Studying Internet in India (2016): Selected Abstracts
We received some great submissions and decided to select twelve abstracts, and not only ten as we planned earlier. Here are the abstracts.
The Curious Incidents on Matrimonial Websites in India
What is love? Philosophers have argued over it, biologists have researched it and in the age of the internet, innovators have disrupted it. In the west, dating websites such as OKCupid and eHarmony use all manner of algorithms to find its users their optimal match. In India’s conservative society though, dating is fast-tracked or skipped altogether in favor of marriage. This gives rise to a plethora of matrimonial sites such as Jeevansathi.com and Shaadi.com. This is where things get tricky.
Matrimonial websites are different from other internet-enabled services. The gravity of the decision and the major impact that it has on the lives of users brings in pressure and a range of emotions that are not there on casual transactions such as an Uber ride or a foodpanda order. From outright fraud to online harassment newspaper back pages are filled with nightmare stories that begin on a matrimonial website. So much so, that in November of last year, the Indian government decided to set up a panel to regulate matrimonial sites in order to curb abuse. The essay will analyze India’s social stand on marriage, the role of matrimonial websites in modern day India, the problems this awkward amalgamation of the internet and love gives rise to and the steps authorities and matrimonial companies are taking to prevent these issues from occurring.
Anita Gurumurthy, Nandini Chami, and Deepti Bharthur
Internet as Sutradhar: The Aesthetics and Politics of Digital Age Counter-power
The open Internet is now a feeble, wannabe, digital age meme. The despots have grabbed it and capitalism has colonised it. But the network that engulfs its users is also a multi-headed organism; the predictables have to make peace with the unpredictables, both arising as they do with the unruly affordances of the network. The much celebrated public domain of open government data, usually meant for geeks and software gurus dedicated to the brave new 'codeful' future, has meant little for marginal subjects of India's development project. Data on government websites have been critiqued worldwide for often being too clunky to catalyse civic use or too obscure to pin down government efficacy. However, as an instrument of accountable governance, data in the public domain can help hold the line, fuelling vanguard action to foster democracy. Activists engaged in the right to food movement in India had reason to rejoice recently when the Supreme Court of India pulled up the central government for delay in release of funds under the MGNREGA scheme and violating the food security law. The series of actions leading to this victory enjoins deeper examination of the MGNREGS website, the design principles of the MIS that generates reports based on the data, and the truth claims that arose in the contingent context marking this struggle. What were the ingredients of this happy irony; the deployment of the master's tools to disband the master's house? What aesthetics and principles made for a public data structure that allowed citizens to hack into state impunity? And what do such practices around the digital tell us about the performativity of the Internet - not as a grand, open, phenomenon for the network to access the multitude, but as the inane, local, Sutradhar (alchemist who produces the narrative), who allows truths to be told?
How Green is the Internet? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Groceries at your doorstep, data on your fingertips, an Uber at the tap of a button and information overload- human negotiations with the internet have definitely changed drastically in the past few decades. Research in the area, too, has transformed to not just the supply of internet to the masses, but has evolved to include innovative and revolutionary ideas in terms of internet infrastructure and governance. With over 3.2 Billion internet users in the world, and over 400 million of these from India, this is no surprise.
However, while environmental sustainability remains at the forefront of many-a-government, there is little data / debate / analysis / examination of the environmental impact of the internet. This is true especially for India. In 2011, Joel Gombiner wrote an academic paper on the problem of the Internets carbon footprint, with a premise based on the lesser known fact that the ICT industry has been ‘responsible for two to four percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions’- an area that the Climate Group’s Smart 2020 report had focused on back in 2008 as well. Clearly this is a war on the environment that is yet to receive large-scale attention.
How can we move beyond particular fascinations with the internet and engage holistically with the internet? By moving towards a dimension of internet infrastructure studies, that has large policy and implementation benefits. This paper, then, will seek to elucidate four central issue areas: first, as the third highest country in terms of internet use, what is the current environmental impact of internet usage in India? Second, are there any regulatory provisions that give prescriptive measures to data centres and providers? Third, do any global standards exist in this regard and finally, what future steps can be taken (by the government, civil society and individuals) to address this?
