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I am author of the books Political Internet(Routledge, 2017), Intimate Speakers ( Fingerprint! 2017), has finished the typescript of three books—first, on Internet and sexuality; second, on the negative impacts of social media; and third, a novel—and is presently working on a narrative non-fiction with the working title Lovescape: Why India is afraid of love.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Women in Internet



A discursive look at the nebulous social media platforms highlights the negotiation between social media and women's sexual activism in Indian Internet. Of course, surfacing tendencies and tensions consequent to the higher incorporation of digital media in the expressive and interactive spaces of sexual minorities and sexually annihilated social groups acquires wider recognition and popularity since a blurring line fogs the contours of atoms and bits. 

Whether much of Facebook profiles, plenty of YouTube videos, fleet of blogging sites, and countless texting in chat forums replicate and reproduce from atoms to bits everything that are socially approved and collectively stigmatized. What are young people, women, housewives, college going students, etc. doing online in Indian cities and homes?

In the contemporary time, modalities of women’s involvement in online spaces in India range across a wide array of digital platforms. It includes participation in electronic networks, social networking, emails, bulletin boards, blogging sites, chat rooms, video sharing sites, online conferences, photo sharing sites, virtual markets, news media sites, online shopping sites, video calling are few among them. 

Women who go online are relatively more affluent and younger and in terms of online behaviour, email, search and social networking topped the preferences, and it has frequented by music downloading, searching educational content, looking for job, seeing videos and passions for news and information. 

The top searched categories by women on Google, seems apparels and accessories and followed by food and drink, childcare, hairstyle, and skin protection according to a report by Times of India. 

From chatting to blogging, from posting own ‘sexy’ pictures on Facebook to looking for prospective partners in dating sites, Internet have resurfaced to channelise the self of individuals that otherwise compacted in the tradition bound Indian society.

Young girls, whose social interactions are cut off after the end of the school and college days, now get together in chat rooms late night. Matrimonial sites such as shaadi.com, bharatmatrimony.com, simplymarry.com, matrimonialsindia.com, jeevansathi.com and dating sites such as indiandating.com, hi5.com, apundesi.com, datedosti.com, metrodate.com, indiamatch.com offer a mix between the fresh and the old, good and bad, letting young people to experiment their own friends, partners and meeting new people transcending cultural constrains and tradition bound social order.

With families, traditions, taboos and stigmas still curbing any socially dissociative expressions, the computer screen, the touch screens, smart phones, etc are becoming new ways of channelizing the otherwise compressed and tormented self. No family, no rituals, no taboos haunt the nomads in chat forums.
It is very simple to open account in chat sites such as chat-rooms.co.in, indiachat.co.in, chatrooms.org.in, onlinechat.co.in, chat.oneindia.in, allindiachat.com, talkdesi.com and find and meet new people, foment newer relationship, talk what one feels to talk, and express to any extent.

Around forty per cent of the over 150 million and expanding Internet users in the country are women and close to 24 million of them access Internet, everyday, to check emails, see walls, interact on social networking sites, shop online and search recipes, pronounces a study by Google, as reported by Times of India. 

Approximately sixty million women in India are now online and use the Internet to manage their day-to-day life. Women, with easy access to Internet at homes, smart phones, cyber cafes and offices use it and the user choices are definitely a political choice considering the attributes of Indian social hierarchy and norms, rituals and conventions and the cultural politics.

Everyone use Internet differently, and usage reflects, of course, gendered, sexist, misogynistic, and many more. Critical information and norms allow people to form new relationships, show that the Internet is not just a tool, but that it is critical in advancing sexual citizenship and that it has different meaning to critical masses. 

However, who goes, with what name, with whom they mingle and for what in matrimonial sites, dating site, chat sites etc., are quite confusing and confounding since anonymity, easy access, higher privacy, protective spaces, uninterrupted engagements mark Internet social space.

These anxieties have read against the backdrop of a particular cultural politics emerging since the New Economic Policy (NEP) in early 1990s. Call for Indianness and Indian culture and an anxiety about the influence of all that are Western have been at the centre of contemporary debates and struggles in politics and media. 

