Is the Net being swamped by insidious marketing tools, losing its character as a medium that enabled personal expression?

Every time I duck an invitation by a complete stranger to join their network on Facebook or Linkedin, I feel like a social dinosaur. And now there is Buzz, which you are invited to integrate into your email every time you visit your inbox. Clearing email is not a peaceful, quiet business anymore. And not wanting to be part of a community full of strangers makes one seem weird to a world which is increasingly on Facebook. Or on Twitter, where everybody is following everybody else. But what exactly is one missing? Updates on what Shashi Tharoor, Vir Sanghvi, Gul Panag or my cousin in Lucknow are doing or thinking at some point in the day? Why would I care?

Operative term

“Sharing” is the operative word in social media. It sounds fuzzy and feel-good, and various pundits on the Internet have produced lists of the various uses of Twitter. Some uses of sharing are for hyperactive networkers who want to tap their expanding cyber circle for their personal enrichment or professional functioning. What are they sharing? Their lists of contacts, their photos, updates on themselves. But when they do this, are they not also marketing themselves? Amitabh Bachchan's blogposts are self-serving in so many ways that he does not need any PR agency's services any more.

Some of the uses of social media are for companies who are advised how to sneak their marketing into this world of sharing. (“For every video project purchased, ensure there's an embeddable web version for improved sharing.”) There is a little brief somewhere on how the resort and spa industry can use social media. And doubtless many other groups of industries. Marketers first found their way into the blogsphere through niche blogs and advertisement tie-ups with blogs. Then Facebook added a marketing toolbox to sells its uses to the community of sellers. (“100 Tools and Tips to Tap the Facebook Customer Base”.) And now the new Mecca is Twitter which marketers are urged to discover the benefits of.

One marvels at the way marketing tends to inveigle itself into all kinds of communication spaces, including social media which is all the rage on the Internet. It seems to run the gamut from interactivity to self-promotion, to insidious selling. Is technology-inspired sharing/ marketing/ networking overwhelming the space for journalism, and debate on the Net? Is social media going to eventually define use of the Internet much more than the independent, do-it-yourself media which it initially made possible?

Looking back over the last two decades, the perspective from India is that from the early 1990s we watched television increasingly become commerce-driven even as it spawned choice in entertainment and news. Similarly, we watched newspaper front pages disappear under wrap-around adverts, and marketing-driven supplements make our newspapers fat. As for creativity awards, the most tom-tomed ones were those for the advertising industry where, you were increasingly made to feel, all creativity resided.

About the same time (from the mid-1990s) the Internet emerged as an alternate media space, spawning tools for independent publishing, self-expression, citizen journalism, and much else. For the film making and television community YouTube and Witness became outlets where people could see programmes they missed or films which no TV channel would carry.

But that is changing. Marketing has a way of taking over available spaces including YouTube, and what are we going to do about that? Twitter achieved fame by opening windows in Iran last year. Many years before, the Internet did the same for Kosovo, enabling people to tell the world what was happening to them, and becoming a revolutionary tool in the process. But, increasingly, Twitter, like blogs and Facebook before it, is lending itself to the world of commerce.

Changing configurations

Of late there been increasing discussion on where and how Twitter fits into journalism. Last year Rogen Cohen wrote a New York Times op-ed on the tweeting of citizen journalists in Iran, questioning that they could replace the function of old fashioned journalism in a conflict situation: “For journalism is distillation. It is a choice of material, whether in words or image, made in pursuit of presenting the truest and fairest, most vivid and complete representation of a situation.” That set off a discussion. A columnist on Techdirt.com, Mike Masnick, put the difference well when he said that Twitter was acquiring its space in the journalism process by providing more for journalists to distil from. The Internet, he said, was a large ecosystem which was allowing more things to happen thanks to new tools.

The only problem is that in India old media like TV and print are so smitten by social media that they are no longer tracking what is threatening to swamp the larger ecosystem of cyberspace.