One of the most important effects of increasing internet connectivity coupled with universal electronic display screens, multimedia digital objects and supple graphic interfaces, is the proliferation of systems of enunciation. The business letter, typewriter, electric telegraph and radio, each in its own time, transformed how humans make sense in different forms of writing. Some of these survive to this day (forms of address from letters, the abbreviations and ‘cablese’ from telegraph operators etc). Now, we find new spaces of networked sociality emerging at rapid speeds, and everyday, we forget many others that are now outdated, no longer ‘supported’ or desired. How does one study this supple flow of discourse? Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of tracing collective assemblages of enunciation (the structuring structures of discourse) and Gilbert Simondon’s Law of relaxation (where technical elements created by complex ensembles are released into a path of technological evolution where they may or may not crystallize the formation of new ensembles) are two philosophical notions that seek to address this problem. The anthropologist Ilana Gershon suggests that new social media platforms like Facebook have a detrimental effect on sociality because they impose a neo-liberal notion of personhood on its users, through the interface. I take this as my point of departure, and based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a new media marketing agency, I attempt to draw out how ‘posting’ is modulated on facebook, about how subjectivity is configured within the complex matrix comprising a constant flow of posts, the economy of ‘liking’, algorithmic sorting and affects that do not cross the threshold of the screen.
By some latest estimates, around 35% of the population access the Internet in India using multiple devices. As Indians browse, search, transact and interact online, one can observe the increasing intertwining of the Internet in their everyday lives. But, how much do we know about the influence and impact of the Internet on Indian and in India? Advances in big data technologies provide an exciting opportunity for social science researchers to study the Internet. So, trends can be detected, opinions and sentiments can be calibrated, social networks can be discovered by using technologies for collecting and mining data on people online. But are social science researchers in India equipped enough to do a rigorous and detailed study of the India? Leaving aside debates on epistemology, ontology and methodology of researching Internet using big data analytics, the very first challenge is limited access to data. A cursory scan of the available research would indicate that the data – tweets, trends, comments, memes etc. have generally been collected manually. The bulk of the data is collected by private companies and available either at a price or by writing programs to access them through APIs. The latter allows only limited extraction of data and more often than not has a learning curve. Access to raw data, through institutional repositories or special permission, if available is only to select few. Legal and ethical issues arise if one considers scrapping websites for data. The essay is an attempt to articulate the challenges in accessing data while making attempts to study the Internet using big data analytics.
Muhammed Afzal P
Internet Memes as Effective Means of Social and Political Criticism
By looking at the user-generated memes posted from the Malayalam Facebook pages “Troll Malayalam” and “International Chalu Union”, this essay argues that political memes function as effective means of social and political criticism in Kerala. In a society where conversations often tend to feature examples from popular films, memes from these pages use images from popular culture including television to respond to current affairs as well as contemporary social and political questions. Often described mistakenly as 'trolls' by the practitioners themselves, a major portion of the memes have a progressive content in terms of discussing questions related to religion, sexuality, nationalism, etc. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that many Malayalis see these memes as instant 'news analysis' of current affairs. The argument of this essay will be advanced through an analysis of the memes that were produced in relation to contemporary socio-political and cultural questions such as beef ban, the rise of right-wing politics in Kerala, the question of religious conservatism, etc. Through this the essay seeks to investigate how internet memes creatively contribute to social movements and also to see how critical questions in cultural criticism are translated into "the popular.'
Dr. Ravikant Kisana
Archetyping the 'Launda' Humor on the Desi Internet
Humor on the internet has proven a massive social unifying force for young, upper class Indian millennials. The humor is not just consumed via Western (mainly US) humor collectives such as 9GAG, Cracked, etc - the proliferation of 'Indian' humor pages on the Facebook and the countless YouTube comedy channels is testament to the localisation of this content. However, the humor which is seen as a unifying force is largely 'launda' aka. 'heteronormative-upper caste-male' in its sensibilities. Comedy collectives like TVF, with its popular channel 'Q-tiyapa' had to create a separate handle 'Girliyapa' to cater to feminist themes. The idea is that humor by default is male, and 'feminist humor' needs a separate space.
This essay seeks to study the 'launda'-cultural attributes of online Indian humor. It will seek to document and wean archetypes of comedy tropes which fit this mode. The area of the documentation will be YouTube comedy channels and Facebook humor pages—however, the same can be extended to Twitter handles and the suchlike.
Siddharth Rao and Kiran Kumar
Chota Recharge and the Chota Internet
Uniform and affordable Internet is emerging as one of the fundamental civil rights in developing countries. However in India, the connectivity is far from uniform across the regions, where the disparity is evident in the infrastructure, the cost of access and telecommunication services to provide Internet facilities among different economic classes. In spite of having a large mobile user base, the mobile Internet are still remarkably slower in some of the developing countries. Especially in India, it falls below 50% even in comparison with the performance of its developing counterparts!
This essay presents a study of connectivity and performance trends based on an exploratory analysis of mobile Internet measurement data from India. In order to assess the state of mobile networks and its readiness in adopting the different mobile standards (2G, 3G, and 4G) for commercial use, we discuss the spread, penetration, interoperability and the congestion trends.
Based on our analysis, we argue that the network operators have taken negligible measures to scale the mobile Internet. Affordable Internet is definitely for everyone. But, the affordability of the Internet in terms of cost does not necessarily imply the rightful access to Internet services. Chota recharge is possibly leading us to chota (shrunken) Internet!
