Friday, 5 October 2012

Citizens of a mighty country called Facebook

Facebook now has one billion users every month. If it was country it would have been the third most populous in the world. The company says that those billion users were to date responsible for 1.13 trillion "likes", 219 billion photos and 17 billion location check-ins. How has it affected our lives?

On an average, I spend almost around 30 minutes on Facebook every day. I access it both on PC and on my smart phone. Since 2008, on a conservative estimate, I might have spent around 3000 hours doing something or the other on Facebook.  Being in the profession of media and communications, at one point, my job required me to engage only with social media tools. While at University in Scotland I actively used Facebook for recreation, heated debates and intellectual stimulation.

This is just me. Most of you who might be reading this could be spending (unknowingly) a similar amount of time on Facebook.  Depending upon the purpose you are using Facebook (and other social media tools) for you might say: ‘that’s really an awful amount of time – I just didn’t realise it.'

Many of us also suffer from Facebook syndrome. How many times have you sat in front of computer just to type even when you didn’t want to visit the site? And what do you have to say when you hear that riot police in Netherlands were forced to break up crowds at a teenager’s 16th birthday party after 3,000 people turned up because she left the Facebook event invitation open!

In a nutshell, Facebook is a part and parcel of our life. Appealing to people of all age groups, Facebook not only serves as an interactive one-stop platform that enables someone to share messages and photos with their friends; it is also becoming a powerful media tool for citizen journalism, allowing people to express their opinions on a scale that has been unprecedented in human history.

During the Egyptian revolution in 2011,  Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian-born Google marketing executive, who first played a role in organising the opposition through Facebook, told the American audiences that without Facebook and( Twitter) their revolution ‘would never have happened.’   

For businesses and brands, Facebook enables them to directly get in touch with their core customers. It helps them to create communities, and brands such as Starbucks have more than 300,000 people following or liking them.  Whilst some see Facebook as an informal way to reach key buyers, others see it as their prime marketing tool. Brands today are increasing creating their Facebook page, and luring people to ‘like’ their pages to create brand loyalty.

Probably, in the years to come, Facebook can go beyond just being a social media tool.  It might want to integrate host of media platforms under one umbrella (which it already does to an extent) and charge subscription rates for its services.  Facebook can make available premium on-demand media content at very negligible price given its reach and ability create buzz.On the other hand, it might want the companies to pay an access charge to its billion plus users. It is often noticed that consumers are more convinced about a brand when they hear or see it on Facebook.

Facebook needs to have a business model where it can charge businesses for hosting their pages, and work more innovatively to penetrate in to the new emerging markets. Facebook has a massive data about each user. Without violating the privacy regulations, it can take permission from the users to display content or links of things that the user is interested in. 

A McKinsey report on mobile –internet revolution points out that  more than  70 percent of India’s urban consumers already spend about $1 a month on content and services through offline, unorganized retail channels—a market estimated to be worth more than $4 billion annually. Much of India’s young population loves to download videos and music, but not everyone is affluent or well educated. Due to their illiteracy or poor English they might not necessarily have the luxury of using an interactive tool. Facebook might want to pop out of the computer screens and develop tools that are easy to access and use. It might also contribute to areas like e-learning and beyond.

Over the years, Facebook has been offering the same things with a bit of tweaks.  The core strength of Facebook are its users, who patronise it and love it. Facebook has created a virtual (and largely a utopian) country. It is about time it lays the strong foundation to that country so that it can sustain itself in long run - it needs to offer us something new and more meaningful.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

OH MY GOD! - my freedom of speech is safe

Bollywood’s  Oh My God! shows that satire on religions can be constructive, educative and can help balance freedom of speech with religious sentiments.

It is true that all major religions of the world have been around for centuries and millennia. They have certain values, ethos and have contributed to the global culture and development of societies around the world.  Any mockery of these epic establishments cannot really undermine them.

It is also true that religion is for people; it plays a dominant role in our societies and it is governed by the people. In many ways it is for the people, by the people (though the leaders are not always democratically elected) and is for the people. And given these virtues, religions in democratic societies should be subjected to scrutiny, criticism and satire.

However, the recent global events that saw a large scale violence across Middle East and south-Asia including a heinous murder of an American ambassador in Libya, following the release of an amateur provocative film Innocence of Muslims, has once again brought into question the legal and ethical standing of the freedom of expression particularly in relation to respect of religious beliefs.

Freedom of speech is supremely important. It is an empowerment right that allows people to demand other rights – the right to health, to food, to a clean environment to religion etc. It is a vital right and any means to curtail it is not acceptable.

Also, in a democracy (as observed by the Venice committee, instituted in 2007 by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) religious groups must tolerate criticisms in public statements and debates related to their activities and beliefs as long as the criticism do not constitute deliberate and gratuitous insults or hate speech, an incitement to disturb public order, violence or discrimination towards people who adhere to specific religion.

Innocence of Muslims might have been extremely distasteful and provocative but it was made by some unknown person who probably has little comprehension about the greatness of any religion for that matter. The reaction that followed in the Middle- East and in Pakistan was therefore completely uncalled for.

But other actions like the repetitive publication of the images of the Prophet Mohammed by mainstream French and other European newspapers are equally needless and nasty in taste.

In this regard, the latest Bollywood film can be seen as an example to the world where a mainstream medium was used to ridicule the absurd beliefs and practices of major religions – mainly Hinduism in this context.

The film is a comedy but it critically lampoons gurus, clerics and priests for their manipulative ways to mislead and exploit people in the society. It questions the logic of religious rituals (some of which are extremist in nature) and the existence of God itself. In the film, God is taken to the court after the protagonist is denied claims by his insurance company when an earthquake damaged his property. The reason being: it was an act of God!

What was impressive about the film is that though it was very critical of the absurd religious practices, it also highlights the greatness of each religion, and quotes text from the holy books to substantiate its arguments.

Making a film on religious theme, or expressing controversial religious views in a religiously charged society like India is never easy.  Right wing groups of major religions are very active and easily resort to violence including acts of vandalism and burning of cinema halls. Oh My God! had to tread a very thin rope to drive its point and has been hugely appreciated by the Indian audience.

Most democratic societies particularly in the West have enormous cultural resources and massive pool of highly talented creative pool who are freely allowed to express their views through theatres, plays, movies, music, drama, art, sports and beyond.  Their work have greatly inspired people all over the world; it is about time that the Western intellectuals take up projects that talks about religion tolerance and liberal ideals that characterize their societies like the freedom of speech and multiculturalism. If a cartoon can sully the image of the West amongst an identifiable group of people, greater work of art can do the job of crisis management and strengthen the liberal values.

By doing so, we will be safeguarding the majority of moderate voices who were not party to the violence in the Middle-East or the American citizens who didn't approve the provocative movie on Islam.

Oh My God! does show  a middle path- the international community must learn and emulate.