There has been much talk in the press recently about how new social media tools (such as Facebook and Twitter) are influencing political situations around the globe. And in Nepal, there has been some mud slung at the connected youth of the country (as well as some praise) in regards to what these young online politicos are trying to accomplish while using new-age social tools.
As an expat, I can’t say that I understand what the heck is going on with regards to Nepal’s Constitution writing and all the rest, but I do know technology, and feel comfortable discussing tech, especially in light of the recent reports in the Nepali media about youth using social media to organize either beer parties or political rallies (not sure which).
It was recently noted by esteemed columnist CK Lal that “... Facebook posters hardly represent a significant section of Nepali society”, and that those that are online “are fashionable faces articulating their views in impeccable English.” I don’t think CK is reading the same Nepali YouTube comments that I am, as most are written in the most abysmal English imaginable. But whatever the Twitter/Facebook population is, and despite their grasp (or not) of comment-writing English, there are lots more young ‘uns playing Cityville, Farmville, and Mafia Wars than discussing the future direction of the country. They are more likely to be twittering about what their favorite pop star is wearing than what their government representatives are doing.
But this is soon to change, mark my words...
The assumption that the current young and connected will not impact the political processes in a country is a false one. It is also false to assume that the connected represent a small minority of the country. That’s because the technology we are talking about (social media) has a tendency to spread ideas virally... and across digital boundaries – they spread like a flash fire would in Thamel, jumping all economic and class boundaries.
Social media works that way too. And tiny numbers have the potential to multiply into larger ones at the strike of a match. Take Facebook revenues, doubling each year to perhaps top a billion this year, just as the Facebook user base is likely to do. Likewise, look at Twitter users, who are growing globally at a rate of 1400% annually. And no, that’s not a typo...that’s 1,400% (percent) per year.
Nepal is a country where Internet access is relatively cheap (buy a scratch card from Broadlink and you get one month of Internet for Rs. 499) and whose population is mostly young, and you have a potential political tinderbox prepared to ignite online, a la Egypt. After all, 99% of mobiles in the market (and in young pockets) have the ability to twitter “PRT twitterverse: rally @ king’s park @ 7pm tx ttys”.
Of course, this is not to say that Nepali youths are interested in rallying up in defense of freedom and democracy (let alone constitution drafting), but as older adults, we would be foolish to deny their potential. However, that’s what older adults have done for as long as I can remember.
Which, in a roundabout way, reminds me of an old western saying: “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Today, that saying goes more like this: “You can drop a horse in a lake, and providing she doesn’t drown, she’ll be well hydrated.”
Today’s youth is immersed in technology that they barely understand, and it is these peeps that are coming up with new ways to use these new tools created by their peers. And it’s us old farts who are standing outside the game zone thinking, “Oh, nothing will ever come of that...”
A close expat friend of mine is always talking about Internet voting and e-democracy on a national and even global scale. In this case, the horse is miles from the nearest drink. The technical obstacles for creating a one-person, one-vote system is on the cusp of being solved, but the more practical matter of getting the current political institutions (rife with lobbyists and special interests) to ever go along with a true people-driven democracy is another ball of pain.
Ross Perot hinted at an adoption of e-democracy back in 1996 during his failed US presidential campaign (using Sci-Fi writer Heinlein’s Take Back Your Government treatise on the subject). But look how far that got him...a very prominent place...in obscurity!
But leave it up to the youngsters to actually revive the old idea of e-democracy in the form of a LIKE button. Some estimates are as high as three billion Facebook “like” buttons are clicked every day. And anyone who is selling an idea or product online is looking for those “likes.” It’s a simple stretch to assume that some form of the Like button could become the yea or nay vote of tomorrow.
But can something like the Internet with social media and online group think tangibly influence anything outside of sales? Seems to have in Egypt. So there’s no reason to think that Nepali government products (re: politicians) won’t be the next breed of dinosaur to undergo an iTunes-like revamp.
Yet there is a long way to go before twittering and social networking groups (created on sites like Facebook) provoke real political change by becoming a sustainable political force on their own. And there is one big danger – those in power (and who stand to lose it) can easily shut it all down in the blink of an eye, as seen in the Middle East uprisings.
That’s why instead of debating whether or not social networks can indeed impact social policy, we should be instead lobbying for policies that will protect our right to do so in the future. At the moment, this is happening all over the world (but I have not seen much about a Nepali debate taking place), where legislation is either being proposed by liberals – to protect Internet rights (access, privacy, etc.), or conservatives – who are proposing tighter controls over the Internet in the name of national security and cyber terrorism.
So the fight is on, in a sense, for the future impact that youth can possibly make on the political landscape – we are deciding today about how much space to give our future generations to play in politically when online, even if today they are just playing Mafia Wars and twittering about designer jeans.
Personally, I don’t see this “immature” activity a real problem, as sooner or later, all the Cityvilles will be completed and then abandoned, the farms of Farmville will be maxed out and forgotten, and all the Mafia War guys will be sleeping with the fishes. Then these online gamers will turn to more grown-up games, like solving the country’s problems and ultimately saving the planet (well, one can hope).
But, if there are no Internet-rights initiatives in Nepal’s new Constitution writing now, then that absence will lead to a policy vacuum. And we all know what that means: those in charge of the vacuum tube will eventually control everyone stuck within it. And if our online rights are not preserved, then we might as well have wasted all the time playing Angry Birds, as the Pigs will have won the day.
Jiggy Gaton is quirky kinda techo-expat who believes that Internet access and privacy is a basic human right.