Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Indian Political Parties Miss the Convergence Bus

So the election results are out and the Congress and its allies have won. Hearty congratulations to the UPA. While everyone was busy discussing the possible outcome of the elections, I conducted a research on the political parties' websites. Now why would I do that? I am sure most of you (possible net addicts like me) will agree that you just can not ignore the Internet users anymore. A recent article pegged 4 crores as the population of Internet users in India. How can a political party ignore this population of net-savvy individuals who. like me, go to the net for info? 

Agreed that having a website, and a good one at that, may not affect the outcome of the election result, but again, it just may. Otherwise, why did Shri. L. K. Advani have such a comprehensive site and why was it promoted so aggressively? Arguing that BJP lost, why did Shri. Milind Deora, Ms. Priya Dutt and Shri. Sanjay Nirupam have their well made websites too? There are many other good individual websites on the net. But I was surprised that party websites fared rather poor in my study. I was surprised by what I found and quite disappointed by some of the websites I studied.

For those who would like to go through my entire research paper, get it here.

What would make a good political website? I read up a lot of literature and research papers and came to the following conclusions:

A good political website would include all possible features of participation, information, mobilization and networking. It would be technically sound. In India, every website would ideally have a vernacular version of the site for the ‘net savvy' and also newly literate population. Like I said, my results surprised me. I tested the websites for the presence or absence of design, functional and formal features. 

Here are my observations:


Design features:

Though most of the websites studied follow the F shaped design pattern, there are some glaring exceptions. The Indian National Congress, the oldest party that, arguably, has the widest voter base in the country does not follow the ‘F’ shaped design on the home page. A collage of photographs of the top leaders of the party has a lot of white space around it, with the party logo on the extreme right. This space is kept with no apparent reason as it pushes the other content out of the view. The placement of graphics, text as well as coloured tables appears unplanned and unaligned. The website is exhaustive in terms of content. However, in terms of layout and design the website of the party defies standard parameters. The other big party, BJP follows the standard requirement of design and graphics.

AIMIM is perhaps the ideal site in terms of layout and design followed by the BSP and MNS. This is relevant in terms of the equalization theory that suggests that minor and fringe parties are able to compete on equal terms with big parties on the Internet. 

Functional features: 

Participatory : 
The study presents some interesting results. The two biggest political parties, INC and the BJP clearly use their websites as an information tool than as a participatory one. In contrast, websites of smaller parties like SP, AITC, JKN, AIMIM, MDMK, and MNS fare better in participatory features. The BSP, DMK, SAD and AIADMK websites have no contact information. Even a major party website like the BJP does not have a feedback form. Only three parties, LJNSP, MDMK and TRS have an online opinion poll feature. Overall, most of the websites are poor in participatory features. 

Information features: 
Most of the parties are strong on information features. Except AIMIM, none of the websites had any general information about the political system. SS and LJNSP did not even have the party history online. However, most have more information than participatory features. Very few websites had an internal search engine. Most of the parties had photographs and videos, except a few like the CPI which had no photographs and graphics. Only SS and AIMIM had SMS feature. Strong informatory features and poor participatory features clearly indicate a top down approach towards communication. 

Mobilization features: 
MNS is the strongest in terms of mobilization features, followed by the INC and JK. Only INC, LJNSP, JKN, MNS, AIFB and JD(S) had online membership facility. Surprisingly, only AIMIM, MDMK, AIFB and TRS had facility to subscribe to party newsletters and publications. 
Only MNS had an online fund raising feature. As many as eight websites had no mobilization features at all. It is apparent as to how much importance the political parties in India give to the mobilizing power of their websites. 

Integration and Networking features:
TRS ranks the best in networking features whereas the websites of BJP, SS and AITC had no networking features. Only DMK and AGP had links to media organizations and DMK and TRS had links to other organizations giving general information. Clearly, Indian political websites do not entertain the concept of giving information other than that of their own party. Therefore, a user cannot expect any general political information. 

