THE LIKES of Twitter and Facebook are now a force multiplier

Three questions. A decade ago, how common were contributions to the Letters To The Editor columns of newspapers? How many would be hooked on to such sections, or for that matter, the editorials in newspapers? What was the average level of awareness of news or the engagement and debate of the common man on contentious issues?

Three more questions. How often are opinions shared on controversies today? What is the time spent by ordinary citizens on the social media? How intense is public debate now through these platforms?

The answers almost seem to lie in the questions! The social media, and Twitter in particular, seems to have spawned a whole new breed of ‘opinionated netizens’ who do not fight shy of joining issue on any subject or over any tweet. Of course, if only they would start owning their tweets as opposed to the shoot-and-scoot brigade. In the good old days, requests for anonymity by the common man when it came to sensitive matters, was something that the Editor chose to process; and in genuine cases, accept and publish letters, with a footnote: “Name and address withheld on request”. The sheer numbers on the social media, the owners argue, preclude similar checks and balances.

A top cop recently confided that when on the move, he gets all his news on Twitter. Breaking news is right here, often many seconds or even minutes before it comes on television channels or news websites. This trend even prompted the BBC to send out an internal guideline to its journalists to report stories to their newsroom before tweeting. The much-awaited verdict of Justice Venkatraman of the Madras High Court on Vishwaroopam or Actor Kamal Haasan’s “freedom at midnight” as one tweet put it, was broken first on Twitter! The ‘what’s next?’ element of the story — on the Tamil Nadu government’s appeal, was also asked and answered in 140 characters. So was the essence of Kamal’s emotional press conference. When some ‘national’ TV channels failed to ‘go to town’ with this story, unable to look beyond Bollywood, Twitter was a ready redemption.

The ‘any publicity is good publicity’ theory has been turned on its head by the twitterati who use the platform as a weapon to name, blame and shame individuals over problems and practices. A director of a private university with 15,000 students recently told me that a long pending issue of a faulty idli cooker in the hostel was solved only after a hosteller tweeted about it and marked the Chancellor in the tweet! With websites, both private and government, being what they are, redressal of grievances via the social media is evidently much faster and sometimes even instantaneous!

And if Twitter and Facebook have provided a fillip to online discourse, there is another significant side of empowerment. The social media can also double up as a force multiplier. Bloggers and even mainstream journalists are happy to ride piggyback by posting links of their work to reach a wider audience. Not just empowerment, economics too. In the bargain, may even be able to monetise this traction on the social media through advertisements on their blogs or websites!

But is there an overkill of posts and tweets? The proof of the overload is in the recall. A recent study published in the journal Memory & Cognition by Laura Mickes, a visiting scholar at UC San Diego and a senior research fellow at the University of Warwick, reveals that although Facebook posts are updated 30 million times an hour, those fleeting status messages are more memorable than text on books or even faces! Clearly the adage ‘today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s waste paper’ does not apply to the social media, with its shelf life not so short.

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