The biggest show on Earth replete with drama, emotion, backstabbing, direct attacks, strong personalities, devoted squealing fans hits the road. Elections 2014 is just around the corner, and it is impossible to go outside without being assaulted with hoardings, posters and buntings. On television news too, the looming elections have begun dominating the discourse. And, given that the real world and mainstream media is brimming over with chunaav-related posturing, it is hardly surprising that the battle is carried forward into the social media where we have variants of “my neta the bestest”. And, while that line may sound cute on a six-year-old, it is quite something else coming from seeming adults.
It is not just India, where the sort of fan behaviour more associated with film stars, football players and rock musicians comes into play with relation to politics. It is everywhere. Follow the discourse in the US, in Russia, in parts of Europe the tendency is the same. Group around strong personalities, build them up, put up the barricades to keep non-believers out, savage the agnostic those who say “hey, wait a minute ... but”; and finally from behind the barricades make war on the ‘other’ side.
There is strength in numbers for the most ludicrous position and the new media allows one to gather those numbers from across the networked world to demonstrate a seeming show of strength.
There are superlatives attached to individuals, their personalities, their individual attributes, and the sum total of these attributes positive or negative are transferred to the parties and their policies. And, if this is the case with politicians considered to be boring by most can you imagine the hype associated with musicians and film stars? These fan groups are bound by a dominating personality, bask in reflected glory, look to each other for validation, and create little symbols and codes that define their groups.
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communication theorist, most famous for the quote “the medium is the message” predicted this sort of behaviour way back in the 1960s. According to him, both print and television are highly individualistic media that make the consumer passive recipients of content. These may direct them to buy a film or a bar of soap, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to gravitate towards people with similar interests.
In a way, the huge fan clubs for film stars that grew in South India, was as much about the star as it was part of the need of the audience to assert a common identity that of being fans. McLuhan predicted that an era of ‘electronic interdependence’ would come to pass in which people of the world would move from individualism and fragmentation of identities to collective identities. McLuhan calls this the creation of a tribal base.
He says that unless we are aware of the nature of this beast, it is highly likely that we, collectively, or as part of our new affiliation, will fall prey to the inherent tribalism that is an outcome of electronic interdependence. His great fear was that as with tribal life, there would be a tendency towards a “phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence”.
(McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy:The Making of Typographic Man). We have seen this in the past with the global panic on the SARS virus spread by the internet; or the panic caused by the Boston bombings that led to an innocent man being identified by a bunch of netizens who took it upon themselves to play anti-terror cop. We have also seen the coming together of the ‘tribe’ in the way the Obama campaign was mobilised online, or indeed the way the faithful are rallying behind Narendra Modi (and the BJP) and Rahul Gandhi (and the Congress).
We are seeing the drawbridges go up, the faithful huddling together and excluding everyone else. We are seeing every message being amplified by one side, and every little gaffe being augmented by the other. And, while it is greatly entertaining as a bystander, it also reveals the manner in which the tribes are forming, and keeping the faithful together.
But panic terror and tribal drums foretelling war are not the only aspect of tribal behaviour. There is another which we often overlook. That is coming together to solve problems, working together for a greater good, supporting each other through good times and bad. Helping others put up their houses, or help them with harvest or the hunt.
This part of ‘tribal’ is also enabled by the new digital age. We see support groups for parents with children with rare ailments; there are people who get together to put up shelters for homeless or for working with deprived kids; there are groups for aged singles and more. Tribes work for good, too.
Of late, the digital media has become a convenient whipping boy for all the ills in the world. From riots to sexual harassment; from bullying to breakdown of marriage, it is all the fault of the share button of social networking. But technology is neither good nor bad. It is the way we choose to use technology to create our little ghettos or exploit it to encompass the world, with the belief that there is so much to learn and so much to share that interacting with others, who are different, will only benefit us.
Throughout history both sets have existed those who took pride in their ‘purity’ and their isolation, and others who reached out to beyond their comfort zone. Unfortunately, most of those who chose to remain isolated have been forgotten. Those who chose to reach out have left behind a legacy.
The author is head, digital content, Zee Media Group.