New and diverse forms of politics, media and culture have emerged ever since NEP. Protests in the 1990s against the opening of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and the hosting beauty contest in India have acquired wider political currency among sections of political tribes. 

The censorship of film-song lyrics, movie posters, commercial and documentary films and music videos for their supposedly provocative, indecent, obscene content played a crucial content of new form of cultural politics.

The ban on bar dancers in cities, restricting holistic sex education in schools, dress-code on college women, prohibiting jeans or tight clothes for women, moral policing by right-wing forces, rounding up of young men and women in public places, especially on occasions such as Valentines Day, all that formed the basis of emerging cultural politics in the country. 

Violence against women engaging in so-called ‘immoral activities’ such as buying cigarettes or going to pubs has become rampant and this moral thread and concerns with obscenity and sexuality have been the centre of censorship debates in the country as well as an assuming inhospitable women social space in the play of cultural politics.

For young women especially educated and other, internet presents a worldof new and exciting opportunities. Women bloggers have a sustained and continuous relationship with the Internet and it proffers for them copious opportunities for eloquence, articulation as well as to challenge the taken for granted ideas about what is appropriate for women to speak; says a study by Bhattacharjya and Ganesh.

The life of women and young people in particular are greatly affected and shaped these days given their increasing use of the Internet are taken in to account. In their everyday lives, particularly in terms of social networking sites, blogging, chatting, video and photo sharing, women have particularly influenced and affected. 

The Internet and online activism, their access of content, job search, experiences and relationships, how they negotiate its dangers and protect themselves, how the gendered politics of Internet access impact on their lives, in fact there are plenty of factors that negotiate women space. 

Social media and social networking has become so appealing to fight down many social constraints, which confront the everyday lives of people. The day-to-day issues of ordinary women got wider expression from the specter of social media platforms, and it has turned up the hub lifestyle dissent and personal political choices.

The women using Internet has listed out some copious tendencies: weak-tie network, infotainment, communicative engagement and activism. Young women’s lives are somewhat colonised by life style technologies and applications. The Internet first came into their lives when they were in school and colleges enabling them to do their assignments and projects.

However, now it is part of life, voice, expression, flesh and blood. For many young women, terms like SNS, apps, FB, cool buddy, hacking, DP (display picture), chat, post, check, tweet, etc., are part of everyday vocabulary. Now, the Internet is more than being connected.

Women with access to broadband or cell phone exhibits greater level of mobility than those do not, confirms various study and reports. Yet, a perusal of Indian Internet is a testimony to the fact that there are mixed responses and seesaw reactions in respect of the play of sexuality and Internet. 

There are both skeptics and pessimists around the gender and Internet debate. However, instead of the common discussions that the Internet constitutes a masculine or contrarily a feminine environment, the core idea reflected is that sexuality and the Internet are multidimensional concepts that articulated in complex and contradictory ways in Indian Internet.

Hitherto, it is almost difficult to predict a line that delineates the complex relation that exists between sex and Internet in India. To become digital skeptic; one has to refute the liberatory potential of Internet for sexual minority and to become a digital cynic; one has to disown many things that sexual activists have acquired via Internet over the years. 

These sex dissidents typically produced newfound freedom in the discursive practices from their own sexual experiences and from the debates, they waged against different web of resistances against them. These various discourses concerning sex specific robust resistance against existing chastity and sexual attitudes, reinterpreting the importance and which means of sex still as gendered, sexual orientation, personality, etc. within the virtual world.

In addition, such reflections and reinterpretations of their own various sexual practices have provided web practitioners with a wealth of various sexual views and values that serve to counterpoint existing titillating culture.

The web may be a social, cultural, commercial, and academic and diversion of international communications system whose legitimate purpose is to learn and empower on-line users, whereas lowering the barriers to the creation and the distribution of expressions throughout the globe. As video, game technology, interactive media advances, sexual dissent are going to be on the innovating more room for differing views and practices.

One must not lose sight of the fact that these have from the very beginning transcended the scope of mainstream sexual norms of reproductive heterosexuality. In fact, practitioners of all kinds of so-called sexual deviations and perversions have found for the first time fertile ground for existence and self-empowerment in the cyber world.

