Just Where We Like It

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Nov 22, 2010 05:20 AM |
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The micro space for status updates might become the new public space for discussion. Nishant Shah's column on Digital Natives was published in the Sunday Eye of the Indian Express on 21 November 2010.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting the mecca of digital native research — The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard University. In a workshop on digital safety, questions were cropping up faster than fractals on a screen-saver: What are the tools that digital natives use to mobilise groups? How do they engage with crises in their immediate environment? Are they using popular social networking sites and Web 2.0 applications for mere entertainment? Are these tools helping them re-articulate the political realm? While thinking through these questions, I glanced at my Facebook feed, to find a friend, a respectable professor in Taiwan, announcing, “I like it on the table.” I blinked thrice to ensure I was reading it correctly. Soon more female friends announced how some liked it on the floor, some liked it on the couch, some liked it in closets.

On Facebook, almost all users engage in updating their status updates. These updates can be varied — capturing moods and emotions, reporting on striking things, offering political opinions, suggesting movies and books to friends, and often making public announcements of important events. The updates appear as a live feed, in almost-real time, letting people in networks know, discuss and share information about their personal lives. Often, to outsiders, these updates would appear pointless; I remember somebody asking me, “But why would I want to know what you had for breakfast?”

However, status messages are also constantly used as a form of political mobilisation to raise awareness, to spread the word or to gather people around a common cause. In the early part of 2010, we saw a colour meme, which invited women users on Facebook to have a colour as their status update — “Black!”, “Green!”, “Red!”, “White!” without any other explanation. It was a viral phenomenon, with colours appearing from across the world, spanning different languages, cultures and contexts. It created discussions and conspiracy theories. Blogs discussed it, people tweeted about it and eventually, the word came out.

It was a meme — an internet gene (because it replicates), which spreads virally by inviting people to participate in a series of actions, either to answer a question or perform a certain act, and pass it along. The colour updates were part of a breast cancer awareness campaign that invited women to update the colour of their bra in their status and pass the note across to other women in their network.

The new meme with people writing suggestive messages about “I like it on my...” is a follow-up on the older one, where “it” stands for a purse. There is much critique of these kinds of games, where it seems all fun and sometimes dissociated (the coy suggestiveness plays with the female stereotype of women’s love for purses). However, this critique misses out on how digital natives, through a gaming mode, are able to generate discussion on the prevention of breast cancer. What was just a space for personal ramblings suddenly became a place of political mobilisation and participation. Both men and women, reading these memes, took a moment to think about breast cancer and generate a buzz. Discussions that started with curiosity ended on a note of reflection.

Memes like these, whether on Facebook or any other social networking site, generate discussions, capture attention and create awareness campaigns without any apparent funding or infrastructure. Digital natives who start and participate in such memes might not think of themselves as activists in the traditional sense and yet they are making interventions that would otherwise require support from traditional organisations.

As digital natives grow with new technologies, they change the ways in which we engage with the world. The micro space for status updates becomes the new public space for discussion and engagement.

I know digital natives who raise an eyebrow at holding a public rally on the streets, because to them, these don’t seem to be effective solutions. I am not suggesting that digital natives do not engage in those forms of civic protest. They do, and often in a style and scope that is effective. They organise, not using pamphlets and petitions, but by using tools like memes which might be obscure, funny, absurd and strange, and to an outsider meaningless. However, memes are here to stay.

Read the story in the Indian Express

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