People are using social media effectively to campaign for human rights, woman empowerment, female literacy and efficient governance. Geeta Padmanabhan tracks this trend

Here they are in the inbox: Avaaz.com asking me to sign one petition against axing forests for mining; another to stop trafficking of East African women; Change.org insisting that I join petitioners to save women caught in khap panchayats; Nandita Das (yes!) telling me to oppose GM crops and support independent filmmakers; the irrepressible Prahalathan Karunakaran informing me that he's taking his successful autorickshaw-rates campaign to all parts of the state. “Click here too to share petition on Facebook,” he says.

Social Beat, a Chennai-based digital media firm, sees a lot of good in this aspect of digital marketing. “Digital media brings transparency, opens up communication and lowers cost to raise awareness on social issues,” says Suneil Chawla, Social Beat. “People are already using social media effectively for causes like human rights, woman empowerment, female literacy and efficient governance.” His examples include Chennai Police's Facebook page where citizens can file complaints against errant drivers and Chennai Volunteers, a non-profit initiative to connect volunteers with NGOs.

Touching all spheres

There’s hardly a life-domain untouched by online social media, says Vikas Chawla, co-founder. Companies can no longer get away with poor service, he said, and I agree. I joined a complaint page to rant about shoddy work done by a window company and voilà, the work got done in no time! “An unhappy customer can easily share his complaint about networks and the brand is forced to resolve the issue quickly, turning India into a consumer-centric society,” said Vikas.

E-commerce increases transactions and revenue by driving large numbers of target customers to company websites, circumventing the need for setting up retail stores, he said. With just 20 per cent penetration in India (estimates from IAMAI, ComScore) and players creating a seamless mobile and regional language experience, the reach is going to explode to everything we buy. “Have you heard of the small start-ups such as PlanetSuperheroes.com and Magickart.in? The market is ripe for innovation.”

Developers and real estate aggregators (Magicbricks/RealtyCompass) provide information online, and target the most relevant consumers, despite huge spends on front-page print ads. Indian hospitals and doctors are gearing up for a seamless connect with their patients pre-and-post-treatment through social media. Healthcare professionals reach out to consumers online, direct them to book appointments at the clinic/hospital, and store reports on the cloud. “Our clients include Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Centre and Dr. Smilez Chain of Dental Clinics, India Home Healthcare,” said Suneil. Internet helps you find treatment options, but more important, provides that sense of community — you are not alone.

Benefits of e-commerce include price cuts in products, pre-purchase research, comparative shopping, travel booking, and identifying places to buy goods/services. Read the product review on your mobile while at the store, before deciding on the purchase. And book your holidays with a few clicks on your mobile or PC.

Opening up opportunities

All this has opened up opportunities for designers, communication experts, web developers and search-engine specialists, the Chawlas point out. Recruiters and job-seekers converge on SM platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to fill their needs. You can look for companies that suit your profile, connect with current/former employees. This year, you edge closer to choosing the government you want. Information (and analysis) about candidates — unprecedented in quality and quantity — is now ours through social networks, websites, podcasts, live-streaming of speeches and SMSes. “Online petitions and opinion polls are the first step in mass-democracy,” said Suneil. “Voted instantaneously by thousands, they create awareness about issues.”

Malcolm Gladwell, writing in New Yorker, takes a different view. Social media activism is for those with low motivation, he says. Twitter/Facebook “revolutions” are built around weak ties. Protests like the Greensboro, NC civil rights incident or the one that brought down the Berlin wall (or the Nirbhaya resistance) are high-risk, based on strong ties among real friends who think alike, with loyalty to a group and a leader directing them.

True, our acquaintances on SM can be our greatest source of new ideas and information, Gladwell says. The Internet is terrific at diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, matching up buyers/sellers, managing the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to brick-and-mortar activism. They bring only social acknowledgement and praise. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They cannot change how the society behaves. If they are so effective, why would candidates go door-to-door? After all, everyone has a cellphone.