Saturday, January 26, 2008

The World of Global Conversations

A decade or two ago, the only mechanism that an ordinary man or woman to talk was to gossip in the neighborhood pub, coffee shop or chai shop and hope that the conversation would be carried away beyond the walls of the coffee tables. There was little other opportunity to be heard unless one was a celebrity or a public figure or a writer or journalist with a sizable brand recall and readership.

Today that is no longer the case and it is a privilege for ordinary people to set up blogs and write material that has potentially a global audience. Whether the audience is big or small, it is by no means a negligible number. More importantly, the audience is more than the gaggle gathering around your lunch table; people who read and listen, can and do span the globe.

So, can amateur writers and thinkers shape opinions or are they too insignificant in the overall scheme of things? The indications are however that while there is a free and vibrant mainstream press, other voices may get drowned out but in its absence these voices assume significance. Say, for instance China, where Wei Wenhua, a 41-year-old construction company executive became recently the first citizen journalist to be killed in China because of his activity.

To study the contrast, look at Myanmar. "No one used the Internet to tell the story of 1988 Myanmarese uprising while it was happening. Ordinary Myanmarese didn’t have camera-equipped cell phones or handheld video cameras with which to record the violent crackdown that put a generation of student protesters in jail. The story was vastly different in 2007. Despite the fact that junta that runs Myanmar tightly controls Internet access, computer savvy exiles and activists are exploiting inherent weaknesses in those controls to get the word--and the pictures--out to the world"

But the global conversation is not all about politics and global statesmanship; it can be about carrying out meaningful conversations with people in a manner that would have never been possible a decade ago. Facebook for instance has an application called iThink where people express their opinions on any subject under the skin- these can be serious and have some gravitas attached like “Stalin was a worse killer than Hitler” or shallower ones like “Pepsi tastes better than Coke”

These innocuous opinions may look and appear inane but often many people find this application addictive. Opinions are expressed of course on the many thoughts that are expressed on this platform but space is provided for people to comment on why they agree or disagree with a particular opinion and often offer a perspective on why they hold the opinions they do. The fact that not a lengthy article in ‘The Guardian’ or ‘The New York Times’ or even a blog but a one line opinion attracts votes and opinions is indicative of the fact that people are hungry to extend the boundaries of their normal social rainbow and interact with if not meet with too, people from different countries and cultures.

A lot has been said about the dangers of cyber friendships and the stalking and the harassment that is possible and often happens. But it is nevertheless possible to form friendships with some level of depth on line and as opportunity allows, to perhaps cementing them off line. Global conversations carried out informally and with some level of internationality can provide us the opportunity to be part of conversations that span the globe and clear cobwebs about racial, religious and ethnic stereotypes. And in times like the one in which we live, if engaging in a border less conversation helps us to shake off some of the unease that we feel about others, it can only be to the good.

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