Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Flipkart and Arundhati Roy, Gandhi and Tendulkar

Darling e-commerce website has been in a spot of discomfort lately with a Forbes article cover-story that has just come out about its apparent/ impending fall. The story itself is not yet online but an exchange between Sachin Bansal of Flipkart and Indrajit Gupta of Forbes India is. 

First thing's first: I'm a fan of Flipkart's service and wish that such a tragedy does not occur.

Second things second is a bunch of observations I made while adding to my wishlist on the website.

Observation #1- Arundhati Roy is right up there with the big guns. Two of her books, are on page two of the "History and Politics" classification.. along with nice gentlemen such as Marx, Paine, Mill and Orwell. Fancy. Based on popularity or classicality or what?

Observation #2- Hind Swaraj is selling for as much as Rs230. Well, you can also pick up a brand new copy for Rs10. My ten rupees copy says, "Price of this book is subsidised by the Navajivan Trust." This is true for a lot of political literature in India- head out of Flipkart for the same, and pick up cheap paperbacks with nondescript covers, printed on much recycled paper.

Observation #3- Sachin Tendulkar is "is the only cricketer to accomplish the feat of scoring a hundred centuries in international cricket which includes 49 ODI and 51 Test centuries." He is also "the first active sportsperson and cricketer to have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha." Now, Flipkart is happy to announce that he is also a genre of books.

He is modestly under "See more" and towards the end of the list. But he still is above tags of vital importance such as "Travel" and err.. "Sports and Games!"

To introduce some scale: "Academic and Professional" is one of the largest categories on Flipkart, with 706365 titles. "Literature and Fiction" is next, with 586608 titles (I've left out the largest "category" on Flipkart which is called "Print on Demand" and has 731713  results.. I'm starting to think that Flipkart has mixed up their "tags" for their "categories" that are ideally "genres"). The "Sachin Tendulkar" category however, has only 15/ 17 titles (there is some discrepancy on the website, as indicated in the pictures). The next smallest category has 77 titles, and is called "Skill Building & Learning Books." I can flog this further, but I'm stopping now. Funny huh.

"The country" is currently trying to pick the "Greatest Indian after Gandhi." Tendulkar is on the short list. Looks like we all know who Flipkart has voted for!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Reflections on Urban Protests, Public Engagement, Mainstream Media and Social Media

The lifeline of small, urban protests today, is the Press. From my observation, this seems to be a trend. I found this to be true of the Anonymous protest  in Bangalore (and  in other parts of the country like Kolatta, from my readings) as well. Please note that by virtue of this post being about urban protests, I am talking about the communication technology enabled Public and Protestor. Much of this post takes from the fresh experience at the Anonymous protest in Bangalore yesterday but it has evolved out of engagement with several other such events over a long time. It might make sense to read my previous post, before this one.
I’ll proceed by first setting a context.

The Aim of a protest is many fold and usually all of these reasons below, no matter what method is employed-
  1. Awareness to the general public of the cause
  2. Awareness that there is work being done on the cause
  3. Mobilising the public
  4. Effecting change at the policy level
Largely, it is Public Outreach work and Policy Work (Advocacy and Lobbying). Another way of looking at it is that there is work that happens at the Grassroots and other work that needs to happen with those in the Ivory Towers. Most organizations, formal or informal, work on the first three Aims, with a Grassroots engagement. Very few work at the Policy level. They are usually less well known, quieter in their methods, and involve more information than that which floats at the Grassroots.

“Let’s Bring the Change” rhetoric works in a few different ways. Sometimes it concentrates solely on the first three Aims, if it is an issue solvable by the common man. For example, “Let’s stop littering our surroundings.” Other issues cannot be solved by the common man, and so Mobilization becomes important only to show policy makers that there is now a democratic mandate for the change in request, such as, “Let’s remove fuel subsidies for businesses.” In this case, the first three Aims are optional to fulfill and if they are fulfilled, its only to reach the fourth. Other issues need a partnership of common people and policy makers, in which case the protest should ideally try to fulfill all four Aims. For example, “Let’s end caste discrimination at the work place” is an exhortation to employers, employees and the government to put in effective laws.

