By Utpal Borpujari
“I have bad news folks. Kiran and I lost our baby. Despite our best efforts we were unable to avert a miscarriage. The last two months have been a struggle for us and that is one of the reasons I was absent from the blog in more ways than one. K and I need time to heal. I will be away for a while. Love.” This is what Aamir Khan posted on his blog at 12:27 AM on August 12.
Sharing of such personal grief by one of the topmost film stars with the rest of the world directly was unthinkable till only a few years back. But now, thanks to the tool called Blogging, celebrities have taken to sharing even their very personal thoughts with the rest of the world, more often than not bypassing the media.
In fact, thanks to the increasing use of blogs by more and more top film and sport stars, media now often picks up newsy stuff from their blogs, sometimes creating genuine news items and sometimes sensational and gossipy nuggets – remember Aamir Khan’s “Shah-Rukh-the-dog-licking-my-feet” and Amitabh Bachchan’s critical comments on “Slumdog Millionaire” that gobbled much newsprint and television space?
But it is not just the public figures that are using blogs to connect with people. Millions across the world are using blogs to express their views on anything and everything under the sun. So much so that it is hard to believe that Blogs as a communication tool has just completed its first decade of existence, with the oldest blogging platform, Blogger – a Google property since 2003 – completing its first ten years a few days ago (though actual blogging has started a little before that). But then, ten years is eons by Internet standards, where new developments take place almost every few hours, including that of the Twitter, the micro-blogging site whose zooming popularity has redefined the definition of blogging to such an extent that from US President Barack Obama to our own diplomat-turned minister Shashi Tharoor to Bollywood’s oomph girl Mallika Sherawat all falling prey to its charms in a major way.
Blogging has, in fact, now acquired a much higher profile than just being a “web log” or personal diary on the Internet space. While even now the overwhelming majority of over 133 million blogs worldwide (as estimated in 2008 by leading blog search engine Technorati, which alone tracks more than 100 million of them) are personal thought-sharing space, now it is being used as a tool for as diverse causes as political and business networking, disaster relief, creative pursuits (in a first, the legendary Royal Opera House in London has decided to stage an Opera that will be created by Twitter users by working on a basic premise given by it and contributing their creativity through the 140-word-limit Twitter posts) and even journalism. To give an example of the increasing influence of Blogs in all spheres of life, it was because of evidence dug out by bloggers that the CBS network in the US had to apologise after it was found that journalist Dan Rather had presented forged documents questioning the then President George W Bush’s military service record.
The concept of blogging started when Bruce Ableson launched Open Diary in October, 1998, though the term “blog” was first used by Peter Marholz in his personal website in 1999. Open Diary also introduced the facility to allow readers to post their comments, heralding blog interactivity at the very initial stage itself. But blogging really took off when Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan of Pyra Labs launched blogger.com in August, 1999. Blogger.com, incidentally, is the largest blogging platform now, with 267 million unique visitors reading blogs hosted on it every month, as against closest competitor WordPress.com’s 143 million worldwide.
In India too, blogging has found increasing number of users. The reason, it seems, is due to the connectivity it allows with people. Explains Dale Bhagwagar, who has done PR for some of the biggest Bollywood stars including that of Hrithik Roshan and Priyanka Chopra and who maintains five blogs himself (see interview), “Networking is a daily commitment in today’s world, and blogs are one of the best tools to achieve this. There are two big advantages of blogging. One, you have the complete freedom to put up whatever you wish. Two, you have the complete freedom to put it up whenever you wish. There are no imposed deadlines or content restrictions. Blogs are the true embodiment of freedom of expression.” This freedom of expression, despite the numerous legal cases many bloggers are facing worldwide for various reasons ranging from political to libellous, is what drives people to go for blogging.
Author Justine Hardy says Blogging is specially useful particularly for those who are isolated by location or who have physical limitations. “It offers an extraordinary highway of inclusivity into the mainstream for all.” But then, as she point out, the whole information overload and blogosphere also misses out the “very vital” editing process. “And by this I do not just mean the formal editing, but actually our own ability to marshal and edit our thoughts before throwing them out there at the world, quite often in a fairly crude and solipsistic form,” she says. Hardy, who has written a book on Bollywood, also gives an interesting explanation to celebrity blogging. “The personal space to vent does feed into an aspect of the celebrity culture. There is a particular kind of fame that seems to need feeding, constantly. It needs continuous acknowledgement and response, and the blogosphere offers this to the celebrity blogger of Twitterer. As we are in the first generation of this technology some evolution will no doubt polish the medium and hone it, but it looks like there is going to be a pretty scary overload before the evolution really kicks in.”
IIM alumni and author Mainak Dhar, who maintains his own blogs, also has recognized what he calls the “key motivator” behind blogging. “For anyone in the creative field, the key motivator is the opportunity to connect with readers and viewers and to reach as many people as possible. Similarly readers or viewers are always keen to get to know the person beyond the persona. Blogging needs to be seen as yet another manifestation of this made possible by technology,” says the young management consultant, who began blogging during a hiatus between books to keep “my creative juices flowing and keep my writing sharp”.
