Social Media is like traditional media on steroids. There is absolutely no limit to the amount of information and the sheer reach of the medium. But then, at the end of the day, any tool or platform is only as good as its users, in this case – us! So while the start and the potential are immensely brilliant, it is sad to see social media become what it is in India today, just another battleground where ideologies clash every day and taking sides is now mandatory. The other end is mindless brands pumping spam into every timeline and just adding noise. Let’s try and analyze this disturbing trend that is quite literally choking social media in India.
In the early days, social media was a fun place to be, you got to meet and interact very healthily with a lot of like-minded people and then there were arguments too, but they were all in the right spirit, none of them got ugly or personal. And most of these conversations actually got a lot of issues sorted out and became the basis for many a wonderful friendship that began online and went offline too. For example, if you were a designer looking for critical inputs on something you did or a developer who is trying to solve a complicated issue and got stuck somewhere, you could turn to twitter and there was always someone or the other available to hear you out and actually help with the issue on hand. Even twitter has the @replies and hence conversations visible to everyone by default. So these really useful and interesting discussions were there for everyone to see. So a simple search would tell you if your issue had already been discussed and what was the outcome, hence avoiding re-work.
Then came the very rapid adoption of smartphones and proliferation of mobile networks in India and this was like adding fuel to the raging social media fire in the country. The numbers and the frequency of use just shot through the roof and quite literally made the networks burst at their seams. The twitter fail whale became something that people started seeing a tad bit regularly those days. You see, the west was not expecting India to ramp up so fast and we started beating all growth estimates in terms of social media adoption and frequency of use. At one point it came to a juncture where companies like Facebook treated India quite literally like a cash cow and went overboard in their strategies with really funny stuff like internet.org being touted as the next best thing after sliced bread! But then Indians showed them that while they were excited and happy to be on social media, they were not going to buy a big brother online who would kill the all important thing of choice online. Facebook found this out the hard way. But then, eventually they learned their lesson (hopefully)
Like anything that reaches critical mass, social media became the playground for two entities that in many ways ended up being the harbinger of the sorry state that we find Indian social media in today – brands and political parties! Let’s talk about the first set – brands. Brands realized that social media was like a boon to them, both in terms of reach and consistent messaging that drove conversions by the million. There was then a mad rush to claim their pound of flesh from this new tool that got them into the hands of anyone with a smartphone with very minimal spending sometimes zero spending actually. While this was all well and good, like all human beings, brand managers wanted more and more. Aided by agencies that were selling social media pretty much like snake oil, they started looking at hacks to improve what they were getting from social media and this quickly deteriorated into a very ugly game. They started going after people who had substantially large following online and paying them to share marketing messages in the guise of personal opinions. The pay angle started the apocalypse and there was a mad rush to get more followers by hook or by crook so that they could make a fast buck out of this unhealthy trend. There was another very nasty side effect to this, hashtag misuse! Brands started pumping hashtags with sponsored tweets and hashtags became the opposite of what they were intended to be. Hashtags that were markers for healthy and useful information now became yet another way to spam the hell out of people’s timelines. It got to a stage where people started muting the hashtags completely out of their timelines. Brands still do this without realizing that they are actually not getting any eyeballs out of this nonsense.
Coming to the other end – the political parties. While it is a brilliant step for them to take to social media and connect with the masses that want to hear from them, there are some if not most parties that are misusing social media as a tool to spread propaganda that is dressed as news or facts. This trend started the tit for tat wars on social media that are now a daily happening. Every party has it army of minions who are ready to go to any extent to ensure that their message is seen as gospel. Many times this leads to pitched battles that last days and even months where there are no punched pulled and everything is fair game. Nothing is holy and there is no respect for personal space or dignity. Freedom of speech is now being turned on its head and being used as Freedom to hurt. It has gotten to a state where the center is missing and you have to be either left or right on social media now-a-days. This makes life very difficult for people like you and me to get any meaningful use out of this brilliant medium. The political parties and brands are running around looking for nails because they think that social media is just a hammer and nothing else. The true potential and benefits of this brilliant medium are now obscured by a daily clash of ideologies or totally senseless hyper marketing by brands. I just hope that we wake up and smell the coffee before we choke the life out of this brilliant thing we have. But then, I am eternal optimist. Here’s to hope!