When does a writer become a blogger? This is a question that is familiar to anyone who uses a keyboard these days, but the obverse question isn't as familiar: when does a blogger become a writer? At a recent workshop on effective writing on the web, organized by The New Media initiative of the Mumbai-based Comet Media Foundation, the inveterate blogger, Dina Mehta, asked this latter question bluntly, and implied in response that there is no difference between the two. Many old media hands and creative writers, however, begged to differ.
Mehta has expressed her credo in an article recently: "I firmly believe that blogging is not just about having your own online diary or journal. It is much more than that. Many bloggers will tell you of their addiction to blogging that goes well beyond just writing a piece. How many active bloggers can really say they do not start their day looking for reactions to something they wrote the previous day? Or checking if someone has linked to something they've written? Or running their newsreaders to look for interesting pieces by other bloggers in their community? Or checking back at others' posts they might have left comments at to see how the discussion is evolving? Or checking blog statistics to assess whether more or fewer people are reading what they write? Blogging is about conversations among people in real time and real voices. That's what makes it sticky. Communities get built around these conversations. Sometimes with spontaneous order, at other times more gradually."
Mehta, for the uninformed, created news when, working from her home in suburban Mumbai, she was able to put those who wanted to provide aid in the Asian tsunami last December in touch with those who needed it. As she puts it, "Nature's force, while tragic, stimulated an almost immediate response and outpouring of help on the Internet." Someone called Peter contacted her through her blog and they started off the communication initiative, which grew exponentially. She has never met Peter face to face till date, thought she is in regular cyber-contact with him! Blogging was the only way of running such an operation since in the immediate aftermath, land lines were down in the tsunami-hit districts in all the Asian countries.
"From Day two, we had 200 people writing in with news, pictures, help-lines. We received 1 million hits in just ten days from all over the world," Mehta says. "No crisis of this scale will ever be handled again without sms, blogs and wikis." Allowing for some exaggeration, it is certainly true - and widely admitted by mainstream mass media - that these cyber-activists made a huge difference, not only in shrinking the world into a global village, where many millions shared people's grief, but also helping people connect with each other for concrete relief. It has probably never happened in any natural disaster before - and this is also a comment on how the supposedly global TV channels keep at arm's length from victims in these tragedies. There were even pictures of missing persons displayed on the web, using the software known as ClickR, which would have been of immense help to desperate families.
She repeated the effort, even more memorably, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana a few weeks ago. In the latter instance, she got someone in Tulane, near the affected areas of the US, to operate a telephone line, using only local numbers through web-assisted dial-up systems such as Skype, which she resorts to regularly. "We transplanted the template," Mehta observes, "it's technology with a heart. We don't actually give help - we provide information and communication. We're not even an NGO, in that sense. We offer Communication, Coordination, Collaboration and Community."
It is understandable that bloggers are full of their new-found enthusiasm and form something of a cabal, using arcane terms - not everyone is even quite aware of a what a 'blog' or 'wiki' is to begin with - such as mavens and connectors, labels that became popular with Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. It is when they describe themselves as employing 'social software' that one becomes somewhat hesitant. It can be "swarmth", as she terms it, where people who connect through each other's blogs can share experiences about the death of a spouse or the traumas of quitting smoking. But is this one area where - to use feminist rhetoric - "the personal becomes the political"? The mass media has historically had one yardstick in deciding what to publish or broadcast - if the issue in question is in the public interest. Some experiences that Mehta refers to are in the private interest.
At the same time, it is true that with the mainstream media dumbing down with a vengeance and looking to their bottom line rather than people who live at the bottom, bloggers are very much in business. They are telling it like it is, rather than what media barons decide is politically or commercially more convenient. In the US, the war in Iraq is condemned far more pungently in blogs. But blogs aren't about to destroy conventional media anytime soon. Mehta thinks that the days of the newspaper are over, but this is far from evident. Old media is clearly still strong in developing countries, and if India is an example, may even be acquiring monopolistic tendencies in some instances.
The surest sign that bloggers are making an impact are the threats they receive from established institutions. Bennett, Coleman & Co some months ago threatened action against Pradyuman Maheshwari, who successfully ran a site called mediaah. He had to close it down. More recently, the following news item on a blog attracted attention: "Indian Institute of Planning Management (IIPM) conducts its own programmes in Planning and Entrepreneurship (a non-professional course) and does not teach any foreign institute's courses. The MBA/BBA degrees are conferred by IMI, Europe, and is internationally renowned and does not come under the purview of AICTE, UGC or other state acts. Which means the so-called MBAs from IIPM are not even MBAs."
"It was this post on his blog," according to the Indian Express, "that got Gaurav Sabnis (25) into trouble. Months after he wrote the blog on August 5, Sabnis, an IIM-Lucknow graduate, was allegedly threatened by the IIPM and decided 'in principle' to quit his job as a sales manager at IBM."
If no one was reading these blogs, presumably, the institutions in question wouldn't have bothered to sue. Perhaps the point is that even if the overall readership is small, it is composed of precisely those people who are concerned about integrity in the professions cited; this gives established organisations -- and some fly-by-night ones! -- sleepless nights.
At the same time, the reach of this new media is in question. Although Mehta states that the "penetration" of Internet in India is 14% - this high figure presumably means that 14% of the population can access a personal or institutional PC or cybercafé somewhere - the digital divide in this country is almost certainly the worst in the world, in overall numbers if not in proportions. The new media technology is way out of reach of those without electricity, or the ability to read and write (mostly in English); they will therefore depend for many years to come on the radio, TV and newspapers - in that order.