Archive for September, 2011

The sound of wringing hands

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Mint, 28 September 2011

You must have already heard the joke. Our Prime Minister. Dr Manmohan Singh, goes to a dentist and sits down on the padded reclining seat with all those ratchets and levers and waits for the dentist to do his job. Who, after waiting in vain for a few moments, says: “Sir, you are at the dentist’s. You have to open your mouth here.”

The policy paralysis that has affected the Indian government over the last two years is astonishing by any measure. There’s a global economic crisis that is coming to a head like a runaway train in the last ten minutes of a high-budget Hollywood action thriller. It’s a matter of a weeks—in our time—before the destiny of the train and its passengers is decided, without the help of any snazzy computer graphics. The Greek economy is about to collapse, others are teetering on the brink, the euro is stumbling into the valley of death, and all that the keepers of India’s economy have to say concerns decimal points—7.5 or 7.2 or 7.8. The rupee is tumbling against the dollar, making imports –most significantly, of oil—costlier, which will certainly raise prices, and the headlines in the papers—because that’s about all the editors can salvage for a splash on the front page—are about Pranab Mukherjee saying that P. Chidambaram is a valued colleague. That must be reassuring, from Ratan Tata right down to the Maoists in Dandakaranya.

This government is now fully and abjectly dependent, as far as the economy goes, on “the kindness of strangers”, that disturbing phrase from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. OK, let’s have it in full. Blanche Dubois, alcoholic, unstable and doomed, mutters: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” as she is led away by a doctor to the lunatic asylum. The strangers, in this case, would be Indian industry, which is expected to perform some miracle in spite of the government’s numbing apathy and eerie policy silence. And of course, the Indian consumer, who will need to keep buying and consuming, even as his government continues to look like Uriah Heep attempting a Jackson Pollock painting.

All that one can make of the UPA is that it desperately wants to win the next general elections. Which, it has decided, entails announcing massive social sector schemes. Have those schemes worked? No. Forget the endemic corruption—which any fool would have tried to contain aggressively when there’s so much government largesse at stake, you can’t even reach the minimum monthly earnings to a day labourer under the MNREGA scheme in large parts of India, for the simple reason that the roads to and from his village exist only on paper. And we have our mandarins debating 7.5 and 7.8? Give me a break. Our basic infrastructure is still in shambles, our power sector remains essentially a hungry parasite on our honest incomes, 40 per cent of our food still rots on the way to market—and these facts have been mentioned and reported endlessly and not changed a whit in the last 20 years. But a clueless paralysis cannot know shame.

As the global economy enters a cliffhanger stage, our government can’t even produce a quotable quote. What it surely realizes is that it will not be able to meet its fiscal deficit targets (which will only stoke inflation), that it will not be able to raise Rs. 40,000 crore through disinvestment in this financial year, that it does not have the money to spend what is needed in the infrastructure sector, and that its strategy to get prices down will get nowhere. Caught in a vortex of infighting and insubordination, a Mr Bean-ish blundering around corruption scandals, an utter confusion between the way forward and the path back to long-discredited socialism, all that this government has been giving us is hand-wringing silence. The sound of two hands wringing—that’s not even funny Zen.

A matter of narbs

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Mint, 30 September 2011

How many people do you know who coined a new word? Well, I know one: Ananda Mitra, old friend and professor of communication at Wake Forest University in the US, who did so in an article in The Global Media Journal in April last year. Since then, it has emerged from the rarefied atmosphere of academic papers and conferences to get enough traction in mainstream lingo for wordspy.com (which describes itself as “the word lover’s guide to new words”) to honour it as “word of the day” on September 27.

The word is “narb”, short for “narrative bit”, a key concept in understanding social media and using it to further your business interests. Short definition: “An item of personal information posted online, particularly as it contributes, often unwittingly, to a personal narrative that an individual is creating online.”

A narb is anything you post, or is posted about you, on the net—from the personal data that you feed in when joining a social network, to your status updates, the files (text, audio or video) that you upload, your blogs, your tweets, references to you in other people’s posts, blogs or tweets, group or party photos that your friends share on the web, with you tagged in the picture—all the crumbs and morsels and chunks about you that live on in cyberspace, that, taken together, make up your persona in the virtual world. All of them add up to your story, and you don’t have full control at all over the telling of that story.

Of course, you can have different identities on different social networks, even without trying to create one that’s not really you. The data you provide in LinkedIn is different from what you give Facebook, because the purposes of the two networks are different. Your posts and the conversations you engage in on these two networks could also be very different in nature. But taken together, they give a clearer image of you. Also, there are clues you leave behind that you aren’t even aware of. As Mitra points out, the “stories” of someone who posts on a network every hour, and someone who posts once in two months, or only in the dead of night, are different. What is, however, same for everyone is that, in Mitra’s words, “every…digital imprint is indeed a small narrative bit (narb) that tells a tiny story about an individual”.

For a while, nothing happened, other than Mitra being quoted in a newspaper story on social networks, where he spoke about narbs. Then in May this year, a business magazine had Kevin J. Kraft, managing director in Accenture’s Life Insurance Practice in the US, saying that social media is an online place where people tell their stories. “We call them narbs,” he said, “short for narrative bits”, and that insurers can take advantage of this information by setting up what he described as “listening posts”. “People are telling you this information all day,” Kraft elaborated. “In the past, insurers relied on agents to ferret out this information. A high-performing carrier will need to determine which life events they want to plug into, how best to listen in, and connect to the ones that matter for their market strategies.”

And then, Facebook launched its new feature Timeline—which Mark Zuckerberg described as “all the stories, all your apps, a new way to express who you are.” Essentially, Timeline is your entire Facebook life. A day later, Mitra posted—on Facebook: “OK something odd is going on: FB says on 9/22/11 ‘Facebook Timeline tells ‘story of your life’ and my article in Spring 2010 said about social media sites that each status update ‘tells a tiny story about an individual’. Odd is it not?”

Instantly, Mitra’s university got into action. Within 24 hours, many news sites, including several in Europe, had picked up the story: “Social Media Narrative of Facebook Timeline Predicted By Wake Forest University Professor”. “Through narbs, Facebook Timeline makes your weekend check-in at the University’s football stadium with two of your friends more visible and data-rich than ever before,” Mitra told the press. “It says where you are, whose company you keep, that you like sports, that you possibly graduated from that school and suggests that you also might like to eat or drink certain things. It invites targeted advertising and information about consumption behavior directly to your tailgate.” Two days later, it was “word of the day”.

Way to go, Ananda! And that ends my narb on narbs.