Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Social Networking Revolution and We Writers

The Show must Go On

Social Networking Revolution


We Writers

Arunabha Sengupta

Arunabha Sengupta is the co-editor of Scroll 

and the author of three novels, the latest being The Best Seller 

Malcolm Gladwell writes impeccably on topics that lie in the fuzzy intersection of popular
science and social phenomenon.  He deals with ideas and opinions with an admirable mix of depth and anecdotes which enable books such as Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers to retain their popular appeal without being stripped of scientific reasoning. In his column for The New Yorker, he writes with the same élan, where, in one of his recent articles he questions how much the Social Media really has the power to affect a revolution.

Clay Shirky is a charismatic academic who specialises on and teaches New Media at the New York University. In his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, the ideas he projects about the social media phenomenon are radically different from the popular association of the same with brand new paradigm shift. In a recent column for the
austerely utilitarian Foreign Affairs, he provides a lucid and dispassionate analysis of the positives and the limitations of the political power of social media. 

It was the difference in the points of view that developed into a showdown between the two accepted thinkers of the day, ending in a much publicised and rather outspoken debate.

Gladwell stuck to his idea of slacktivism that suggest that armchair clicks satisfying the infinitesimal political consciousness of FaceBook activists achieve little more than a few likes and a puffed ego through their weak ties. He did not pull his punches when he accused
Shirky of overselling the potential of wiki-activism as a tool for social transformation.

Shirky, in his turn, did not really turn the other cheek. He called Gladwell’s article weird, pointing out that the New Yorker columnist was not a very avid Internet user, and was probably trying to propagate his employer’s agenda of protecting the old school business model.

 While, in the aftermath of all that has gone on in the recent past, this debate is a focal point of our interest, we will nevertheless strictly adhere to the old wisdom so poignantly put forth in rhyme by John Gay.

Those who in quarrels interpose
Must often wipe a bloody nose”

 We won’t be taking sides other than observing that it is a case of polarisation between social mediaists and traditionalists, that probably works wonders for the sales of both the periodicals and the books of the protagonists.

 A few days back, in his blog documenting a discussion between three columnists of Scroll, the analyst of the effect of internet on modern world view, Dr. Suprakash Roy, tried to objectively judge both sides of the argument. Political analyst Shruti Rattan passionately spoke about the role of Twitter and FaceBook in current political history, from the fall of the Philippines president Joseph Estrada to the recent toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Our in house cynic, Simon van der Wiel, however pointed out Belarus 2006, Iran 2009, the Green Movement and Red Shirt protests as limitations of the political power of Social Media. 
What our in-house science writer concluded was much in agreement with both Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky. Social media is indeed an invaluable asset in the hands of activists as free and scalable means of organising people and spreading the word, most often through unchecked and non-confrontational channels.  The uneven playing fields that generally make reactionaries stumble when despots try to beat them down is levelled out to an extent with FaceBook, Twitter, text messages and the numerous other methods of instant communication helping the activists circumvent the problems posed by the difference in resources and infrastructure.

However, at the same time, our expert agrees that this organisational capability is useful only if there is an already existing strong and systematic movement. If all that the protests in Egypt amounted to were those millions of forwarded posts on FaceBook reading ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ complete with smileys, the nation would still have been dancing to the tunes of the despot.

 It was an existing rebellion smouldering for over two decades, combined with chance factors like the passing away of the grandson Mubarak doted on and information overload leading to hasty announcements on the part of CIA that made the power of FaceBook activism decisive.
 While we stick to our promise of not taking sides as long as we are discussing the political power of social media, we do have a thing or two to say about another observation by Gladwell. 

Whether in the heat of the confrontation with a formidable peer and rival, or whether because of his own deep seated beliefs, he proffers his opinion that Internet has not changed business
in any remarkable way. He describes his trip to Lands’ End, Wisconsin, a decade earlier to determine the effect of the dot com revolution on retail. His inference at the end of the journey was that though Internet was a step up from paper catalogue and phone orders, the technological changes that really mattered for the retailers were bar codes and overnight delivery. 
Here, in spite of our obvious respect for Gladwell’s intelligence and writing ability, we find him making the same mistake as the dwellers of the old world, uninitiated into the modern day
computing, who are unable to distinguish between a desk top computer and an upgraded typewriter. 
Technological upheavals – and we cannot deny that Internet is by millions of miles the mega marvel in that regard – change lives and businesses in ways that cannot be determined with
pin-pointed focus on the operations of one enterprise. Internal practices do not always change dramatically, but the arena generally changes beyond recognition.

