The 'green revolution'

Although membership in online social networks is on the rise in Pakistan, radio and television will remain dominant due to the country's low literacy rate, writes Bina Shah

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

By Bina Shah

Carrying on my theme from last month's column about social networking, I must report that social media (also known as Web 2.0) has caught fire in Pakistan as well as the rest of the world. Facebook has been immensely popular for the last year or so.

Everyone I know signed up to the worldwide network where you can post photographs, status updates, send public messages to your friends, play a host of games and take silly quizzes that promise to reveal what kind of person you are (examples of this include 'What famous literary character are you?,' 'How Asian are you?' and 'What Beatles song describes your life right now?').

The pros of Facebook: you can keep up with all your friends and relatives in a quick, amusing and up-to-date manner, spanning distance and generation gaps in a genuinely innovative way.

The cons: you'll waste all your time online and burn out all your brain cells, which can result in family tension, unemployment and divorce if taken to extremes.

It's probably too soon to assess the results of its use over a long-term period, although psychologists are already warning that social networking sites can harm children's brain development and turn them into anti-social creatures unable to carry on a conversation face to face with a real person.

But beyond Facebook, Twitter is the next big thing in Pakistan's online world. For those of you that are avowed Luddites, Twitter is a micro-blogging site, where the only thing asked of you is to tell the world what you're doing -- in 140 characters or less.

This is not a problem for young, tech-savvy Pakistanis, who, spoiled by MTV and cartoons, don't want to have to spend more than 30 seconds absorbing any kind of information; but it's going to be tough for some of our older generation, who are used to droning on for hours and hours at public-speaking engagements, or at parties, and would have a hard time confining themselves to one very abbreviated sentence (no, Uncle, I didn't mean you!).

Still, Twitter has electrified the way we communicate and gather information in our country, where we can't completely trust mainstream media and government propaganda has turned us all into cynics to make Oscar Wilde proud.

My very unofficial estimate is that there are currently less than 1,000 Pakistanis on Twitter, but that number will grow exponentially in the next year as more and more people catch on to what Twitter can do and how it can be applied to already existing technology to make our worlds ever more wired. The media and tech-savvy people have already caught on and are using Twitter to great advantage.

For example, broadcast journalist Naveen Naqvi has a Twitter account; she announces what she's going to be discussing on 'Breakfast at Dawn' the next day, and asks her followers to send comments, questions and suggestions.

In the morning, during her broadcast, she not only raises questions she's received from her viewers, but keeps on getting feedback through Twitter while on air from people who are watching the show and want to ask questions of her guests. She's already something of a rock star in the Pakistani Twitter world, and her ingenious approach to combining social networking with traditional broadcast journalism, turning it into a truly interactive platform, is truly remarkable.

Will Twitter take the place of traditional media completely, though? After all, BBC, CNN and a host of western media outlets already send breaking news to their followers through the 140-character 'tweets.' It's only a matter of time before Pakistani newspapers and news channels follow suit. So will we soon abandon our televisions and newspapers for our mobile phones and for social networking web sites?

The answer is a simple no. Pakistan is not a literate society, and the vast majority of our people still get their news from the radio and the television, as well as by word of mouth. There's a mobile phone revolution underway in Pakistan at the moment, but again, our literacy rate is too low to truly take advantage of the social media revolution which is largely visual and text-based. This could change in the future, but for now, we have yet another example of how our poor education levels restrain us when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the world.

Which brings me to another interesting debate going on through Twitter these days: as Pakistan Day approaches, many Pakistani users are showing their patriotism by changing their Twitter display pictures (a small picture of yourself or anything that represents you) to one with a green background which features the Pakistani star and crescent.

The message is to 'Go Green' for August 14 and is meant to show a strong Pakistani presence on Twitter. Twitter lacks Pakistani content, according to popular blogger Dr Awab Alvi, and there are many Twitter folk who believe that this is the best way of bringing about a 'green revolution' online.

However, the horrific events in Gojra have prompted other Twitter users to change their display pictures to black in protest; and while some Pakistanis feel Twitter should be used to broadcast patriotic messages, others are condemning the riots, voicing their opinions of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and showing the world that we are politically alive and aware of the injustices in our system.

Whether you go green or black on Twitter is probably a non-issue for most Pakistanis, and we have to be aware of the fact that in their eyes this is still a plaything for the elite. I will confess that the most useful thing I got out of Twitter for this August 14 was a simple message that came through in my Twitter feed.

'Wouldn't it be great,' it said, 'if, for Independence Day, each of us sponsored a child's education for this year?' What a great idea, I thought to myself, and I'm going to spread the word. In 140 characters or less.

The writer is a novelist.