The political significance of sexual application of the e-mail, on-line chat rooms, interactive webcams, or the most recent sense of touch technologies is that they have created a toy of decisions and channels through that our deepest desires, our darkest needs, and our universal ought to connect with others.

Quite often, we have perpetually negotiated and contended move on to the virtual house, transcending boundaries of gender, social structure, taboo, stigma, norms, age, morals, nation, wrong, physical kind, etc.
Several cyber sex groups became sex dissidents or sex liberationists because of their sexual practices that are normally under scanner by the taboos, norms, stigmas, social structures, patriarchy etc. Now Internet becomes the Pandora box for women sexuality and identity expression. 

Social capital in social media






An armada of social media sites has achieved popularity recently for specific activities. These activities range from philanthropy to profit making. In between, it has been used to pinpoint political engagement, advocacy, campaigns and information dissemination, business networks, collaboration etc. Meanwhile, with the rapid development of Web 2.0 platforms, social media is playing an increasingly important role in reconfiguring many offline social categories on Internet. Among these, one important feature that perhaps gets a boost up is social capital. Many of our lone protests make a sense of gathering. We live in a nebulous social media landscape in which we are at all times being in touch. Nevertheless, we have surrendered conversations fora  meager association. We take more from technology and less from each other.


A Medium To Bond

No one is Robinson Crusoe in the age of connectivity, especially of social media. No person would opt to live alone in the age of hyper-connectivity. Everyone needs someone else in order to live. The trouble-free means to embark on social capital is to consider the networks (bonding, bridging and linking) of people in our life and ask our self, whom do I know? What am I willing to do for them? What are others willing to do for me? We need to augment connections among people and organisations in our life, build trust, collaboratively generate ideas, foster communication and make things happen in our community. Individuality flourishes when we have someone whom we can trust and rely on, a name that is willing to spend time, and a big shot who we know will be there in time of need, give information or even lend finance to us without expecting something in return. This someone and the ‘resources’ they bring with them are our social capital.

American Political Scientist Robert Putnam‘s central thesis is that if a region has a well-functioning economic system and a high level of political integration, these are the result of the region’s successful accumulation of social capital. Just as physical, financial, and human capital is vital for an organisation, social capital is essential for individuals, says Nan Lin, a sociology professor (2001). In fact, the factors that connect and hold communities and social networks together affect modern life in an age of busy schedules and atomised life.

Many studies prove that networks, trust space, norms, values, story telling, the feeling of togetherness, and information, etc., are markers of a stable liberal democracy, access to resources, good jobs, peace, performances, well-being, and strong political engagement. Social capital thus leads to cooperation in groups and therefore relates to traditional values like unfailing commitment to duties, reciprocity, sincerity, loyalty etc. Supporters of the social capital spectacle have reported full-bodied parallels between vibrant social networks and outcomes like good public delivery system, better school performance, enhanced public health, lower crime rates, higher political culture, improved market performance and reduced political corruption.

The common denominators that give a clear resolution on social capital are social trust, norms and networks. Certainly, citizens come to the known and unknown fellow beings in two different ways. Networks with relatives, friends, and neighbours are one way of building strong ties that lead to bonding capital in the political democracy. On the other end, people network and build trust with distant, strange and unknown people through a weak-tie that lead to building capital. Here, information, common anxieties, represented through story telling, trust spaces, etc are markers of social capital. However, be it bonding or bridging, my friends, your friends and their friends are important sources of social identification and growing a space of togetherness in society.

Ever since digital media culture, attempts are on air to see if social media can enhance social capital. They create friends online and spot enemies virtually, do assert and seek individuality and status, look for affirmation and connection, check out the competition and above all, ask for the comfort of community. In the digital sociality, differing from earlier prophecy, inhabitants do not embark on groundbreaking, unheard of acts just because the medium is new. We know this is what people do. Significance of this development begins from not the acts themselves but in the distinctiveness of the environment, it belongs. Now hyper-connectivity mark a social physics of online interactions that are starkly different from those of the offline world and that has far-reaching consequences. A different kind of viewing diligence, exchange and other structural attributes combine to create a different kind of social architecture. 