Airlines keep selling tickets and carrying people from one place to another on their Boeings and Jets. If one questions with sarcasm whether people can go from city to city by boarding
aircrafts through proxy servers, the answer is a definite no. But, the business has been transformed in humongous ways. The websites of the Airline companies have rendered the profession of Travel Agents a crippling blow from which they are still struggling to recover. The passengers now book tickets, choose their seats, print boarding passes and check in themselves and their luggage sitting in their homes after studying the weather for possible flight disruptions. The landscape of service has therefore undergone a paradigm shift. Pricing has gone through unbelievable modifications, and the parameters for customer satisfaction
have evolved exponentially. The travel agents such as Expedia and Orbitz have moved
online and packaged air tickets, hotels and car rental under one super saving bracket.
If we look at historical effect of major technological shifts we find similar cataclysmic changes.

The steam engine did not just enable
people to move from one place to another faster. It cut through the business
landscape and revamped the means of livelihood of people in unforeseen ways. The
refrigerated railcar, invented by Chicago meatpacker Gustavus Swift, revolutionised
a painstakingly slow, inefficient meat processing business involving prairie cattle and cowboys into a prompt, productive and profitable operation, thereby altering the trend, taste, trade and tools of a generation. By slaughtering and dressing beef in his slaughterhouses and then sending them as vertical
carcasses packed in his new invention, he reduced shipping costs, took care of the problem of cattle demise and weight loss during transportation, and ensured freight for only those parts of the product which had value in the market. Local butchers, unable to compete with their ancient slaughter-dress-pack methods, had to change their trade into that of cutting Swift’s carcasses into steaks and roasts.
Internet has similarly metamorphosed the way industries interconnect to do business. Retailers may ostensibly only add internet as a channel for accepting orders additional to phone, post and physical interactions over the counter, but the real difference lies elsewhere.
Clothing firms now have to compete with Zappos and bookstores with The
rules of the game have changed beyond recognition, and the insurgents get to play more and more to their strengths and win against the incumbents. Underdog Davids can now take on the might of established Goliaths, as Gladwell himself mentioned in one of his articles for The New Yorker in 2009. 

The success of the revolutionaries using social media and the makeover of businesses are both welcome news to writers.

As mentioned earlier, if activism has smouldered for long, social media plays an important role in coordinating the efforts and raising a rebellion to topple the despot. From the days of The Lost Illusions of Honore de Balzac, the nexus of publishers and agents have compromised human minds by keeping many great offerings of literature away from the shelves while promoting recurring print runs of works that can be generously described as mediocre. The talented authors without the blessing of recommendations of the established have had to deal with the frustrations and futility of unread submissions and unopened manuscripts, along with super
efficient uses of Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes.

And now suddenly, an industry that demanded solicitations and double spaced typed submissions and ran on the relationships with distributors and bookshops, finds itself on the level playing grounds of and more importantly, the mass-less, freight less
instant delivery methods of eBooks. The monumental change that this brings in to the industry is yet to be realised.

In July 2010, Amazon disclosed that Kindle e-books were outselling hardcopies from their website. Even as traditional publishers and bookshops went into denial, several second hand
booksellers  around Europe informed me that it was probably their last year of profitable business. 

Honestly, it is very recently that I have woken up to the power of eReaders myself. Disillusioned
by traditional publishers and their diabolical disinclination to respond to queries and even further aversion towards making royalty payments, I had
hooked up with for my new novel The Best Seller.

Foreword Clarion Reviews gave it a 5 star rating, recommending it in superlative terms, but as an independent author without the benediction of a large publisher, I did not pin too much
hope in it. My frustrations with the publishing industry need not be repeated here. All of it is documented in detail in the saga of the hero of the book, who goes through the steps of query letters, synopses, sample chapters and SASE over and over again till he finds his way out.  It was only as an afterthought that I made my book available on Kindle and started promoting it within moderation through blogs, twitter and Facebook.
The first indication of something extraordinary going on struck me when I found that the decent, but unspectacular, sales of the book had somehow pitch-forked it into several of
Amazon’s best seller categories. It was only after that I looked into my Kindle account to find the electronic version of the book outselling the paperback three to one, hence working wonders for the sales figures. 
No warehouses, no printing costs, no middle men in the form of agents and distributors, aided by a collaborative circle of struggling authors organising their mutual promotion on FaceBook,
Twitter, Blogs, Texts and others. The time is ripe for the unholy nexus of publishers, distributors, agents and affiliated review pages of the columns to be taken head on.  
It was quite some time before people came to terms the power of electricity, for long viewed as a semi magical force to revive the dead and little more. Alexander Graham Bell was
indulgently asked who would want to use an apparatus to speak to another person at a distance. G.H. Hardy apologised for his work on big primes stating that it would never have any practical use. Sometimes it takes a while before the extent of radical usefulness of the greatest of inventions becomes apparent. 
The political topplings in Tunisia and Egypt, and now the protests in Iraq, Lybia and elsewhere lead me to wonder whether the hidden might of the Internet in overthrowing totalitarian authority is just being unearthed.  It goes hand in hand in moving from a
closed to an open society that comes with the exchange of communication. 
And if that is the case, the ivory towers of traditional publishing are definitely under threat.

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