BLOGGING: CAN ICTs REALLY MAKE FREE SPEECH A REALITY IN INDIA?


By Frederick Noronha
fred@bytesforall.org

Top advertising gurus do it. So do students, voicing their
words of love. The word ‘blog’ has yet to be translated into
any Indian language, but these unusual tools for
communication can be at the centre of a major row nationwide,
as the recent IIPM incident [1] only shows.

Yet, India-related blogs are largely invisible and go
un-appreciated. Few talk about them, and there’s little hype,
probably because little commercial potential is seen in this
form of IT-based communication.

Blogs come in differing forms and orientations — political,
personal, cultural, topical, business-oriented, science,
moblog (or, mobile blog), collaborative, eclectic,
educational, directory-oriented, a forum-type of blog, or
ones just made up of spam!

As the Wikipedia [2] explains: “A blog has certain attributes
that distinguish it from a standard web page. It allows for
easy creation of new pages: new data is entered into a simple
form (usually with the title, the category, and the body of
the article) and then submitted. Automated templates take
care of adding the article to the home page, creating the new
full article page (Permalink), and adding the article to the
appropriate date- or category-based archive.”

In a country where we are great at simply mastering the
technology — rather than applying it efficiently to our own
needs — we’re probably missing the point here too. Blogs
have the capability to empower the citizen, simply because
entry barriers are so low, and it’s easy to express oneself
on them.

Of course, one piece in the jigsaw is to get blogs working in
Indian languages. Once can come across a handful of blogs
written in Indian languages using the Devanagari script
(Marathi, Hindi, etc) and maybe larger languages like Tamil.
But a lot more needs to be done on this front.

To cite the importance and relevance of blogging, we can look
to a case that made it to the headlines. Only very recently.
In the IIPM blog war, as it has been called, a prominent
media-savvy management chain was seriously upset by the
scribblings in cyberspace of one blogger.

What makes blogs so unpredictable, readable, and influential?

This is what the mainstream media’s Hindustan Times recently
commented: “That blogs would one day become an alternative
media was never doubtful. That blogs would one day truly
liberate the media and become democratic in the right sense
of the word was also never doubtful. What was doubtful was
that so called “intellectuals” in traditional media react the
way they did to new media. What was perhaps worse was that a
leading educational institute sue two bloggers for airing
their views on their blog.” [3]

While we can crow about how influential blogs have shown
themselves to be, fact is that India is hardly a nation of
bloggers. For a country of a thousand million, we have just a
minuscule number of blogs. Or is it that they’re still mostly
invisible?

A friend from Egypt, who has effectively used blogs to jostle
for democracy in his part of the world, says their country
has “only 500” bloggers. That, he feels, is a small number
for a country which has one-fifteenth of India’s size..

Of course, there are no directories or comprehensive listings
of blogs. Like in the case of mailing lists, it’s difficult
to discover a good blog, unless someone emails or speaks to
you about it. And, the mainstream press sees to hardly be
willing to acknowledge the power of the blogging world.
Unless, of course, there’s a crisis!

In January 2006, Indibloggies —
http://indibloggies.org/results-2005 announced the results
of its competition for the best ‘desi’ blogs.

It announced, sounding breathless: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the
wait is over. The hectic final voting spell spread over a
week that also saw a re-poll for the Best Designed Indiblog
category — an unprecedented event in the history of the
Indibloggies – is finally over and we are all set to declare
the results.”

Some 1278 people registered for the poll but only 892
actually cast their vote. It called “India Uncut” the
IndiBlog of the year, saying: “India Uncut is the Best
Indiblog at the Indibloggies 2005. Amit Varma, author of
India Uncut and a Mumbai-based journalist is a maverick of
quick posts and anything that starts with a “C”, cows and
cricket for instance. He not only bagged 25% of the votes
cast for the category but also has the distinction to bag 225
votes, the highest number of votes bagged by any blog/site in
this competition (yes, we know that voting for this category
was mandatory but we are talking statistics here) and emerged
a clear winner. Such fun! Amit wins.”

Other winners were journalist Sonia Faleiro (best topical
IndiBlog), Jabberwock by Delhi-based journo Jai Arjun (best
humanities IndiBlog), The Scientific Indian by Selvakumar
(best science/technology IndiBlog), Digital Inspiration and
Michael Parekh on IT (runners up in this category),
DesiPundit (best IndiBlog directory), Mall Road by Shivam Vij
Indiblog with the best tagline), Megha (best designed
IndiBlog), Meenakshi Agarwal’s food blog Hooked on Heat (best
new IndiBlog), ShutterBug nu by Nilesh Chaudhary (best photo
blog), Sight Screen (group blog, best sports IndiBlog), and
Guru Subramaniam aka Lazy Geek (IndiBloggies 2005 lifetime
achiever).

There were also awards for DesiPundit (best group blog),
Mumbai Blog (best Indic blog, in Hindi). Runners-up in Indian
language solutions were Anup Shukla’s Fursatiya, Kanndave
Nitya (Kannada), Kalesh’s World (Malayalam), Marathi Sahitya
(Marathi), Disamaji Kahitari (Marathi), Mugamoodi (Tamil),
Amazing Telugus (Telugu), among others.

