January 2011

By | News & Politics | Published 8 years ago


In a short space of time, new media and social networks have blitzkrieged their way into global consciousness and usage, increasingly replacing traditional media — which is believed to be an anachronistic closed circuit. Today, social networks are being used for social interaction, business, activism, fund-raising purposes or simply voicing one’s opinion. And in the process, they are shaping a new discourse. In fact, as opposed to traditional media defining the parameters of debate and discussion, the reverse is taking place now: the discourse is being set using social media which is then filtering out into traditional forums.

What Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, sites hosting blogs and especially comment forums on numerous newspaper websites have done is allow a steady exchange of views on news. And this has automatically put in place a system of checks and balances. Even the press has started getting ‘bad press.’ A story seems doctored? Commentators will comment. A reporter misinforms his readers; they will make sure they set the record straight. When people in positions of authority — regardless of how high up the food chain they are — do (or say) something unacceptable, there will be blogposts and tweets and status updates on Facebook and endless comments about it.

The social media has not only allowed an exchange of views, but also enabled the intelligentsia to voice its opinions more forcefully. While the demands of the traditional media are sometimes restricting — i.e. the parameters regarding style and content imposed by publications — the blogsphere has broken through all this. Bloggers have become the new columnists. Some are articulate, others not so much, but incorrect grammar or sentence construction does not stand in the way of the message or opinion being conveyed — and most readers see beyond it. The more popular bloggers have fan followings that reach into the thousands.

Additionally, news that doesn’t make it into the traditional media for a myriad reasons goes up on blogs. The most notable of these reports was Saad Khan’s death. The young man died as a result of an accident while shooting for a reality TV show sponsored by Unilever. While most sections of the press kept mum on the issue — almost assuredly to safeguard their advertising revenues ­— the news and details of Saad’s death were broken on a blog.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by those in the traditional realm. Due to the growing popularity of blogs, newspapers such as the Express Tribune and Dawn — as well as Newsline — host blogs on their dotcom versions. Many a time these bloggers make their way to the print sections too.

YouTube has become the aspiring musician’s claim to fame. Take the example of the Cheapmunks who launched a music video on Facebook that catapulted them into the limelight and brought them recognition. They have gone on to perform at two fund-raising concerts and recorded songs with the City FM show ‘In the Loop.’ Another singer, Maleeha Azeem, used SoundClick and YouTube to upload her videos in which she sang Faiz. The videos became a super-hit on SoundClick. Now Azeem has become a name in her own right, has performed at T2F events and at the IT industry’s annual awards ceremony, and will sing Faiz at an event celebrating the poet’s centenary in Delhi, India, in February.

Many of the virtual goings-on have translated into on-ground events. On-ground activism is also growing as a result of social networks with the assistance of mobile phone messaging (SMS). This year, many online campaigns mobilised sizeable numbers to collect at landmarks in the cities or press clubs to protest. One such campaign that used SMS and social networks was the vigil held in both Karachi and Lahore to protest against the attacks on the Ahmadi community. Similar online campaigns led several people to collectively protest against the ban on Facebook, the Sialkot lynching of two boys, and more recently, the Clifton gang rape case, the Blasphemy Law and the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer.

Notwithstanding the scepticism — that there are “only” 18,500,000 Internet users in the country so it doesn’t have mass impact — those who fall into the conventional decision- and opinion-maker categories are also users. We now have access to the goings-on in parliament courtesy MNA Marvi Memon’s tweets. Husain Haqqani, Farahnaz Isphahani and Fatima Bhutto are also very active on Twitter. And of course, there were those many moments of comic relief offered by the late Governor Salmaan Taseer via his witty, political and satirical tweets.

The gap between the common man or professional, and the politician or the bureaucrat, has been bridged, thanks mostly to Twitter. Not only are we privy to what their points of view are but also we now have the opportunity to let them know what we’re thinking by responding as simply as typing @HusainHaqqani and pressing Tweet!

The same is true of anchorpersons, talk show hosts and other celebrities, be it Ayesha Tammy Haq, Naveen Naqvi, Ayeshah Alam Khan, Faisal Qureshi or Poppy. Says Naveen Naqvi, “I started using the social networking site as a tool for my work as a broadcast journalist. On my morning news programme, I took live questions on Twitter to pose to my high-profile guests. Now I use it to stay connected with people, and to publicise my blog and other articles too.”