Exploring what role the Internet and social media platforms may have played in reclaiming levels of social capital, will take us to wonder and lose in the claustrophobic social media landscape. Obviously, Internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are important channels of building both bridging and bonding capital. Indian social media landscape is a panoramic expression of the surging social capital in new media platforms.Now, it is time to introspect what form social capital could take shape in the cyber space, especially user-generated platforms.

Collaboration, networking, information sharing are easiest since social media. Certainly, these are important in building bridging capital through weak-tie relations. Social media helps one meet with unknown people and strangers who meet only on level playing fields. Many unbeaten Facebook success stories tell that it is more than a walled garden of friendship circle. Business success is possible only if corporates build strong bridging capital in connective spaces. Book selling now becomes easiest when writers build strong bonding capital on social websites. For Indian wives, blogging is an important platform for building a common space. Women bloggers find it highly useful as a storytelling space where they usually represent experiences as a wife, mother, a cook in kitchen, professional at office and the way they have become victims otherwise. For many young women, terms like SNS, apps, FB, buddies, hacking, DP (display picture), tweet, chat, post, check, etc., are part of their everyday cultural vocabulary.


Breaking Social Barriers

Matrimonial sites such as shaadi.com, bharatmatrimony.com, simplymarry.com, matrimonialsindia.com, jeevansathi.com etc offer young women a space for meeting prospective partners. Dating sites such as indiandating.com, hi5.com, apundesi.com, datedosti.com, metrodate.com, indiamatch.com etc offer a space for meeting like-minded people with whom one can think of making a relationship in an otherwise highly rigid social structure. It is letting young people experiment in finding their own friends, partners and meeting new people transcending cultural constraints, and tradition bound social order.

With families, traditions, taboos and stigmas still curbing any socially intolerable expressions, the platforms are becoming new ways of channelizing the otherwise hindered social expressions. Now, it is easiest to open account on chat sites such as chat-room.co.in, indiachat.co.in,chatrooms.org.in,onlinechat.co.in,chat.oneindia.in, allindiachat.com, talkdesi.com etc and find new people, increase relationships, gossip etc.
For those belonging to the third sex such as lesbians, gay, transgender, bisexual, inter sex groups, social media is the safest place ever to get in a wild land of hetero-normativity.  Social websites dedicated to the cause of sexual minorities are aplenty and empowering the marginal sexual communities. Sahodaran, MINGLE , BombayDost, Pink pages, Planet Romeo, Queer Azaadi Mumbai are few examples among them.


A Medium To Express And Protest

Individual dissent and resistance politics acquire newer dimensions since digital media. Kanwal Bharti’s, Jaya Vindhayala’s and Shaheen Dhada’s Facebook arrest, Aseem Trivedi’s arrest for Internet cartooning, Ambikesh Mahapatra’s and Subrata Sengupta’s email arrest, Ravi Srinivasan’s Twitter arrest, S Manikandan’s blog arrest are markers of a new form of expression on Indian internet. Anti-rape activism via petitioning sites such as change.org, ecological movement such as Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) are extending a digital empire of contentious politics from websites to Facebook communities. Alternative citizen media philosophies such as merinews.com, mutiny.in, are offering a fleet of free spaces for content development and audience attraction. With this, there is a compulsion to make a new proposition that social media and alternative media platforms are catalyst to a new kind of alone together.

The internet has obviously made possible much greater ease in networking. ‘Save Mullaperiyar Dam, Save Kerala’, a Facebook Campaign has 17,430 Facebook ‘Likes’ as on 11-01-2013. There are endless Networking platforms to support a cause, spread an idea, to raise fund, to express solidarity, etc., to easily network with digital nomads who wander on Internet. Facebook page of Greenpeace India having 106,208 likes as on 11-01-2013 organises all possible networking action through the community platform to re-energise eco-friendly environment. Stop Rape Now!, an online petition by Mamitha Bhandare posted on change.org, had 665,757 supporters by May 2013. Now, Indians today are willing to hold the problem of gender-based violence and discrimination and realise that everyone has a part to play.

