Monday, April 28, 2014

Social Media as a driver of social change

From the late 1990s onwards, there has been a metamorphosis in the way people relate to one another- earlier an individual’s day was punctuated by the arrival of the newspaper and the odd letter and since the time connectivity and smartphones became commonplace, this inflow of news and information has been constant and unyielding. A lot of flows in this happen over the social media- it is no longer the two or three points in a day that you had new information to mull over; information just keeps flowing and forces you to think almost all through your waking hours. The world now moves to a different rhythm, and the beats can change any moment in time depending upon how your brain evaluates the particular piece of newly arrived content.
One of the most significant features of the social media is that it is accessible- not only in terms of low costs, but also in terms of skills which allow you to get on to the platform itself. You really don’t have to be someone famous to make a significant impact in social media. It may be just that accidental video of a tourist on an African safari which captures the struggle between lions and a crocodile over who gets the buffalo calf or a cute crooner whose video has suddenly picked up more likes and gone viral on YouTube or facebook. There is a new way social relationships are constructed on the social media, how the content is produced, mediated and received on Facebook, twitter, Google+ etc. There is a new visual imagery in which the currency of the item reported upon makes it spectacular- the Navy Seal operations in Abbotabad in Pakistan were first reported on Twitter; the Arab Spring movement weaved together discrete events into one fantastic tide  which toppled regimes.
Social media has empowered people to spread perspectives on social causes and change, participation in digital activisms, and support and information sharing in crisis situations. Cultural adoption and availability/understanding of technology once overcome represent a very powerful tool of change anywhere in the world.
On April 11, 2013 a new study “Social Media & Lok Sabha (Indian Parliament) Elections”, was released by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and supported by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The study reported that there were 160 High Impact Constituencies out of the total of 543 constituencies, which will likely be influenced by social media during the ongoing general elections. The report also finds that there are a total of 67 constituencies, which has been identified as Medium Impact constituencies, while the rest of the constituencies have been identified as Low Impact Constituencies or No impact constituencies. This way of predicting election outcomes and impact using social media influence is itself a novel one; the earlier demographic assessment tools for elections were different and relied on economic and social groups to focus on. This change amply signalled to political parties contesting the elections to put at least a part of the campaign effort on the social media and that is a change which is quite visible. Twitter and Facebook became great tools for the reluctant young Indian, who for long had taken the voting day as an unexpected holiday to Enjoy instead of voting, to actively engage at least in discussions on political, economic, military as well as social issues. These conversations eventually became powerful groups for not just mere discussions but criticism and dissemination of opinion on several such issues which mainstream media would get around to later. The numbers of those actually voting also tended to increase in the elections. Even a fraction of the votes of the young educated contingent can make things swing substantially so far as the result of a constituency or that of the entire election is concerned. The reason for the importance of social media and its success in actively mobilising the youth can be found in the very demographics of India today. As per International Labour Organisation, India has the largest youth population in the world with 66% or nearly 808 million of its population is below the age of 35. With an upwardly mobile population increasingly latching on to the decreasing prices of mobile phones and tablets, social media connection is now like a social status for most.
Currently, all national parties and many regional ones are using social media platforms to get their message across. Some surmise that the recent good showing by the newAam Adami Party in Delhi State Elections were largely due to a well managed social media campaign which helped in fund raising as well from both within and outside the country. This probably holds true for the campaign against corruption which drew a very large participation from people in India.  
An average inbox now tends to get filled up quickly with requests for espousal of causes ranging from human rights, woman empowerment, female literacy and efficient governance, deficient services or products sold etc. And the more people join in to sign up on or like a particular cause;  the greater is the likelihood of it making an impact and causing about a change in the real world- we have all heard of a complaints by unhappy customers on the complaints page forcing the company to act to address the situation hurriedly. The change is reflected not only in the way we pick out movies to watch or restaurants to go to, but also in the options that we have now to choose between alternative medical therapies available. The manner in which people are recruited has also changed with both Recruiters and job-seekers converging on SM platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to fill their needs.
Malcolm Gladwell, writing in New Yorker, takes a view that Social media activism is for those with low motivation, he says. Twitter/Facebook “revolutions” are built around weak ties. Protests which brought down the Berlin wall or caused about changes in the laws relating to women following the Nirbhaya case are of a different genere- where stronger ties and bonds among people who think alike caused about the changes. While we may agree or disagree with Mr. Gladwell, it is never going to be a  situation where a change or a revolution happening today will not find an echo or a resonance on the social media.
. In India, we see one of the biggest initiatives in the rural sector has come from the private sector in the form of ITC’s e-ChoupalThe e-Choupal model has been specifically designed to tackle the challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture. It is a blend of click & mortar capabilities, village internet kiosks managed by farmers - called sanchalaks - themselves, that enable the agricultural community access ready information in their local language on the weather & market prices, disseminate knowledge on scientific farm practices & risk management, facilitate the sale of farm inputs (now with embedded knowledge) and purchase farm produce from the farmers' doorsteps (decision making is now information-based).
Real-time information and customised knowledge provided by 'e-Choupal' enhance the ability of farmers to take decisions and align their farm output with market demand and secure quality & productivity. The aggregation of the demand for farm inputs from individual farmers gives them access to high quality inputs from established and reputed manufacturers at fair prices. As a direct marketing channel, virtually linked to the 'mandi' system for price discovery, 'e-Choupal' eliminates wasteful intermediation and multiple handling. Thereby it significantly reduces transaction costs.While the farmers benefit through enhanced farm productivity and higher farm gate prices, ITC benefits from the lower net cost of procurement (despite offering better prices to the farmer) having eliminated costs in the supply chain that do not add value.
So while global conversations have escalated around using social networks to reach new audiences and spread philanthropic and charitable messages, questions still remain about how to effectively use social media to achieve measured results in communication strategy.  Some suggest that gathering advocates to tell the story or espouse a cause, allowing ideas to develop to a stage where they could inspire followers, working across platforms to create sustained conversations may be a good way forward in making the immediate, real-time inherent nature of social media respond to good ideas which are needed to make positive social changes happen.

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