Self-promotion, concede many users, is also what social networks are used for. But it is not only individuals such as journalists or bloggers who share and promote their articles or posts, or photographers who publicise their work via new media — a digital watermark preventing the unwarranted and unauthorised use of their work. Celebrities host their own Facebook fan pages — or alternately others host their hate pages — and businesses, newspapers, magazines, etc. create Facebook pages for advertising and promotion.

New media has already meant a change in lifestyle for many. Says popular blogger Awab Alvi, who goes by the name Teeth Maestro online: “I have stopped reading newspapers completely and use my RSS Reader for all my news updates. It is quite a shift towards technology as I visit a few websites for political news updates and some favourite blogs.”

The online media has become a primary source of information for many. Journalist Nadir Hassan states: “I tend to leech off social media. Since life is too short for me to waste watching our painful news channels, Twitter and Facebook are a good way to find out what’s happening without having to suffer insensitive graphics, breathless voiceovers and ads for whitening cream.” Links shared by others — from newspapers, magazines and blogs, local and international — become a good source of information.

As far as business goes, the trend for online marketing and online communication is rising. Jawad Yusuf’s main concern is trading and textiles, but he is also one of the founders of The Readers Club — a book rental service — and Kitabain.com — a book buying and selling space. About his regular business he says: “Initially, the Internet facilitated cost-effective communications. Now we use the Internet as a major tool for marketing, through our own website and through subscriptions on different trade sites (www.alibaba.com) etc.” A member of Alibaba since 2003, Yusuf says at that time there were only a few companies from Pakistan using the site. Now, there are thousands of users. This, he feels is due to an increased awareness among business owners about how the Internet can help with certain aspects of business.

As for online purchases, they seem to be picking up too. Yusuf reports that the response to both online ventures, The Readers Club and Kitabain.com, has been phenomenal. The viability of online purchases also has to do with convenience. With the same rates being offered for products online — sometimes even lower due to special offers — home delivery and payment on delivery are a definite draw. And for kids like 12-year-old Saad, for whom mobility depends on others, Galaxy.com serves as the perfect solution for gadgetry.

Ayan, who is seven years old, uses Skype video to communicate with his father who lives out of town. Skype is also set up at Ayan’s grandmother’s house, where she uses it to communicate with her sons and grandchildren abroad, and sometimes even Ayan, though they live in the same city! The trend to communicate via email, video conferencing and by holding Skype meetings isn’t still as popular as other social media tools — especially within business circles — but its cost-effectiveness is slowly winning people over. “I think physical meetings and phone contact still remain the best way to communicate with a client, but for general, administration-related day-to-day contact, emails have taken the lead,” adds Yusuf.

Blackberrys, iPhones and other handsets all offer Internet services and social networking applications that allow people to access the networks and other information online while on the go. The Blackberry was launched with businessmen as its target market. Now, the phone and the BBM service is no longer exclusive to the business community and is used across ages and professions (among the affluent) to communicate, especially with loved ones abroad. It provides a low-cost alternative for out-of-country communication. With a fixed amount that is paid monthly, SMSes and pictures are exchanged promptly, as quickly as it takes to snap and press ‘send.’

There are of course reservations regarding the breach of privacy and like in the physical world, cases of online harassment and cyber stalking are common, as is the misuse of people’s information and pictures, particularly when accounts are taken over by others. Things tend to get really ugly and some attacks are quite personal when discussing, for example, the blasphemy law on various online forums with commentators on either side of the divide. The opinions online are as diverse as demanding freedom for Aasiya Bibi to viewing this demand as blasphemous itself — and no one is afraid to say so. Many battles have been fought and are still being fought, which illustrate that the online community in the country is not a polarised lot and cannot be painted with the same brush. It is a community whose morals and political views are simply a reflection of the ‘offline’ community it belongs to.

National security, as evident by the recent WikiLeaks controversy, is also on the table for discussion and people in government positions are eyeing new media and the online space suspiciously. Even in Pakistan, blanket bans and censorship have been a regular feature. Since 2006, there have been instances where YouTube has been blocked, and more recently, Facebook. While the pretext is national security, the protection of Islam or the interest of the greater good, political motives have almost always been behind these acts. It is likely that if current online practices continue with the proliferation of news and views, more crackdowns will follow.

Policy positions on new media and its use in public and private spheres are still being formed. However, given its meteoric rise, no one can deny that a virtual revolution has been sparked.

Note: This article was originally written for Newsline before the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer on January 4, 2011. It was published in the magazine’s “Annual” in January 2011. Updates have been made online.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.