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A weeklong homage to the hashtag in Mumbai
Richa Kaul Padte  28th Sep 2013

SMW Politics panel featuring (L-R) Gul Panag, Priti Gandhi, Mayank Gandhi, Dilip Chalil, Priyanka Chaturvedi

ast weekend, multimedia storyteller Scott Shigeoka shaved a hashtag symbol (#) into the side of his head. So what else is new these days, you may think. But Shigeoka is no Hauz-Khas-belonging-hipster, and his self-adornment with social media's most beloved (and overused) feature is not a fashion statement; it's 'an homage to the eight Social Media Week conferences that are taking place in cities around the world.' Spread across five continents and now in its fifth year, SMW is a glocal (fusing together the global with the local) conference exploring the impact of social media on business, culture and society. At its first Indian tryst beginning on 23 September at venues across Mumbai, I attended several of the 100-plus events on offer. Here are snapshots of my top three.

Impact on Education

Getting a little tired of the all-male panels that seemed to be a characteristic of many of the SMW mainstage events (this one featured CEOs Ranjit Nair, Atul Hegde and Star TV Vice President Debasish Biswas — go figure on the selection process), it was the vibrancy of the audience that made this session one of my favourites. Talking about social media and education in India is like talking about social media and anything — the elephant in the room is always that incredibly low 10% Internet penetration statistic. When schools lack chalk, teachers and electricity, can we really talk about social media? One way in which to understand this is to stop considering the Internet simply as wifi access on your personal laptop — something that only 'we' have. For example, young adults from rural areas have pursued further education in cities through social media forums, which they log on to as and when a mobile phone catches some signal. And since social media is based around information sharing and collaboration, people across the country are also using online networks as a means to self-education on a range of subjects.

Role in Politics

Is a 'like' a vote? Is a wo/man known by the followers they keep? Which gets you more abuse: tweeting against #Pappu or against #Feku? Does Narendra Modi pay his army of Twitter trolls or are they really volunteers? My favourite panel of the week brought together Priyanka Chaturvedi (AICC), Priti Gandhi (BJP), Mayank Gandhi (Aam Aadmi Party), Dilip Chalil (Congress) and Gul Panag (as an independent observer) in a social media showdown. As opposing parties debated benefits of the two-way communication allowed for between politicians and voters through mediums like Twitter (and indulged in a fair amount of 'your trolls are worse than mine'), Gul Panag's application of the military term O.O.D.A was perhaps the most well-reasoned argument of the hour. Standing for Observe Orient Decide Act, Panag suggests that whichever party is able to master O.O.D.A on Twitter is the party that wins the social media battle. The outcome of the real voting war, however, is something that has always remained unaffected by any sort of media, and it's up to users to transform their 'likes' into votes.

A New Voice for Women

The best thing about this session was the attendees: all women, largely in their early twenties, ranging from entrepreneurs to bloggers to students. But how many women are actually online? In India, Facebook has 85 million users, and Twitter has another 20 million, but only 25% out of all these people are women. However, speaker Anusha Shetty, CEO of social media advertising agency Autumn Worldwide, says, 'So what?' The Internet has opened up countless opportunities for women, allowing them to raise collective and individual voices on issues ranging from breast cancer to mistreatment by the police to inclusive definitions of beauty. A survey of 200 Bangalore-based women found that 76% of women accessed social networks every day, with 79% saying that social media has affected the choices they make in daily, offline activities. And despite the dismally low gender statistics, those women who do have the opportunity to use the Internet are being creative, innovative and speaking up loudly —a stark contrast to the popular shoe-buying, gossip-seeking, MMS-posing image of women online so often perpetuated by mainstream soical media platforms.

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