Now with regards to the first three Aims specifically, and the fourth one by trickle down, here are the Methods that concerned individuals use to realize their Aims.
  1. Connecting to the “man on the street” (which includes ALL types of people. At least a protestor would hope so. Ideally, the protestor should try connecting with the man he may not normally be able to interact with), by protesting in public
  2. Connecting to the man in the virtual armchair, by using social media
  3. Using mainstream media to be the one stone that gets both birds above (The man in the arm chair can also be the man on the street, but the assumption is that it need not happen the other way around, and thus it necessitates a public demonstration)
The problem with Method ‘a’ listed above is that, the man on the urban street usually only stares. Ive been involved as spectator, skeptic and participant at a number of social justice events and I have almost never seen people walking up to social workers, and asking for information. Social workers on the other hand will try and go to the people, by shouting slogans, holding placards with thought provoking statements or handing out flyers. Yet people are in a hurry and seem to feel comforted by the rationalisation that “There are some good people in the world. Their energy can offset my apathy” and leave. I can only once remember a passerby, who stopped to see what was up. Correspondingly, people who attend social justice events, are nearly always members of the organizing group, members of related invited organizations, and other regular faces involved in the cause in question. I cannot remember meeting a brother, sister, mother, friend or cousin, who wanted to “learn more” or “find out how they can support the cause.” Maybe it is not that we are apathetic, but that we are acurious.

The protest of yesterday, employed Method ‘b’ first, Method ‘a’ next and Method ‘c’ last (as do most protests that work with Web 2.0). At MG Park, protestors were looking around shiftily and someone suggested shouting slogans. It didn’t look like anyone was going to take the initiative, neither did it seem like anyone could think up a smart slogan. Besides, there is the futility of shouting at traffic to consider. And in the case of this protest, the masks were effectively muffling speech (not to mention vision and breathing as well). At FP though, there was slogan chanting. But the protest area in FP is flanked by wide borders of parking space, a line of trees and a footpath. Once you cut through all the thicket, you arrive at a high speed road, with the nearest traffic signal being about one kilometer away and so vehicles are whizzing past (which does not actually happen in other parts of the city where roads are bad, vehicles are too many, signals are frequent and traffic crawls). No man on the street heard the slogans or read the thought provoking placards. No unaware person was made aware, no uninitiated person was mobilized. It was a protest/ awareness drive that was self contained among those who are already aware. The hope of a TV channel or newspaper reporting it was really the only way any kind of un-aware person could become slightly aware. And perhaps this was the goal.

What happened during the public demonstration was really, only an exercise in pandering to the media. Protestors did not actually reach out to the man on street at all. Protestors came, they were photographed, they left/ got lost. Methods ‘b’ and ‘a’ were really an elaborate lay-up for the execution of Method ‘c.’ One consolation perhaps is that the masks prevented gloating. Had there not been masks, all the weary twenty would have wanted in on the frame.

Awareness of the cause, the work being done and mobilisation, was all communicated by the Method of the internet. The public protest was not to connect to the public directly, but was a show of strength so that the mainstream media, the intermediary (to use relevant jargon), the amplifier, would do the hard task of letting the non-web savy person know of the cause, the work being done on it and mobilise. To put it easily, all the first three Aims of a protest that I had listed above (and the fourth one as well, by extension), are being taken care of by the third Method of protest.

To further put this trend of small, urban protests in perspective, is that fact that internet penetration in India is currently onlyat 10.2%.

Does this b->a->c practise harm anything? Information is still getting out there, fulfilling all the three Grassroots Aims. People on the street also probably read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. So even if no one bothered to hand them a flyer, or they have not been part of the process online, they are still initiated into the awareness process. What initially targeted only 10.2% resulted in the rest of the connected populace being put in the loop. When more people are aware, the trickle starts flowing down and the fourth Aim of effecting public policy gets underway. This is even without the help of those who work with the Ivory Tower residents. All in all, it seems like a very effective way to get redressal to a cause. Especially when the man on street is also acurious.

And thus online or offline, high turn out or small turn out, if mainstream media covers it, a protestors work can be said to be “done” and a cause nearly accomplished. Shout slogans for the mic, raise placards for the camera, go home and wait for the evening bulletin. Do whatever you have to before the media arrives, to ensure that they do arrive. Breathe easy once they do. At least at the end of this, you Protestor, will have a link to post on your website. The next time you make a presentation to seek donations, you can use the line, “Several national dailies wrote about our struggle in xxxx to do xxxx. It was well covered by both television and print media.”

