Centre for Internet & Society
‘With Internet in every pocket, power to the people’

T. Vishnu Vardhan

Social media is set to grow in India in a big way with Google and Facebook gearing up to tap the regional languages market.

‘With Internet in every pocket, power to the people’

T. Vishnu Vardhan

The interview was published in the Tribune on January 12, 2014.

The programme director of Access to Knowledge at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, T Vishnu Vardhan is leading the growth of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects in Indian languages as part of grant from the Wikimedia Foundation. His experience spans across academics, industry (media) and not-for-profit sectors. He talks about the spread of the Internet and social media in India and their impact on the traditional media. Excerpts:

How powerful are the Internet and social media today?

One way to answer the question is to throw some data. There is 83 per cent of mobile connectivity, so and so per cent of Internet connectivity over computer in India, and so on. The data is important to understand the extent of penetration of digital technology in India, particularly through the mobile telephone rather than the PC-based or laptop-based access to the Internet.

When you say mobile phones, are you talking about smartphones?

These could be smartphones or feature-phones also. So many feature-phones are available in the market now. These phones do not cost much. Hardware, therefore, is not going to be anymore a deterrent for access to Internet. I have seen the elderly also getting accustomed to using computers so they can keep in touch with their children who live abroad.

What about social media and its power in India?

It is very powerful. At least it is believed to be powerful because right from political parties and politicians to small vendors, all are trying to leverage it. During the last five years, there has been a tectonic shift in this regard. It will be very interesting to see how the story unfolds in India.

What is unique about India?

Social media is set to become bigger and bigger in India with companies like Google and Facebook gearing up to tap the regional languages market.

Is English increasingly becoming strong and all pervasive in India?

I would believe it and get worried on that score. But the Internet is bringing in a lot of changes. Font problem has been solved too. The ramification of what takes place when this new regional language enabled market comes on board in social media platforms is still not very clear. But it is certainly going to be huge.

Whatever is happening in India now must be an old story in developed countries?

In the US and Europe, Internet penetration took place in the PC age. But we have bypassed the PC. Internet access in India through phone is growing rapidly. India is taking a completely new path for this.

Some social media websites are also trying to get into the news domain. Have you come across instances where news has been first broken in the social media?

There are many such instances. One of the Wikipedians, Kartik Naga, took some pictures of the Mumbai terror attack and posted on commons. These were available to the world much before the traditional journalists could capture images of the incident. Real-time information about tsunami also came from people.

In the West, some print publications — newspapers and magazines — have closed down because people have apparently switched over to the Internet.

The real issue here is whether traditional media wants to stick to a particular technology or it is ready to embrace a new technology for the production and dissemination of news, which is its core activity. If traditional media is averse to embracing the new technology, there will be all kinds of problems like the paper will shut down or some completely new random players will come and corner an old veteran and so on. But if the new technology is embraced, there will be new ways and means of benefiting from it. It depends on how a traditional media entity is looking at Internet and social media. In the last two or three years, we have also seen so many news stories that got made by social media. There is a buzz about social media, and traditional media picks it up and makes it even a bigger story. I do not agree with this drawing of lines between social and traditional media. I think it is a mixed media.

You mean to say there is no threat to traditional media from social media in the long run?

There is no threat. At the end of the day, production of news is not the business of people active on social media portals. Traditional media could actually thrive by the clever use of Internet and social media.

What about news that breaks in social media and is imaginary or based on rumours. What happens then?

These things do happen. People are working on finding out ways to verify news contents on social media. There are already people whose mission in life is to prevent rumour mongering on the Internet.