Friday, 26 January 2007

We are the web

Activism, says Wikipedia, “can be described as intentional action to bring about social or political change. This action is in support of, or opposition to, one side of an often controversial argument.”

I quote Wikipedia deliberately; because that definition may have changed by the time you see it.

Wikipedia, the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, is one of the poster children of the new web; the “participatory web” that’s about collaboration and sharing. “Web 2.0,” to distinguish it from the old web, the one controlled by the major information disseminators and portals. Don’t like that definition? Go change it. Of course, someone else may come and change it right back. But if enough people agree with you, your definition will stay there.

Wikis are part of this new web, yes, and so, most emphatically, are blogs, networking sites, social bookmarking services, mashups (sites that are the web equivalent of remixed music) and more. But this is not about the technology. It’s about what these wild new things let you do.

First, do all these virtual shenanigans have any noticeable effect on the “real” world? Let me offer you some examples.

Just after the tsunami, I was part of an impromptu group that put together the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog, to filter the vast jumble of available information and organise it for people who, like us, just wanted to help. This group of disparate individuals across the globe took what was essentially a free online publishing tool and turned it into a valuable collaborative resource lauded by many of the world’s leading mass media publications (this newspaper was one of them). Offshoots of that group subsequently remobilised in the face of other disasters: the post-cloudburst Bombay floods, the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, and, most recently, Bombay’s train blasts. It expanded beyond blogs: wiki software helped present gathered data better; Flickr, a photo-hosting site, was tweaked into a Missing Persons section; Skype, a voice chat application, powered a call centre; chat rooms became war-rooms. And the group solidified—as far as anything virtual can take shape—into the World Wide Help group.

On the other side of the planet, during the run up to the recent elections to the US Senate, an incumbent Republican senator, considered pretty much a sure thing for re-election, made a racist remark about a young Indian-American Democrat who was taping his rally. Footage of that remark rapidly found its way on to YouTube (a video-sharing site), where it was adopted and promoted by some prominent American desi blogs. The wider blogosphere joined in too, as did US media. Digging into the senator’s past revealed more signs of a racist streak. Slowly, the Republican’s lead in the polls began eroding. And come counting day, guess which sure-shot Republican seat backfired and swung a very slim majority the Democrats’ way?

In India, technology-aided activism has begun to have an impact. It started with fun stuff, like personal blogs, special interest communities, user-created reviews of restaurants, movies or holiday destinations, budding film-makers and musicians releasing their masterpieces online. Now, advocates of weightier causes and obsessions—poverty, discrimination, reservation (pro or anti), economic reform, child rights, and so many others—are harnessing technology to make themselves heard.

Last year, for rather silly reasons, our government blocked several popular blogging services. Quick as a flash, bloggers, ceased their usual bickering and coalesced into Bloggers Collective, an email newsgroup, and a wiki, Bloggers Against Censorship. Mainstream media joined forces with citizen media, and much dust was raised. Not coincidentally, I think, the ban was soon lifted. (Alarmingly, though, this underlined the fact that our Powers That Be have pretty much given themselves the right to block whatever they want, and have done so for a while.)

Some more examples?

Karmayog, a mailing list and resource centre, promotes dialogue and liases with Bombay’s municipal authorities and NGOs. Delhi-based NGO Project Why canvasses through a blog and a newsgroup. A Bangalore NGO, Esha, which seeks to empower blind people, raises awareness about its innovative income generation methods through a blog.

Of course there’s negativity too. People with conflicting agendas do battle on each other’s blogs, plot campaigns through mailing lists, fight vicious edit wars on Wikipedia, set up hate groups on networking sites that get our judiciary and politicians frothing. And that’s how it should be, really. You can’t have the good without the potential for bad, though our Nanny State appears to think otherwise.

And here’s one sure sign that all this can’t be wished away. Big marketers are lumbering into the party, releasing commercials on YouTube and hoping like hell they go viral, hiring people to blog for them, slapping together special interest communities.

Yes, the entrenched opinion-makers—politicians, marketers, entertainers, media giants—are still trying to control the web.

The wiser ones are listening. Because they’ve realised that the web has begun to talk back.


Peter Griffin is a communications consultant, columnist and travel writer. He also blogs (at, co-moderates the writers’ community, Caferati (, and co-founded the World Wide Help group and Bloggers Collective.

Published in People's Republic, the Indian Express's Republic Day special edition, 26th January, 2007.


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