But then, not everybody is taken in by this addiction. Renowned author Githa Hariharan is one. “My life is very full with reading and writing as it is, and as for communicating with people I know, I am happy to do it face to face or on the telephone. Happily, I don’t feel the need to tell people who don’t know me what is happening in my life or what I think about everything under the sun every single day!” she says.
The good, the bad and the ugly of blogging
It is quite common to hear about how the authorities occasionally clamp down on Blogs in countries like China, Pakistan and Myanmar whenever there is some political unrest. With the capacity to reach millions instantly, blogging has emerged as a powerful campaign tool all over the world, for causes as varied as politics and environment.
India too has already had its brush with at least one attempt to crack down on blogging, when the government sought to block some blogs in July 2006, after the train bomb blasts in Mumbai, apparently to curtail hate mongering. While the government apparently directed the ISPs to block around 17 websites, it led to blocking of whole platforms like Blogspot, leading to a hue and cry. Among the sites blocked were, quite funnily, a blog called princesskimberley.blogspot.com which had been started by an apparently depressed American woman who had even stopped blogging after a couple of initial posts!
According to a July 2003 notification, the government can ban websites in the interest of “sovereignty or integrity of India / security of the state / friendly relations with foreign states and public order / preventing incitement to commissioning of any cognizable offences”. Sites containing pornography, hate speeches, contempt, slander or defamation, and those promoting gambling, racism, violence or terrorism can be blocked.
While the government never really explained the reason behind the ban, it led to blocking of even blogs like mumbaihelp.blogspot.com, which was set up to help relatives of victims of the blasts. The only thing the government said was that there was no blanket ban on blog platforms, though for quite some time many bloggers could not log onto their personal blogs as over-enthusiastic ISPs seemed to have banned whole platforms instead of particular blogs/websites.
The government’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), set up under the Information Technology Act, 2000, can block a site if any government department approaches it with the request to ensure “balanced” flow of information. CERT-IN had in 2003 approved the blocking of a mailing list of banned Meghalaya militant outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC).
But if Blogs can be potentially misused, it has immense social utility too, as in the case of the blog set up to help the Mumbai train blast victims’ relatives. There are blogs that help bring together blood donors and patients or to fight social evils or medical problems. The role-playing capability of Blogs in a crisis situation got exhibited in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. Within hours of the Tsunami striking a large swathe of the globe, a large numbers blogs were created offering help, coordinating tracing of people gone missing, advising people how to offer relief and how to volunteer in relief work, and so on.
‘Blogging is like meditation’
Bollywood’s leading PR Dale Bhagwagar, who has done media management for stars like Hrithik Roshan, Shilpa Shetty, Priyanka Chopra and Vivek Oberoi, is hooked onto blogging so much that he runs five blogs. Each of his blogs focuses on different aspects of his professional and individual life. Bhagwagar shares his views on Blogging as a mass culture with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari:
What made you go for blogging?
Being a publicist, I believe that networking is a daily commitment, not a monthly ritual. Blogs are one of the best tools to achieve this. There are two big advantages of blogging. One, you have the complete freedom to put up whatever you wish. Two, you have the complete freedom to put it up whenever you wish. Blogs are the true embodiment of freedom of expression.
What has been the experience of blogging so far?
I always thought that celebrities were the ones with fan bases. But blogs have given me many followers. Now there are a lot of journalism and PR students who claim to have become my “fans” simply because they are “bowled over” by my blogs. They have turned me into a celebrity of sorts!
Blogging often makes me look within. Regular writing for a blog is like meditation on the Internet. You feel the same way when you maintain a personal diary. Blogging not only sharpens my creative instincts, it also helps me project myself better, and strengthens my standing for acquiring new and more interesting clients.
How does it feel to be directly interacting with people, not necessarily all of the,m your ‘fans’, through blogging?
At the end of the day, ‘people buy people’. So spending time, interacting, pays dividends. Also, with feedback, which is a great feature in blogs, one gets to know where exactly one stands, whether he is an actor, businessman, industrialist or publicist.
How frequently do you blog? Do you think it is addictive?
When I started blogging, I wrote only when I felt strongly about penning something down. But nowadays, having realised the necessity for continuous updating, at times I do blog just for the sake of keeping the ball rolling.
What do you generally think of blogging as a new-age culture?
Right now, there is a certain pattern and familiarity in the type of posts being updated. But with time, I feel, blogs are going to be used more and more like scrapbooks.
Do you write anything that comes to your mind or just focus on certain subjects on your blog?
I have segregated the topics for my five blogs. The first one is about my PR agency’s activities, targeted at the media. The second one is an education blog, targeted at students of journalism, PR, advertising, marketing and management. The third one is a Q&A blog, targeted at anyone who wishes to ask me questions about media topics. The fourth one is a personal blog, targeted at friends and the extended business circle. The fifth one is a private life blog, specifically for very close friends and family – or others who wish to peep into my private life. This is the only one which has mischief written all over it. It gives an inside picture of my life and times.