They have fallen prey to a tiny blue bird. Sentenced to a life of 140 characters, Twitter addicts are busy broadcasting their lives in real-time on smart phones while having no time for sleep.
With over 500 million active members worldwide, twitterites generate over 340-million tweets per day. Pakistan is certainly not immune to the chattering revolution that is unfolding online. Replacing the culture of communal dialogue on street corners is the practice of tweeted headlined announcements and proclamations. The Internet literate urbanites in Pakistan are busy creating digital versions of their social networks that appear more like digital ghettos.
Twitter is part of the Internet innovation that has made microblogging possible. With a twitter account, one can post real-time updates and text messages online where messages are restricted to 140 characters in length. Twitter makes it possible for others to receive your live updates. Those who follow you are called ‘followers’. Thus Twitter is a ‘place’ where some are following you while you are following others.
Twitter is not much different from the world of peerymureedy where the leader (the peer) has his disciples (followers in Twitter speech) while the peer himself follows a certain tradition (tareeqa). Those with most followers on Twitter often follow a relatively much small number of others. Thus new digital constituencies have taken birth where academics, actors, journalists, politicians, and singers have set up their digital monasteries (khanqahs). And just like the worth of a cult leader is determined by the number of his disciples, the digital worth of twitterites is also determined by the number of their followers.
The biggest twits (twitter users with large following) are based in the West and are usually singers and actors. Lady Gaga (an American singer) tops the charts with 29-million followers followed by the Canadian singer Justin Bieber with 27.5-million followers. Katy Perry with 26-million and Rihanna with 25-million followers own the twitter podium with Lady Gaga and Justin.
In Pakistan, the twitter podium is owned by politicians and journalists rather than singers and performers. Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, with 355,000 followers is perhaps the most followed on Twitter from Pakistan. If twitter were an electoral district, Imran Khan with 356,000 votes is guaranteed a win. Shahshi Tharoor, a former UN staffer and an Indian politician and author, enjoys the following of 1.48-million digital disciples. Shashi follows only 300 fellow Twitterites.
Imran Khan’s PTI has been a smart user of Twitter. As Imran Khan visited Astore in the Northern Areas, his trip was tweeted live to his followers. On his return flight, Khan tweeted photographs of the picturesque mountains and lakes.
Ali Zafar (singer and actor) and Mubasher Lucman (journalist) each with approximately 150,000 followers trail Imran Khan. Other notables in Pakistan’s Twitter-land include Marvi Memon, Shahbaz Sharif, Bilawal Zardari and Sharmila Faruqi.
Losing sleep over nothing
While Twitter is dubbed as a social network, the most networked are perhaps the most sleep-deprived. The desire to be heard online keeps many twitterites awake in the wee hours of morning. Senator Rehman Malik with a Twitter tribe of 45,000 followers gets tweet-heavy at around 3:00 AM (source: http://www.twitonomy.com/). With 1,100 tweets since May 22, 2010, the Senator is however not a very prolific Tweeter.
Raza Rumi a Pakistan-based writer and development professional, however has been tweeting hot and heavy. With over 52,000 tweets to his credit, Rumi had a lot to tweet about. A scan of his 3,200 Tweets between July and September 2012 revealed that he also tweets mostly in the small hours of the morning or later in the evening.
Unlike Raza Rumi, the Karachi-placed politician Sharmila Faruqui tweets mostly in the afternoon. With 11,000-plus Tweets Ms. Faruqui is one of the most active female voices on the Internet based in Pakistan. Her most recent 3,200 Tweets suggest that she usually tweets between 2:00 and 5:00 pm. Based on the count of the hashtags she mentioned in her Tweets, Ms. Faruqi mostly tweeted about Pakistan, Peoples Party, and Imran Khan’s PTI.
Twitter does allow one to create digital networks of people with whom one exchanges ideas, information, and in some instances, insults. The concept of network is in fact more apt for Twitter because one can map the digital network to identify the people and ideas one is most engaged with. A quick look at Sharmila Faruqui’s network suggests that her immediate network contains mostly journalists from print and broadcast media.
These networks when mapped suggest that Twitter in Pakistan has engaged a small group of highly vocal individuals who are mostly journalists, politicians, and development practitioners. The chatter is in fact confined to a small group rather than being a large marketplace of ideas involving thousands of voices. Most Twitter followers are dormant in Pakistan. Active Tweeters when mapped show up on each other’s network. Take Hamid Mir’s Twitter network as an example where journalists from print and broadcast media appear along with the most digitally vocal politicians again suggesting that the socio-political discourse is managed by a small group of empowered individuals.
It is too early to gauge Twitter’s impact on the domestic discourse in Pakistan. Today, I have more questions than answers. Will Twitter remain the privileged domain of the empowered middle class, or will it become another channel to proliferate sectarian and religious bigotry in Pakistan? What will Twitter look like when millions start tweeting in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu? Will Twitter create more problems by creating a sub-culture of sleep-deprived zombies? One will have to wait to have these questions answered.
While I appreciate the very opportunity to be able to broadcast instantaneously one’s thoughts to millions, I am also concerned about the impact of such split-second decisions on one’s career and life. Consider Octavia Nasr, a senior journalist, who was fired by the CNN (a champion of free speech!) for praising a deceased grand Ayotullah. Several other examples of hasty Tweets followed by hasty dismissals are commonly known, which brings me to the biggest shortcoming of Tweeting: While several tools allow one to write a 140-character Tweet, not a single tool is available to delete a Tweet once it goes live on the Internet.
I am equally concerned about the information overload that overburdens most uber tweeters. It is not humanly possible for twitterites to digest the tweeted, re-tweeted, and posted messages carrying hyperlinks pointing to every exit on the Information super highway. With a few hundred tweets a day, those addicted to twitter are primarily engaged in the flow, and not synthesis, of information.
By engaging in such a rapid flow of information, human beings have turned into running faucets where a lot is flowing, but not much is being retained.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.