense, and finding ways to unite with people from different geographic and ethnic areas.

Meanwhile, Sachin Taparia is attempting to re-define communities for urban Indians.  He mentioned that LocalCircles had a lot of success getting people in neighborhoods to band together to bring about civic improvements (things like getting drain covers replaced, etc).  Technically, almost every neighborhood has a Residents Welfare Association that handles such tasks; in practice, these RWAs are usually staffed by a few well-meaning octogenarians and disregarded by everyone else.  Delhi is not a community-driven kind of place (in fact, it’s famous for a Darwinian social atmosphere.)  However, people in urban neighborhoods face extensive civic problems that can be positively resolved by working together in groups.  By introducing social and digital gathering places for urban communities, Taparia said LC was able to re-invigorate the lapsed notion of community action, and on several occasions prompted urban residents to create positive change.

There is a broad but important connection between how people approach their communities and how they approach their nation as a whole. Once people feel empowered to fix one minor and local problem, they will cast their sights more widely.  Social media are excellent at curating these daily/mundane concerns, and revolutions are born out of high principles (rarely) as well as mundane things like the high cost of onions (often).  India’s political and media elites are aware of this reality, which is why we have things like the Food Security Bill, as well as today’s top story in our leading economic newspaper: “Stinging onions likely to gatecrash [new RBI governor] Rajan’s Party.”  But the divide remains.  If Indians start posting about onions and drain covers as much as they post about MS Dhoni, maybe social media could start a revolution here too.

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