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Status updates & blog posts: our unwitting autobiography

Professor Ananda Mitra, who coined one of 2011’s most-talked about words — ‘narbs’ — speaks to Susenjit Guha about how the Internet has changed the meaning of privacy.

SUSENJIT GUHA  2nd Sep 2012

Professor Ananda Mitra

o you know that you reveal a lot about yourself unconsciously each time you blog, comment, post pictures, tag or click 'like' on Facebook. Most people are aware of this to some degree or the other, but are less aware that they need to manage how this information is presented to the public domain.

Such activity on social media sites are known as narrative bits, or 'narbs', a word coined by Ananda Mitra, a professor with the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Hailed as the one of the most talked about words of 2011, Mitra deals with the intricacies of narb management in his forthcoming book, Manage your Narbs (Rupa). Every narb, according to Mitra, 'is in the public domain and we need to be careful about what we need to broadcast'.

In an email interview with Guardian20, Mitra likened narbs to "standing in the middle of a family gathering and telling your significant other that you love her, but instead of whispering into her ears, you use a megaphone to say it. No doubt the significant other hears it, but so does everyone else in the family."

Mitra elaborates that narbs are permanent and persistent and can be harvested without much difficulty, something that brings up the question of ethics related to privacy.

Among the recent controversies that caught media attention in the US was the subpoena to Twitter by a Manhattan Criminal Court judge, demanding that tweets of a Occupy Wall Street protestor Malcom Harris be handed over in spite of the site's terms that individuals were owners of the contents of their tweets and there were no rules for access and use by other parties.

Mitra believes that the very notion of privacy will have to be rethought, as more and more people continue to "narb". Mitra, who is a frequent traveller, said his innocuous destination updates, departure and arrival times on Facebook angered a friend, who requested him to stop posting such banalities. Come October, Mitra will present data culled from blogs and "narbs" of people who have experienced the tumultuous events in Egypt, Libya and Syria and their fallouts, popularly known as the Arab Spring, at a conference in Spain.

Mitra believes that marketing for individuals will replace traditional marketing for a homogenous group as the need to appeal to an unknown large audience will cease.

Mitra said that the research project, funded by the Humanities Institute of Wake Forest University, will throw light on how narrative bits of the Arab Spring from the perspective of bloggers compare with on-the-ground reports by traditional media organisations worldwide.

There are commercial benefits too. By studying a series of "narbs", Mitra feels advertisers will be able to reach out to niche markets like never before, as they throw light on a Facebook user's identity, social circuit, educational background and institution as well as hobbies. "You might also like to eat or drink certain things and this invites targeted advertising and information about consumption behavior directly to your tailgate," said Mitra. "Technologies are available to harvest narbs from multiple digital social media systems, connecting them to a single individual who is the owner of multiple accounts."

Contradictory narratives can be used by advertisers to 'discover different aspects of the individual offering a detailed and variegated account of customer's tastes, opinions, needs and behavior to complement the demographic information about the customer.'

Advertisers can use narbs to map the mind and the propensity to open multiple accounts 'can be imagined as a flesh and blood person who produces different narratives based on the specific social group he or she is in.'

itra believes that marketing for individuals will replace traditional marketing for a homogenous group as the need to appeal to an unknown large audience will cease with the availability of precise information about a person from his or her activity on social interactive sites.

Mitra's idea of working with narrative bits was inspired by Walter Fisher, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, who pioneered the use of the narrative paradigm in communication theory and said that we are all basically storytelling beings who approach the social world in narrative mode, and take decisions and act within that narrative framework.

Likewise, Mitra felt he was 'originally from India', but in that simple statement, his entire life story lay embedded as he was grew up in Calcutta, lived in different neighbourhoods, was at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, for a while before settling in Winston-Salem. "Our life stories are naturally and organically on a timeline." When Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg launched Timeline, calling it 'your entire Facebook life with all the stories, all your apps, a new way to express who you are', a surprised Mitra reacted by posting on his page that he had already published an academic paper about narbs in Spring way back in 2010, describing each status update as a 'tiny story about an individual'.

Mitra, who was in India recently, brings over his students on study tours and offers them a first hand experience of real India. But what prompted Mitra, a graduate in chemical engineering from IIT Kharagpur, to veer into communication and theater arts in the US? Mitra gives full credit to his alumnus, where he was prepared to do anything he wanted to do later in life: "In IIT we were all meta-taught to identify what we were really good at." In the five years full of heuristic debates with the brightest minds of India, Mitra discovered his true calling: theater production.

Mitra credits his tenure at IIT for his decision to 'explore communication in a manner distinct from the traditional rhetoric approach' and delve deeper into the realms of communication science.

The advent of the Internet facilitated his study on how new technology was changing our daily lives and the IIT background triggered the interest in appreciating both the tool and the impact.

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