Now, it is much clear that be it bridging or bonding, social websites are able to foment newer forms of social capital. It gives people a story-telling place. Users get a space for building solidarity in an otherwise rigid social structure. Trust, norms and networks are easiest since platforms. In fact, in an age, where connectivity marks the health of democracy and well-being of nation, what other than social media platforms can configure networks, collaboration, we space, trust, solidarity with a cheaper, cost free, access free and a quick medium. Social media and social capital move on towards the same direction. The only question is who negotiates the medium.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Activism in Cellphones


Are cell phones carrying activism in our pockets? Cell phones are ubiquitous today, present in almost every household in the country. They are like Infotopia for the political sphere, a hope for women under patriarchal households, for misogynists, they are an uncensored connective public space,  while for the  government they are a cheap service delivery gateway. They also represent fundamental conflicts of civic life dramatically. Cell phones represent a sort of pocket activism, where they fill activism in our pockets and leather straps. Now, we carry life style politics on the go with this device.

A weird pattern of cell phone usage represents civic and political involvement mirroring a new public. Despite being at its budding stage, our pockets or leather bags have begun to surface like public spaces when they cover up a cell phone! Now, the keypad and touchpad, in significant ways cope up to engage in a wide array of citizen advocacy. The significance of cell phones in reconfiguring a mediated political public is vividly reflective in the news, pessimistic or optimistic, pertaining to mobiles phones from various parts of India.

Being smart is tempting and in politics, it is in fact romantic. Smart car, smart phone to SMART governance, smart is quite appealing to an entire bunch of audience. Yet, apart from being a Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent government, smart is meaningful for politics, protest, advocacy also. So is the smart phone for our age!

When we think about smart phones, we should also think about their implications for politics. Cell phones have introduced a new way of configuring democratic engagement and participatory politics. A loose network of amorphous political public takes shape via the tiny devices in our pockets or leather straps.

Cell phone users in India are around one quarter of the total wired public of the world, says a study by global telecom body Global System Mobile Association (GSMA). Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Nielsen, a research firm, in 2012 reported over 900 million mobile phone subscriptions in India. With cell phone subscriptions exceeding  a population of 900 million  and cell phones reaching every doorstep, it will be no exaggeration to think of mobile phones as the next PC of India. Holding a great potential of facilitating access, quick delivery, easy networking, low cost, quick interactivity ensures that no alternative can compete against cell phones in achieving a new kind of governance.

A Survey by Nielsen releases that Indians are increasingly taking to smart phones and with almost half of the users younger than 25. One-third of the YouTube viewers, nearly 30 percent, access videos through their mobiles and spend over fifty hours a month on the Website. The dramatic growth in the usage of smart phone has been driven by a desire among users to stay connected and have instant access to social networking sites.

Mobile device is a fascination among youth and more importantly, it filters in to the lives of citizens regardless of age, gender and how much economical, cultural, social, symbolic and intellectual capital one holds. These designate mobile devices wholly eligible for discussion of public sphere.
Pocket Politics

However, let us think of a ‘pocket activism’ here, which is a budding portable  both men and women carry either in pockets or in leather bags. Wherever we move, this amorphous political public is portable with us. It was this phenomenon that made Ling and Yttri (2001)  think of ‘hyper-coordination’ and Howard Rheingold (2002)  think of ‘smart mobs’. The 25th February 2012 to 2nd March 2012 weekly Gazette of India notification titled Framework for Mobile Governance confirms a new approach of the government to enable something like ‘smart mob’.

Many State governments in India are trying to implement m-governance service delivery gateway to citizens. The website of Kerala IT mission says there are twenty-five service delivery programs under M–governance gate way. An M-governance activity in Kerala IT Mission has claimed the praise of World Bank as one of the best practices in the world, says a post on UNDP website .The services of Mobile Internet companies such as MOBME, which provide end-user m-governance solutions to governments and brands are much hopeful since markets are becoming more committed to social engineering.