It thus seems that the quantum of protest does not matter in this form of urban protest. One does not need to protest long durations of time. One does not need to make a “large human chain.” One does not need to baptize five hundred new people into the fold. One only needs to get ten people together and the photographer will fill the frame with ten people (better if it is an aerial shot) and the reader of the newspaper will imagine that there were at least another hundred people packed behind those ten.

It is this argument that I would also like to claim as my response to the Reuters report that came out yesterday on the Reuters blog. The article seemed to poke fun at the grandiosness of the Anonymous movement and display it as lame, with the blog’s inverted commas, embedded links and second comments. While I am not an Anon nor do I wish to be one, I would like to prop up the argument that the protest was not about connecting with the people on MG Road, or about showing up in large numbers (which the article is taking for granted as markers of a real protest). The protest was an attention seeking stunt. This is Anonymous’ selling point. And this is exactly what they achieved. So the Reuters talk-down of the protest is really, so irrelevant to Anonymous. Those who did not attend or did not support the movement at all, may enjoy what they consider a barb to Anonymous but to them, it will bounce off with no mark (Also because there is no known horse to flag).

Is there a way protests around the world should change in their approach? Consider all the parties involved- the protestor, the public, the media, the state. Do share your views in the comment section on this post. 

Anonymous Protest on Web Censorship, Bangalore: Report

How often do you get to wear a mask and parade around MG Road? Only on 9 June 2012. And so I was there to check out what Anonymous is going to pull in Bangalore, with their all-India call to protest.

In May of this year, there were a few protests around the country against the IT Rules. These events were largely conducted by organizations working closely with policy in the country. Then a corporate had the gall to censor free speech in India- Reliance blocked file sharing websites of various orders. State censorship/ protection of people is old news and we are somewhat ready for it, know what arguments to expect from the government and are already prepared with rebuttals. One can see sense in the government’s argument that excessive mouthing-off can harm sections of people whom the government is responsible for. But now a corporate dared to censor free speech. And for its own economic ends. How dare it! With the plug pulled on the high seas of the torrents, young people everywhere suddenly had no time-pass. With no more television series to download and watch, they got together and we began hearing of Anonymous attacks on government websites.

At the protest in Bangalore, yes organisation was absent, attendance was a sprinkle, and more attendance was lost because of the first reason. We are all used to being told what to do, and so not having a leader was a new life experience for most. But protesters finally found each other, and managed a sizeable number at Freedom Park (FP) by the end of the day.

The plan was to meet up at various metro points in Bangalore, and congregate at the central station at MG Road. There were a few people sitting around, and everyone seemed to be giving each other a longer and harder look than usual, but no one knew what to do. Then some boys began unrolling large posters and soon there was a group of about 15 protestors around them, and even sooner, did the photo session with the Press begin. Masks were put on in a hurry, posters were displayed, and protestors stood in a small huddle for the camera. Some people just dropped in and left immediately after the photos. Then in about ten minutes, everything and everyone broke up. “Where did they go? Do you know what to do? Where should we go now?” One group chugged off down Brigade Road, a legally unacceptable place to protest in Bangalore. Another group set off to the MG Park, the formal designated area for protests in Bangalore. Still others were pondering heading to FP- the newly created protest destination in Bangalore, and the only place for which there was alleged permission for the protest. Apparently the bulk of the Press had landed up there, and the protestors hadn’t.

This is Good-Anonymous in action, from my readings of it- people take charge on their own, and don't wait around for someone above to tell them what to do. To this extent, this was positive action on the part of the protestors who really had nothing to hold on to. In case of any untoward event, protestors would not even know who their comrades were, what with the masks and bandanas, yet they chose to do the illegal and protest together (protesting without a police permit is illegal in India) (Im not endorsing illegal activity of any kind =/).

At MG Park, protestors were largely vacant and generally hanging out. Yay for masks, or else major lameness shall have been felt. It was photo-sesh for Facebook and making comments to a few irritated Press people who were at the park. “Don't you have a phone number?” they asked. To which the general response was always, “We are Anonymous *sound of wind blowing*” Which really did not answer their question and they continued to be annoyed and huffy. A number of protestors were lost along the way- they had gone to take photocopies of the Guy Fawkes mask =/

A roly-poly cop turned up. Walkie-talkie was the only betrayer of his possible police connections. He asked the protesters to show their permit or leave. One of the alleged Anons talked to him and soon the cop was laughing and amiably saying something like, “No problem, just go to FP.”

