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History Matters | February 2004: The Social Media Revolution

What Zuckerberg created in February 2004 and the tech products that followed have dramatically changed the world.

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Even since this fascinating series started in April 2023, the authors have mostly stuck to events in India that still resonate in the country. But this time around, the authors decided to focus on something that originated in the United States. The provenance may be foreign, but the profound manner in which the events have changed Indian society, discourse, economy, politics, elections, friendships and even family relationships has been far bigger than many homegrown events that appeared transformational when they erupted.

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There can be no doubt that what Mark Zuckerberg created in February 2004 at the Harvard University campus and the torrent of technological innovations, products and services that came into being in rapid succession have dramatically changed the world and India.

A student at Harvard, Zuckerberg started writing code for a website that would help students connect with each other. Along with some friends and fellow students, many of whom subsequently accused him of technology theft and worse (this piece is not about his moral failures), Mark created a brand-new website called TheFaceBook.com. It was formally launched in February 2004. Incidentally, YouTube was formally launched in February 2005. Since then, “social networks” have become so ubiquitous that it is now virtually impossible to visualise life without them.

In 2023, the co-author met a 15-year-old girl named Sarla (name changed) near Ranchi in Jharkhand. Though poor, she had managed to get her hands on a smartphone, a gift from a generous school friend who had purchased a more flashy and expensive smartphone. The girl proudly flaunted her fame and showed how she has 1500 “friends” and 4,000 followers who are hooked to her typically tribal dance videos. She spends about four hours a day on social media platforms and is confident of meeting Mahendra Singh Dhoni when she becomes a star. Her father owns and runs a small dhaba.  

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The Indian Social Media Ecosystem

Sarla is not alone.

The social media revolution has completely engulfed India. It is a rare revolution that has succeeded without blood on the streets as the “old order” was attacked and dismantled by brave new warriors whose weapons were codes and computer language.

Just look at the sheer scale of the numbers now. The numbers keep growing every day at a bewildering rate. So, here is a brief checklist of leading social media platforms with the number of users (now obsolete). Facebook has 320 million users, Facebook Messenger has 140 million users. Instagram, a Facebook acquisition, has 330 million users. Another Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp, has more than 400 million users. Even the relatively unknown Telegram has about 240 million users. LinkedIn has about 150 million users. And YouTube has more than 500 million users. Twitter, which is now called X after technology tycoon Elon Musk took over the company, has just about 50 million users. But because it is used by influential people in India, the impact it has on social and political discourse in India is enormous.

The platforms are all interlinked. For instance, if the leader of a political party says or does something obnoxious and is captured by a smartphone video, some well-known personalities post the video on X with their own comments. It might reach a few thousand of her followers. But that will, within a matter of hours, reach tens of millions of Indians through WhatsApp forwards. This thriving and constantly growing social media ecosystem is driven mostly by the 700 million plus smartphones that are regularly used in India.

A series of surveys conducted by various agencies reveals that, on average, an Indian spends between 150 to 200 minutes every day on her smartphone using her preferred social media platform. It helps that mobile data usage costs in India are the cheapest among all major countries in the world.  

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India's Most Successful Social Media Star

Smart Indians have jumped onto the social media bandwagon to blaze their way to fame and money. There are housewives who have leveraged their passion for cooking to acquire millions of followers of subscribers on YouTube and earn a large and steady stream of money. There are “investment advisors” who have struck gold not by buying shares but by advising dedicated followers on which stocks to buy. Teachers have minted millions by imparting specialised online education. Yoga and fitness “influencers” regularly rake in the big bucks. Singers who have genuine talent have broken through the “entry barriers” of the music industry to become bona fide stars. Even media professionals have started making big bucks by persuading millions to subscribe to their YouTube channels.

But perhaps the Indian who recognised the power of social media early on and has been the most successful in leveraging it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the 2002 Gujarat riots, he has had a rocky and often fractious relationship with mainstream media. This is no place to argue the merits of who is to blame for that: Modi or the mainstream media. More important is how Modi has brilliantly and consistently used social media to communicate, interact and engage with Indian voters.

Soon after he became the de facto prime ministerial candidate in June 2013 (officially in September 2013), he and his close circle of strategists unleashed such a never-seen-before social media blitzkrieg that his rivals were stunned and stumped for a response. The BJP social media machinery (critics call it the IT Cell) completely changed the rules of the game in Indian politics. Since then, other leaders and parties too have brilliantly used social media to send out compelling and powerful political messages.

But Modi remains the pioneer and the leader.  

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Social Media Has Completed the Process of Total and Extreme Polarisation

There is no doubt whatsoever that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will be fought as much through WhatsApp forwards as through rallies and roadshows. All parties that are serious about fighting and winning elections have been investing heavily in social media infrastructure and manpower. One of the most fascinating trends seen in recent times is the phenomenon of social media “influencers” becoming as important as mainstream media platforms while sending out political messages.

One can regularly see ministers in the government and senior leaders in the BJP organisation giving interviews to such influencers; often more frequently than they give to traditional mainstream media stars. In fact, the tracker poll that is conducted by CVoter continuously has some amazing data since the COVID-19 outbreak. Consumption of social media is now two times that of mainstream media and this phenomenon is particularly widespread in poor states and regions.

Besides, the proliferation of social media has not only destroyed the gatekeepers who once decided what news or information should go to the “public”, it has also completed the process of total and extreme polarisation. There is no space left for nuanced debates and conversations anymore.

Blessing as social media has been, it is also a curse. There is not enough space for the authors to elaborate on the serious dangers social media platforms pose to freedom of expression, a free exchange of ideas, open societies and thriving democracies. The lesser danger is of misinformation and the misuse of rapidly emerging technology like AI to persuasively and convincingly spread “fake news” that has led to frayed tempers and violence.

But the bigger danger is society becoming hostage to a handful of giant corporations that exercise so much influence on our lives through social media platforms that we are not even aware of the power that they wield over us. Privacy, as it was traditionally understood, has gone for a toss and will probably never be restored. Algorithms ensure that we are now being told what to buy and where to fly. China has already shown how social media platforms and digital identities can effectively enslave people. If your social media behaviour is deemed “unacceptable”, big tech platforms can be used to deny you access to your bank account and even prevent you from entering a metro station. 

How does the world balance the blessing with the curse? The authors simply don’t have the answers.  

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Social Media 

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