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Facebook activists

india Updated: Oct 17, 2010 13:12 IST
Isha Manchanda
Isha Manchanda
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

I like it on the floor or the dresser”. “I like it on the front seat of the car”. “I like it on the terrace”. By the time one got to the third status update of the sort on Facebook, it became more entertaining to read the comments than the posts themselves. One man responded by posting — “I like it everywhere”, another woman was scandalised by the innuendo. On certain discussions on these status messages, there wasn’t even the pretence of referring to a handbag.

If you’ve been living under a rock — or off facebook — let us update you on what the handbag scandal is all about. Earlier this year, a bra colours meme attempted to spread awareness about breast cancer and was lampooned with severe criticism by the media worldwide. Last week, we saw the campaign come back to life with the “Where do you like your handbag?” meme. A grad student at the University of Western Ontario, Anushree Majumdar, replied to a query about her status by saying “It’s one of those FB games for women only.” Majumdar later went on to add, “However, it does not make sense in what way this game will help to create awareness about Breast Cancer. Handbag = Cancer Awareness? No. It’s just a silly game.”

“At least the bra thing actually referenced breasts, if the intention here [with the handbags] was pro-sex, ostensibly not, then why was it all veiled?” asks Vandana Verma, a Delhi-based journalist. But then, what does NFL players wearing pink shoes and gloves on the field have to do with breast cancer awareness, either? They say social networking has reduced our collective attention span to that of a goldfish. Has that creeped into the nature of our protests, perhaps explaining the pink shoes and meaningless memes?

Back when the Internet was still scary, instant messaging left people gaping in unadulterated awe, it’s been pointed out that there’s a vast disparity between a user’s real and virtual persona — and the two must not be taken as the same. “New media is no longer just a communications platform, it’s also a market — both for products and ideas,” says Dr Amrit Chaudhury, a Sociology professor at IIT Delhi, who isn’t a facebook user. “And in both those roles, it is a most interesting one to watch because it provides a curtain one can hide behind. Perhaps these initiatives are only a way for women to talk about themselves. But is there anything particularly wrong with that?”

But the campaign is not likely to find any support with NGOs and activists working in the field. PK Ghosh of Cancer Care India that’s working to spread cancer awareness, thinks that “the Internet can be used very effectively to circulate information but...they’re futile and do nothing but belittle the cause. If it’s meant to be some sort of metaphor then it’s too convoluted for the message to be understood.”

Delhi-based academic and queer rights activist Gautam Bhan believes that “campaigns” such as these only serve as an “excuse since they allow people to act without agency.” He adds, “One needs to make a differentiation between activism and such facebook games. Technology of various kinds has provided an interesting medium which is going to pull in all directions. But that is no reason to dismiss it as trivial.” The thing to watch, as Dr Chaudhury and Bhan concur, is how the offline and the online will relate as the medium grows.

As seems to be the consensus, social networking has the potential to be than just a popularity contest and a platform for armchair activists who have an opinion on all and sundry but don’t have the time to do more than just lift a finger. “It has opened brand new and fascinating avenues of discourse and has the potential to be a democratising space,” adds Bhan.

Be it the Pink Chaddi Campaign that shook the country out of its pants, the Modolvian Twitter Revolution of 2009 or the Iran election in June of the same year that saw the State Government asking twitter to delay scheduled maintenance, so as to not interrupt tech savvy Iranians as they discussed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Salman Khan’s twitter campaign that raised over Rs 5 Lakh, social media has proved itself to be useful in reaching an unsurpassed number of people. But these initiatives were successful because they involved direct action, and not just a status update.