Getting social

If the Internet challenged information hierarchies with generativity — defined as the capacity of unrelated and unaccredited audiences to create and share content and code — social networking has set off the next wave of innovation. A constantly expanding web of people-to-people connections now exists, and it has profound implications for democracy. To Clay Shirky, author of the influential book Cognitive Surplus, and several other scholars, social media services such as Facebook and Twitter are making history. People are not merely connected to websites now, they have linked-up and are holding discussions. As governments recognise, it is not easy to confine information exchange to national borders. Citizens using mobile phones send out text messages, photos, and videos to friends and followers in far corners of the world on natural disasters, corrupt regimes, and anything else that interests them. In some cases, they provide the first report to newspapers and television stations, even governments, of extraordinary domestic events; lies are also quickly exposed. So convivial is the medium that despite privacy concerns, the membership of six-year-old Facebook, arguably the best-known face of social networking today, is 500 million plus. India, with some 15 million members and high mobile phone penetration, is sufficiently promising for Facebook to open an office in the country.

But can social networking websites usher in a revolution that goes beyond expressions of solidarity with friends and acquaintances? Mark Zuckerberg, the youthful and sometimes controversial head of Facebook, spoke some time ago about his aim to start a revolution for advertisers, as people publicise their choices and provide referrals to friends. More significant is the contribution of his forum to different causes. Activists have used it admirably to pursue issues as wide-ranging as cultural policing by Hindutva groups, the arrest of civil rights activist Binayak Sen, help for Darfur refugees, and cancer awareness. Twitter is often credited with doing even better, by quickly sending out crisp 140-character messages around the globe. All this is exciting, but a caveat is in order. Like revolutionary technologies before them, such as the telephone, radio, and television, social media can achieve their full potential only when everyone has easy access to them. Open standards can help build several inter-connected platforms and strengthen social media. It must, however, be underscored that this evolution will depend heavily on the attitude of governments and the telecom networks. They must not erect censorship barriers or violate the principle of net neutrality, which ensures equality of access to all users.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 9:29:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Getting-social/article15768779.ece

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