Why Mythologies are Crucial to Understand Governance on the Internet: The Case of Online Maps
How does one study internet in India? This essay proposes to provide one possible answer to this question through its central argument that internet, like other technologies, is very much a part of a “mythological” or “fictional” narrative of the history of this country, and without an understanding of these mythologies, the development of internet governance in the country cannot be hoped to be understood. This central argument is traced in the essay through the debates and discussions on law and policymaking around online maps. The essay, in its first part, explores what a “mythological” account of the history of India might mean, and what role technological developments play in it. It does so by tracing the narrative of mapmaking in medieval India and its deep ties with magic, secrecy and mythical stories. It then surveys how modern mapping surveys in the colonial period interacted with the idea of the “native”, and argues that such interactions created a dichotomy between “native” sciences, folklore on the one hand, and colonial achievements, national security on the other. It argues that it is this latter strand of a certain “national security” vision of technology which found dominant voice in the regulation of maps in India post-independence, yet the sense of the unknown, mystical, or “mythological” in such technological deployment as mapmaking requires, survived. The essay finally uses such evidence to trace how even in online interactions, and internet governance design in India- this aspect of the mystical and the fear of it often sustains, driven by a (repressed?) memory of mythology, through the use of analogies. And it is within this twilight zone, within this frontier between “mythology” and nation-building, that a governance design for online maps is being presently constructed in India. The essay then argues that it becomes crucial to understand such mythologies around technology generally and internet specifically and the manner they interact with law and policymaking in order to really get a sense of a 21st century India’s experience of the internet.
Understanding Reddit: The Indian Context
Even as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter seek to carve a niche within the Indian social media landscape, the presence and impact of news aggregator website reddit seems relatively unnoticed. Known for its excessive self-referentiality and inability to emerge from a restricted pool of informational flow, reddit nevertheless has come to be a major focal point of convergence of news and public opinion, especially in the United States. The web interface, which allows for users with overlapping interests to converge under a common platform namely the “subreddit,” allows the possibility of understanding questions of user taste and the directions in which information and user attention flow.
This paper seeks to offer a preliminary gesture towards understanding reddit’s usage and breadth in the Indian context. Through an analysis of the “India” subreddit and examining the manner and context in which information and ideas are shared, proposed, and debunked, the paper aspires to formulate a methodology for interrogating sites like reddit that offer the possibilities of social mediation, even as users maintain a limited amount of privacy. At the same time, to what extent can such news aggregator sites direct the ways in which opinions and news flows change course as a true marker of information generation responding to user inputs.
India, being a multilingual country, owes a lot to the Internet for adding words to the vocabulary of everyday use in different languages.
This paper would critically examine how Net words like "selfie", "wall", "profile" and others have changed the way Indians write or talk. For example, a word like "nijaswi" was not there in Bengali language five years back but is used across several platforms as a translation of "selfie".
On one hand, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has helped us to express in short messages and on the other, we all have picked up use of punctuation marks like colon or a semicolon to express our emotion - which have got another name, "emoticons".
The paper would be more practical in approach than theoretical. For example, it would feature chat (another example of CMC) conversations 10 years ago when hardly an emoticon was used, and that of today's when we cannot think of a chat without a "smiley" or a "sticker". Even the linguist, David Crystal, probably could not have thought that in 15 years, the language (not just lingua franca, English) would change worldwide since he first tried to theorize Internet language in 2001.
Today, a linguist need not to have a proper publication to introduce a word in any language but Netizens can re-invent words like "troll" or "roast" to criticize one or "superlike" to celebrate an achievement or even "unfriend" someone to just relax.
Surfatial is a trans-local collective that operates through the internet. We use conversations to aid learning outside established structures. We are concerned with enabling disinhibition through the internet, for expressing what may not be feasible in physical reality. What role does partial or complete anonymity play in this process of seeking “safe” zones of expression? Fake profiles on social media offer such zones, while perhaps also operating to propagate, mislead or troll.
Our essay would argue:
- That there is a desire to participate in speculative fora in the Indian cultural context and the internet has created space for philosophical questioning among contemporary Indian participants which can develop further, despite common assertions that online spaces are largely uncivil and abusive.
- That anonymous and pseudonymous content production offers a method for exploring and expressing with a certain degree of freedom.
- Spam-like methods used in sub-cultural outreach efforts on social media have proved effective in puncturing filter bubbles.
Our essay would be drawn from experiments via Surfatial’s online engagement platforms (Surfatial’s Study groups and post_writer project) to examine:
- Extent of participation.
- Disinhibition facilitation and dialoguing.
- Emergence and development of ideas.
- Creating an archive of internet activity and re-processing it into new forms of presentation.