A kind lady then came from the FP protest to inform the MG Protestors to move to FP where there were more protestors and Press. FP was a better idea, as there was more scope for symbolic action. There were about 80 protestors in total. Feeble and disorganized chants were made sporadically, led by a diminutive girl in a blue scarf. Protestors were not sure whether to follow the call-and-respond method or the fill-in-the-blanks method. Since different people tried both methods and filled blanks differently, it was a general rumble. A “protest auto” arrived, and some unmasked gentlemen began making speeches through a mic, amplified through the speakers mounted on the auto. The mic was passed around and others sheepishly made their statements about free speech. Someone began telling people to disperse because some cops were getting itchy. The sun set.

The pre and post parts of this protest were orchestrated via a Posterous page called ‘Operation India’ and Facebook events. Several people were unhappy at the events in India being called “Occupy.” For some, “Occupy” spells much hope from images we saw over the last many months. For others, “occupy” is but a generic protest buzz word. I see this point but find it futile to harp on the semantics of ‘O’ versus ‘o’ with a bunch of people who clearly have their heads in the cloud (Geek PJ, gimme some!). A few hours before meeting time, one possible Anon frontman posted on Facebook, “This is not a protest, it is OCCUPY.” When quizzed about it, he made no sense. At the protest, when asked about it, he made no sense either. He repeated the same statement a few times and said, “If you want, you can call it protest but if you want you can call it occupy but we are saying it is different. Occupy is not a protest. Like Gandhi’s work of civil disobedience, was not a protest. Like that, we are not a protest.” Whatever that means, but it apparently does not matter. Maybe it was his strategy to weasel out of a police confrontation- by confusing them. It could be that these guys are going for, "Lets Occupy India by Anonymous tactics and... if there are any more buzz words, lets use that also, maybe we will trend on Twitter with one of these tags.”

There was also some politics with the initial event being cancelled and viewers directed to a second page, though only the first page flourished. No explanation was given for the same, and it only added to the general confusion that happened online and at the protest.

Those who didn’t show up were termed “Dickheads” by a distinguished looking Anon gentlemen who stood apart from the protestors, at FP. He had come in full costume- black suit AND mask. The FSMK organisation in Bangalore that has really been doing a lot of great and sustained work, was termed “FUCK” and declared unwanted (because they did not wear masks and distributed flyers). People who queried his beliefs and statements were called “bitch” and “idiot” “who hasn’t watched the movie V for Vendetta.” (This was indeed the prescribed educational potion by the smug Anon). Spurning people who may actually be interested in Anonymous’ aims of free speech, strikes me as an immature idea.

The arrogance and heavy-headedness was displayed in other ways as well. One of the alleged and self-proclaimed organizers asked someone if she would like to work on phase two of the Operation. He tried to find out who she was and other personal details. When she did not freely give the information, he said, “Ill dox you. . Ill find out your personal data from the internet and dox you." =/ Well, nice of you to use your technological weapons for personal vendetta.

There seemed to be a general low level of comprehension of facts and debate. Instead there has been much trolling and repetition of rhetoric in mindless and juvenile fashion- “We are legion, we do not forget, we do not forgive” etc etc and this was often the response provided to any statement!- save two people I talked to online. All the rest who seemed to be vocalizing their feelings online had nothing to say when asked about the cause, and got defensive in juvenile ways when faced with opposition.

Though this is common to thousands of online forums, if this is their idea of free expression and dialogue, then OpIndia and I have some ideological problems. Anons are currently riding on the cockiness that comes with the new found use of their technological prowess. Since Anonymous is a group that has no moderator or rules, people can actually get away with saying anything, doing anything, believing anything and convincing others to believe in anything. Individuals who mislead can become representative of Anonymous and take from whatever good that they may be planning. Being a pain online is no big deal. But it becomes important here since the identity of the organizers is unknown, work is predominantly done online, and it could be these painful folks who will be doing the next DDOS attack on their half baked rationales and feel like heros. With no surety of legit and troll, I am concerned.

As a side comment, I also found it interesting how the self-important Anons parading on the Indian pages could not catch irony or sarcasm or even general humour. Which is really quite terrible if you want to be an Anon since Anons have always tactically thrived on satire (and drama).