BLOGGING: CAN ICTs REALLY MAKE FREE SPEECH A REALITY IN INDIA?
By Frederick Noronha firstname.lastname@example.org
Top advertising gurus do it. So do students, voicing their words of love. The word 'blog' has yet to be translated into any Indian language, but these unusual tools for communication can be at the centre of a major row nationwide, as the recent IIPM incident  only shows.
Yet, India-related blogs are largely invisible and go un-appreciated. Few talk about them, and there's little hype, probably because little commercial potential is seen in this form of IT-based communication.
Blogs come in differing forms and orientations -- political, personal, cultural, topical, business-oriented, science, moblog (or, mobile blog), collaborative, eclectic, educational, directory-oriented, a forum-type of blog, or ones just made up of spam!
As the Wikipedia  explains: "A blog has certain attributes that distinguish it from a standard web page. It allows for easy creation of new pages: new data is entered into a simple form (usually with the title, the category, and the body of the article) and then submitted. Automated templates take care of adding the article to the home page, creating the new full article page (Permalink), and adding the article to the appropriate date- or category-based archive."
In a country where we are great at simply mastering the technology -- rather than applying it efficiently to our own needs -- we're probably missing the point here too. Blogs have the capability to empower the citizen, simply because entry barriers are so low, and it's easy to express oneself on them.
Of course, one piece in the jigsaw is to get blogs working in Indian languages. Once can come across a handful of blogs written in Indian languages using the Devanagari script (Marathi, Hindi, etc) and maybe larger languages like Tamil. But a lot more needs to be done on this front.
To cite the importance and relevance of blogging, we can look to a case that made it to the headlines. Only very recently. In the IIPM blog war, as it has been called, a prominent media-savvy management chain was seriously upset by the scribblings in cyberspace of one blogger.
What makes blogs so unpredictable, readable, and influential?
This is what the mainstream media's Hindustan Times recently commented: "That blogs would one day become an alternative media was never doubtful. That blogs would one day truly liberate the media and become democratic in the right sense of the word was also never doubtful. What was doubtful was that so called "intellectuals" in traditional media react the way they did to new media. What was perhaps worse was that a leading educational institute sue two bloggers for airing their views on their blog." 
While we can crow about how influential blogs have shown themselves to be, fact is that India is hardly a nation of bloggers. For a country of a thousand million, we have just a minuscule number of blogs. Or is it that they're still mostly invisible?
A friend from Egypt, who has effectively used blogs to jostle for democracy in his part of the world, says their country has "only 500" bloggers. That, he feels, is a small number for a country which has one-fifteenth of India's size..
Of course, there are no directories or comprehensive listings of blogs. Like in the case of mailing lists, it's difficult to discover a good blog, unless someone emails or speaks to you about it. And, the mainstream press sees to hardly be willing to acknowledge the power of the blogging world. Unless, of course, there's a crisis!
In January 2006, Indibloggies -- -- http://indibloggies.org/results-2005 announced the results of its competition for the best 'desi' blogs.
It announced, sounding breathless: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the wait is over. The hectic final voting spell spread over a week that also saw a re-poll for the Best Designed Indiblog category -- an unprecedented event in the history of the Indibloggies - is finally over and we are all set to declare the results."
Some 1278 people registered for the poll but only 892 actually cast their vote. It called "India Uncut" the IndiBlog of the year, saying: "India Uncut is the Best Indiblog at the Indibloggies 2005. Amit Varma, author of India Uncut and a Mumbai-based journalist is a maverick of quick posts and anything that starts with a "C", cows and cricket for instance. He not only bagged 25% of the votes cast for the category but also has the distinction to bag 225 votes, the highest number of votes bagged by any blog/site in this competition (yes, we know that voting for this category was mandatory but we are talking statistics here) and emerged a clear winner. Such fun! Amit wins."
Other winners were journalist Sonia Faleiro (best topical IndiBlog), Jabberwock by Delhi-based journo Jai Arjun (best humanities IndiBlog), The Scientific Indian by Selvakumar (best science/technology IndiBlog), Digital Inspiration and Michael Parekh on IT (runners up in this category), DesiPundit (best IndiBlog directory), Mall Road by Shivam Vij Indiblog with the best tagline), Megha (best designed IndiBlog), Meenakshi Agarwal's food blog Hooked on Heat (best new IndiBlog), ShutterBug nu by Nilesh Chaudhary (best photo blog), Sight Screen (group blog, best sports IndiBlog), and Guru Subramaniam aka Lazy Geek (IndiBloggies 2005 lifetime achiever).
There were also awards for DesiPundit (best group blog), Mumbai Blog (best Indic blog, in Hindi). Runners-up in Indian language solutions were Anup Shukla's Fursatiya, Kanndave Nitya (Kannada), Kalesh's World (Malayalam), Marathi Sahitya (Marathi), Disamaji Kahitari (Marathi), Mugamoodi (Tamil), Amazing Telugus (Telugu), among others.