In fact, the decision of Election Commission (EC) of India to advance from the 2009 election practice of COMET to a coded SMS-based alert system to supervise the 2014 national election has stimulated the hope of M-democracy movement. Moreover, in the Northeast area of India, EC has provided facilities on its website for voters to identify their polling booth, route and other relevant information on the go and this can be accessible via smart phone we have.

At this moment, it is time to scream that cell phone public of India seemingly cut across a range of social science variables; caste, class, gender, region and ensure mobility across social layers that were otherwise not possible. From fish markets to skyscrapers, cell phones have begun to affect lives in an unusual way. M-governance to M-market and M-politics to M-health, plethora of mobile affiliated rich terminologies have already become part of our routine cultural vocabulary.

Cell phones bring about  greater political significance and social value and this  illustrated the magnitude to which cell phones have rekindled a public space in India that has been used to create a pocket activism analogy. As the debate between participatory vs. representative democracy intensifies, cell phones will have winning arguments supplementing participatory politics.

Cell phones have been deployed by civil society groups, NGOs, contentious groups, professional agencies and networks to avail funds from public. Micro-donations of Rs. 10 to 50 to political parties have been made with just an SMS, which can possibly revolutionise election funding in India. Greenpeace makes use of mobile phones to request its supporters for donation from Rs 500/- onwards.
Major Indian political parties are by now making widespread use of the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc and are indulging in online brand advertising by launching Nokia, Android, iPhone and Blackberry applications to win the hearts of the younger cohort. As reported by media, the UPA Government had plans for a Rs.7000 crore scheme; “A Phone in Every Hand” to give one Mobile Phone to every family living below the poverty line (BPL Family) with free calls.

What ever be the electoral gimmicks, there are many studies that report there is a close relation between mobile penetration and socio-economic growth.Telenor in Norway commissioned Deloitte to study the mobile and economic growth correlation in six markets: Malaysia, Thailand, Ukraine, Pakistan, Serbia and Bangladesh (Deloitte 2008). It has found that Mobile phones provide the ability to communicate to those sectors of the community typically under served by fixed line technology. It also enhances social inclusion by leaving a positive impact on economic welfare through an increase in GDP and by  generating employment opportunities in both the mobile communications sector and the wider economy.


Cell phones and social structure


The power to bring about changes to the lives of women began to challenge the patriarchal mindset associated with community institutions in north Indian countryside. The patriarchy is afraid of women getting jobs, earning money and, in many cases doing better than men. They are afraid of India’s other quiet revolution: the women’s revolution. Cell phone is a supplement to the silent upheaval of women power breaking social structure and barriers to mobility.The reach and effect of cell phone has stabbed the social structure and stigmatised social order. This has reflected in the way the “community institutions” in India deal with Cell phones for instances;  some rural areas of North India like Siwan, Sunderwadi, Dausa and Anjuman remain the fortress of ‘Talibanising’ cell phones giving it a gender dimension.

Importantly, the potential of mobile phones is not merely confined only to m-governance in the political realm. In fact, it grows up to reconfigure m-politics, m-advocacy, m-protest, m-campaign, m-funding, m-civil society, m-public sphere, m-capital, m-education and many more.In the land of cobblers, ‘sadhus’ and snake charmers, cell phone is a sacred device. It adds many dimensions to the lives of women, sexual minorities, caste groups, dalit, tribe and other marginal sections.Among many marginal sections, this device has enormous significance. For the fishermen community, it is a device to connect with traders in the mainland to bargain on their catch from the sea itself. For girl students, it is a favourite device while commuting the misogynistic terrain appearing in between educational institutions and home.For women, in unsafe metros like Delhi, where going to public places is life risking, mobile platforms like Fight Back app and Circle 6 offer a new way of security in a violent zone. It is inevitable that technology is becoming gender sensitized. New technologies are becoming necessary for battling sexism and violence against women.

Yet, it is clear that this tiny device has crossed over the hurdles of patriarchy, taboos, social stigmas and rigid social structure that reduce our social mobility.

From the patriarchal household to the open country, many rooms appear that offer hope, and surely, cell phones are one among the many providers that will lighten our new future! The cyberpunks of contemporary digital India have already been born in pockets and leather straps, and are on the go! They, of course, resurface in cell phones.