What does Anna Hazare, Occupy Wall Street and protests in Spain have in common with the Arab Spring? Apparently unrelated, they were similar in the way the social media space was used to channel public angst against certain perceived enemies. What lessons do they have to offer to social media marketers? Plenty, to put things mildly.
In each of the cases, the “civil society”, which is used to traditional media dishing it news and reports went ballistic and took part in the actual process of creating and disseminating news as they saw it happen. Thanks to smart phones, they could stream live images and footages, which they did to their heart’s content – their chosen weapon of mass communication being Twitter. Their tweets becoming faster and meaner than even the “Breaking News” items on mainline television.
How did these tweets go viral? Who were the people who fed these feeds? How do people in the fringes get drawn in to such movements? What points of crowd psychology were at play? Potent questions that have been studied in depth and should be discussed, so as to not only understand the mechanics involved, but also to use the knowledge for more productive purposes in the future.
There are two primary issues involved: one, the spreading of information and two, the “activating” people who were not central to such information spreading activity in the first place.
Let me explain in the context of Anna’s first appearance in the Ram Leela Maidan. I was getting tweets and was seeing entries in FB – but as always, they were sporadic with messages that failed to hide neither their political undertones nor the political patronage of the senders. But the moment Sunaina Barotra (*) a noted socialite announced on FB that she will be wearing a specially crafted white khadi ensemble created by ace designer Nimish Malhotra and will catch some Mc Aloo Tikki’s before attending the fast in protest against corruption, and tweeted to that effect, it went viral.
What is important is not how many people were following the sender, but how well connected, or “central” they were. In the case of Sunanina, her immediate social circle – iPhone wielding social butterflies, desperate to grab a page 3 mention and bored to boot, reached out across platforms (facebook, tweeter, linked-in, etc. etc) and networks to turn Anna into an instant Android Angry Bird.
One of the many reasons why Anna failed too was the instant gratification that this crowd thrives for. Their flickering interest was lost the moment they faced the prospect of having dirt on their pedicured feet in the sweltering heat of the Maidan and moved on to flash their smiling faces in the air-conditioned confines of the next Suzzette Dubey show.
Suinaina also proved another vital point. That, local networks hold the key. Her tweets converted even those who were not concerned, urging them to re-tweet to their networks in a “me-too”, peer pressured campaign that took the form of a flash flood.
As a hundred manicured fingers tapped their support for Anna on their touch-screens, the sudden burst that occurred – a bombardment – took the recipients by storm, an effect that would not have happened if the same hundred messages had been received over a period of time, leading to “recruitment bursts.”
Why did it all fail then? Apart from a core team that completely misread the writing on the wall (the tweets in this case) and had hidden agenda’s to boot, the moment the so-called civil society had saturated its network and needed to connect to the man on the street, the connections snapped.
It is not about how many followers you have; it is about reaching out to third parties – connections of your connections and more that matters. And for doing that, you have to have content that touches their souls and enough punch to make them throw in their hats (turbans, whatever).
With the current density of smart phones, it is unlike that social media will be a political game-changer in India. But the day is not far away. If you were to ask me, it will be done by a political party - a rag tag circus ushering in change, is a bit farfetched even by emerging media standards.
(*) name changed
- Chawm Ganguly