Responding to this contest, someone commented sardonically:
“History…”? What history do you go got dude! Its hardly a
year. It’s hilarious to see the ‘Life time achievement award’
unless the nominees are worker Bees which has lifespan of one
year.”

But there are other perspectives on India’s blogging
achievements and shortcomings.

Neha Viswanathan <nehavish@gmail.com>, the London-based South
Asia editor of the US-based blog-watch centre
http://www.GlobalVoicesOnline.org, believes that blogging in India
has both its strengths and weaknesses.

She said in an email interview: “While India-based blogs
have been around for some time, the notion of Indian
blogosphere by itself is a new one. It’s only in recent times
— through the emergence of aggregators and sites like
DesiPundit that the Indian Blogosphere is shaping an identity
for itself.”

Neha Vishwanathan argues that Indian blogs have their less
attractive characteristics like “rank-competitiveness”, “high
level of spite” and its sheer insular nature, by which it
disassociates itself from the rest of South Asia. But,
Vishwanathan says, “it holds great potential given that more
blogs are emerging from smaller cities and languages other
than English”.

Vishwanathan argues that the growth in the number of blogs
has been almost viral in this part of the globe — even if
most seem unaware of their presence.

“More people are taking to this medium which offers so much
potential for expression. What is also interesting is that it
in many ways is bridging the divide between resident Indians
and the diaspora. It is encouraging debates that are
otherwise ignored by the mainstream media. Issues like gender
rights, cultural minorities, syncreticism, sexuality,
volunteering etc. are finding articulation,” she adds.

The trend of group-blogs or colla-blogging is also growing,
which implies that there is a shift towards topical blogs, in
Vishwanathan’s view.

“There’s also the trend of small communities and frequent
blogmeets. Business houses are adopting the medium of blogs,
and the recently launched CNN-IBN also has blogs by
journalists and quite an open policy about comments.
Every time there is a controversy (like IIPM, ToI vs.
Pradyuman Maheshwari case etc), more people who generally
only surf the Net without visiting blogs, become more
acquainted with blogs and become bloggers themselves,” she
adds.

She sees Indian blogs as being “very visible, and very
active”. But still, in Vishwanathan’s view, these new tools
of the cyber-age “need to focus on truly representing the
cultural and intellectual diversity of India”.

Her reference to the ToI vs. Pradyuman Maheshwari case was an
instance where one of the closely-watched media-related blogs
run by a long-time journalist was shut down, following
complaints from the scribe (Maheshwari) that he had been
pressurised to do so by one of the most influential papers in
the country, following persistent critical reports against
it.

It can be tough to reach at the numbers.

http://indianbloggers.blogspot.com/ is a listing of Indian
bloggers worldwide. Its ‘owner’ comments: “When I started
blogging I could not find too many Indian bloggers. I started
this list to keep track of the growing number of Indian
bloggers worldwide. And boy, are they growing! I am not
taking in any new submissions as of now…..”

Another directory — http://india.blogstreet.com — listed
some 2195 blogs, and ranked the “top blogs” going by how many
other blogs had linked to them.

Impressive though all this might seem, there’s still a lot
more road to be covered. Currently, blogging seems largely
restricted to Mumbai, Chennai and expats in the US! This may
seem like a unrealistic generalisation; but this is true of
many of the early blogs.

Bloggers seem to be working in isolated islands, rather than
building synergies with more traditional media. This probably
results in bloggers ‘talking to themselves’. Journalists, or
a section of them, have taken to blogging; but are they
largely attempting to impose their traditional forms of
writing onto the blogsphere, or adapt to it? With many
different newspapers and websites starting their own blogging
platforms, India could well be fragmenting its bloggers.
Compare this to the situation elsewhere, where the big three
or four players have consolidated bloggers in their stable.

Then, one might ask if the wide range of issues that deserve
attention are actually being discussed in Indian blogs. For
once, here’s a form of the media which actually empowers. But
is it being adequately deployed? Are students being
encouraged to check out the power of blogs?

In a region where hierarchy and exclusion still matters,
blogging is unlikely to make the headway it badly needs,
unless it becomes a really inclusive movement. Is the
technology community up to the task, and willing to make it
happen?

FOOTNOTES

[1] http://w3t.org/?u=ipx
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog
[3] http://w3t.org/?u=ipz

Some interesting blogs:

E M E R G I C . o r g: Rajesh Jain’s Weblog on Emerging
Technologies, Enterprises and Markets
http://www.emergic.org/

Sadagopan’s weblog on Emerging Technologies,Thoughts,
Ideas,Trends and Cyberworld
http://123suds.blogspot.com/

Conversations with Dina
http://radio.weblogs.com/0121664/

———-

ABOUT THE WRITER: Frederick Noronha, or simply FN, is a
Goa-based independent journalist, who has written for many
publications across India, before opting for the online
media. A non-techie, life-member of the CSI, he specialises
on writing on Free/Libre and Open Source Software in Asia,
and is an active member of the Indian FLOSS community. His
writings appear on the Linux Journal (US) website, in Linux
For You, Tectonic (South Africa), and he has undertaken
blogging assignments for the Asia Source and Africa Source
camps (2005-06). Email: fred@bytesforall.org

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