Responding to this contest, someone commented sardonically: "History..."? What history do you go got dude! Its hardly a year. It's hilarious to see the 'Life time achievement award' unless the nominees are worker Bees which has lifespan of one year."
But there are other perspectives on India's blogging achievements and shortcomings.
Neha Viswanathan <email@example.com>, the London-based South Asia editor of the US-based blog-watch centre www.GlobalVoicesOnline.org, believes that blogging in India has both its strengths and weaknesses.
She said in an email interview: "While India-based blogs have been around for some time, the notion of Indian blogosphere by itself is a new one. It's only in recent times -- through the emergence of aggregators and sites like DesiPundit that the Indian Blogosphere is shaping an identity for itself."
Neha Vishwanathan argues that Indian blogs have their less attractive characteristics like "rank-competitiveness", "high level of spite" and its sheer insular nature, by which it disassociates itself from the rest of South Asia. But, Vishwanathan says, "it holds great potential given that more blogs are emerging from smaller cities and languages other than English". Vishwanathan argues that the growth in the number of blogs has been almost viral in this part of the globe -- even if most seem unaware of their presence.
"More people are taking to this medium which offers so much potential for expression. What is also interesting is that it in many ways is bridging the divide between resident Indians and the diaspora. It is encouraging debates that are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media. Issues like gender rights, cultural minorities, syncreticism, sexuality, volunteering etc. are finding articulation," she adds.
The trend of group-blogs or colla-blogging is also growing, which implies that there is a shift towards topical blogs, in Vishwanathan's view.
"There's also the trend of small communities and frequent blogmeets. Business houses are adopting the medium of blogs, and the recently launched CNN-IBN also has blogs by journalists and quite an open policy about comments. Every time there is a controversy (like IIPM, ToI vs. Pradyuman Maheshwari case etc), more people who generally only surf the Net without visiting blogs, become more acquainted with blogs and become bloggers themselves," she adds.
She sees Indian blogs as being "very visible, and very active". But still, in Vishwanathan's view, these new tools of the cyber-age "need to focus on truly representing the cultural and intellectual diversity of India".
Her reference to the ToI vs. Pradyuman Maheshwari case was an instance where one of the closely-watched media-related blogs run by a long-time journalist was shut down, following complaints from the scribe (Maheshwari) that he had been pressurised to do so by one of the most influential papers in the country, following persistent critical reports against it.
It can be tough to reach at the numbers.
http://indianbloggers.blogspot.com/ is a listing of Indian bloggers worldwide. Its 'owner' comments: "When I started blogging I could not find too many Indian bloggers. I started this list to keep track of the growing number of Indian bloggers worldwide. And boy, are they growing! I am not taking in any new submissions as of now....."
Another directory -- http://india.blogstreet.com -- listed some 2195 blogs, and ranked the "top blogs" going by how many other blogs had linked to them.
Impressive though all this might seem, there's still a lot more road to be covered. Currently, blogging seems largely restricted to Mumbai, Chennai and expats in the US! This may seem like a unrealistic generalisation; but this is true of many of the early blogs.
Bloggers seem to be working in isolated islands, rather than building synergies with more traditional media. This probably results in bloggers 'talking to themselves'. Journalists, or a section of them, have taken to blogging; but are they largely attempting to impose their traditional forms of writing onto the blogsphere, or adapt to it? With many different newspapers and websites starting their own blogging platforms, India could well be fragmenting its bloggers. Compare this to the situation elsewhere, where the big three or four players have consolidated bloggers in their stable.
Then, one might ask if the wide range of issues that deserve attention are actually being discussed in Indian blogs. For once, here's a form of the media which actually empowers. But is it being adequately deployed? Are students being encouraged to check out the power of blogs?
In a region where hierarchy and exclusion still matters, blogging is unlikely to make the headway it badly needs, unless it becomes a really inclusive movement. Is the technology community up to the task, and willing to make it happen?
 http://w3t.org/?u=ipx  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog  http://w3t.org/?u=ipz
Some interesting blogs:
E M E R G I C . o r g: Rajesh Jain's Weblog on Emerging Technologies, Enterprises and Markets http://www.emergic.org/
Sadagopan's weblog on Emerging Technologies,Thoughts, Ideas,Trends and Cyberworld http://123suds.blogspot.com/
Conversations with Dina http://radio.weblogs.com/0121664/
---------- ABOUT THE WRITER: Frederick Noronha, or simply FN, is a Goa-based independent journalist, who has written for many publications across India, before opting for the online media. A non-techie, life-member of the CSI, he specialises on writing on Free/Libre and Open Source Software in Asia, and is an active member of the Indian FLOSS community. His writings appear on the Linux Journal (US) website, in Linux For You, Tectonic (South Africa), and he has undertaken blogging assignments for the Asia Source and Africa Source camps (2005-06). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org