Pop Stuff: As Twitter Grows Up, Will We?
India’s relationship with Twitter is symbolic of us as a people. We love to proffer opinions, so this virtual living room can get deafeningly loud to no end.
As it approaches its tenth birthday this coming March, Twitter is having an identity crisis, a leadership crisis and a self esteem crisis. It is struggling with the meta question of Who Am I – a media platform or chat room for the tech elite? Jack Dorsey, co-founder and once ousted CEO has recently returned, prodigal son, drawing high pressure comparisons to Jobs’ historic return to Apple. Twitter’s user base is stagnating at 300mm while Instagram is the cool kid on the block and Facebook an omnipresent deity. Twitter is having a ‘moment’, but I’m sticking with it and seeing it through because I know the potential, when channeled the right way, can literally change the world, one hashtag at a time.
Most social media is just that – social and not always in the best way. Facebook can be voyeuristic and FOMO inducing, because let’s be honest, you’re not always there for the newsfeed. Instagramming can feel like the digital equivalent of constantly having to be dressed to kill. Twitter is all about the words. What do you have to say? How much dexterity can you say it with? And is it engaging enough to compel someone to retweet you? Celebrities and their die hard fans notwithstanding.
Even the freest press is not immune to the forces of government, capitalism, lauded pundits and competition for eyeballs. But there is no denying that the social internet has loosened these shackles. You no longer need a journalist to break a story, you need a Twitter handle. Twitter was where the world first heard about the China Earthquake, the Osama Bin Laden Raid and the presence of ice on Mars. Moreover, opinions are put forth and heard unfettered. Twitter doesn’t care whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, support the BJP or Congress or who Papa is, you still get 140 characters.
Therein lies the clout for those willing to harness it. When a hashtag, now ubiquitous, but born and arguably most effective on Twitter, begins to trend, those in the seat of power cannot afford to ignore it. Today’s trending hashtag can be tomorrow’s front page and the next days rallying cry. And we, the increasingly tech empowered public, determine what begins to trend. We can’t be completely disappointed by our headlines, because we actually have a sliver of agency to influence them.
If you are one of the skeptics who thought what is going to come of me engaging in an In/Tolerant India debate by picking a side between #AwardsWapsiGang and #MarchforIndia, you might be right. Many of our Twitter tussles are led by celebrities, politicians, the Twitterarti and do not have a clear trickle down effect for the regular person. India’s relationship with Twitter is symbolic of us as a people. We love to proffer opinions, so this virtual living room can get deafeningly loud to no end. Yet, there is power in an engaged public. We, and the world, knew we had one when #BeefBan became one of the most used terms on the Twitter network globally.
Engagement is the first step to change. Hashtag activism on Twitter has spurred mini revolutions. #BlackLivesMatter has been at the center of the movement to put an end to police brutality against African Americans in the US. #HeforShe was initiated by Emma Watson at the UN and has sparked a Twitter conversation around women’s empowerment that reached over 1.2billion people. At home #KashmirFloods mobilized vital disaster relief. But none of this happened, smart phone in hand, sitting on the couch. In each case people activated behind a cause and used the medium to amplify intense grassroots efforts.
Twitter has given us tools to engage people and as it struggles through its awkward phase we are tasked with growing too. When given a platform will we use it to take on the responsibility of initiating change, or are we a nation of slacktivists?
The author is a former hedge fund manager-turned-film producer and magazine writer.