By Satarupa Paul
About half a decade ago, netizens began to expand their online presence by forging new relationships, rediscovering old ones and sharing information and content on what came to be collectively termed as social media. The year gone by marked a new milestone for this social media phenomenon, which saw a paradigm shift from merely being a networking platform to becoming a political tool. 2011 was a year of diametrically contradictory events, however, what joined these diverse proceedings together was their concurrent presence in social media, which attracted users to its growing landscape, changing forever the ways in which we connect and interact online.
An infographic by Search Media Journal showed that registered users on social networking premier Facebook grew more than 80% in the past year, taking the count to 640 million people. It said that if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest, after China and India. Interestingly, microblogging site Twitter saw a whopping growth of more than 250% in the number of tweets per day. Social media penetration increased by 3% in India to more than 38 million users. Social media agency We Are Social says that India now has the second-highest number of LinkedIn users and the fourth-highest number of Facebook users in the world. However, a fascinating aspect of the growth in India’s social media landscape is that most of it has been achieved by mobile subscription, which jumped by 71% in 2011.
Nishant Shah, Director of Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, identifies three important social media trends for India in 2011, which can be extended to the rest of the world. “Firstly, we saw an increased sharing of digital content whether photos, videos, songs, news or blogs,” he says, pointing to the Why This Kolaveri Di video, which went viral on YouTube with over 1.3 million views within a week of its release. “The second and most prominent trend was the mobilisation of masses towards particular causes,” Shah says. Twitter and Facebook helped gather mass support for the Anna Hazare movement in India. Even the Arab Spring uprisings, notably in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, relied heavily on social media, as did the Occupy Wall Street protests, where Twitter established itself as a communicator of the movement.
> “The third aspect is the draconian censorship measures that followed as governments realised the threats they faced from social media platforms.The mobilisation on social media that ultimately translated into protests saw a critical mass being achieved, which made governments take notice and impose the draconian rules”.
“The third aspect is the draconian censorship measures that followed as governments realised the threats they faced from social media platforms,” says Shah. Anja Kovacs of The Internet Democracy Project explains, “To understand what led to the censorship rules being enforced in the last one year, one has to understand the concept of critical mass.” She says that for a medium to become effective, it has to reach a threshold of people active on it. “The mobilisation on social media that ultimately translated into protests saw a critical mass being achieved, which made governments take notice and impose the draconian rules,” she said. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak attempted to cut off the Internet, betraying his fear of this arsenal of social networking, while in India, the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, demanded that Internet firms should self-censor users’ content. Kovacs says, “This was an extension of the Information Technology Rules introduced in April 2011, which requires intermediaries like Facebook, Google, etc., to remove any content if an individual complains against it on flimsy grounds like ‘disparaging’ or ‘harmful for children’.”
Most of these censorship attempts have only backfired, with social media users vehemently opposing and criticising them. But with pressure mounting from governments to curtail content, social media experts hope that 2012 will be a better year for one’s freedom on the web. “I hope that social media remains as open as it is now and doesn’t fall victim to the draconian measures,” Shah says. Kovacs agrees, “Instead of censorships on weak arguments, we should try and have wider debates in society about what should be allowed and what not. Hope we will be able to achieve broader agreements in the coming year.”