Formal features: 

In a country like India, it is important to have website content in vernacular language. Surprisingly, though having rich graphic content, the BJP website lacks a Hindi version of the website. There are a few features that can be downloaded. However, unlike the INC website, it does not have a separate Hindi version. Even websites of minor parties like the MNS had a link to the Marathi version of the site on the home page. The SS website too does not have a link to the Marathi section, which is surprising considering that the party is known for its policy on ‘Bhoomiputra’ and ‘Marathi Manoos’. In contrast, the MNS and the SP websites have the option to visit either the English or the Marathi section right on the home page. All the websites that had content in vernacular language had taken care to either use a dynamic font or facilitate font download. One note: Since I do not know Telugu, I was unable to find the English version of the TDP website, if there is one. It certainly have such a link in English on the home page. With rapidly growing Internet usage and literacy rates in India, the next media revolution would happen on the Internet.

Other formal features: 
On the CPI website, though there are numerous links, many pages are ‘under construction'. The DMK website had broken links. One of the important aspects in optimizing a website for search engines is well designed meta tags on the home page of the website. Among the major party websites, BJP had an elaborate meta tag code written, INC had none. RJD, BSP, DMK, NCP, TDP and LJNS were the other websites with well designed meta tags. None of the sites had the feature of RSS Feeds. 

The website of AIMIM ranks the highest in terms of number of features available, followed by the INC, MDMK and the MNS websites. 

Almost all the websites have a visual element focusing on the leaders of the party. The front page of most of the parties is leader centric.Probably the most glaring aspect in this study is the lack of vernacular version of the website. Clearly these websites have not targeted the neo-literate population which would prefer reading content in their own language. Very few websites have the new interactive communication tools like blogs, guestbooks, opinion polls, RSS feeds. Some do not even have feedback form or contact details.

Personally I was disappointed by the Congress and Shiv Sena websites. On the Congress website, the graphics and information on the home page was not arranged attractively. The Shiv Sena website was attractive, but very minimal information. Some links(Photo Gallery, Election 2009 and Sppeches) on the home page actually did not work! And me being a Marathi Manoos, I was disappointed not to find a Marathi version of the site. In contrast, both, the BJP and the MNS sites were a sight for sore eyes, with links and features arranged attractively. But the BJP site had no Hindi version. Only some features were available in Hindi. The MNS website has an option to choose Marathi or English version right on the home page, so does the SP website.

Most of the political parties in India have hosted their websites as a brochure employing a top-down communication approach rather than an interactive one. Certainly, websites of Indian political parties are not convergent in nature.

What I would like in a political party website? 
  • Give me more info on what you are contesting the elections for. 
  • OK, OK, so you have given it to me. Now please arrange it properly, so I can notice the links easily. 
  • Give me web (HTML) pages and not pdf documents that I have to download all the time.
  • Give me something more than the portraits and biographies of your leaders.
  • I do think that I am educated, so give me something that does not insult my so called intelligence.
  • Please let me interact easily with your party.
  • Give me opinion polls.
  • Give me feedback forms.
  • Let me be able to complain about my local MLAs/MPs. 
  • Let me be the judge of the work they have done. (Have a look at Mumbai Votes)
  • Maybe I want to donate/contribute to the party funds. Please give me a form.
  • If I want to actively participate in the party activity, let me be able to apply online.
  • I want to see the photo gallery.
  • I want to see the videos.
  • I want links to general information on politics and elections.
  • There are many many more individuals like me on the Internet. Help us participate.
  • And yes, we do vote. The big, ugly mark is still there for anyone to see. But I love it! It is the mark of Swa-rajya.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Is convergence killing journalism as we know it?

The word convergence originates from mathematics and science. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines convergence as the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole. The concept of convergence was first popularised by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his landmark 1983 book, "The Technologies of Freedom,". Pool described what he called "the convergence of modes:"

"The explanation for the current convergence between historically separated modes of communication lies in the ability of digital electronics. Conversation, theater, news and text are all increasingly delivered electronically ... [E]lectronic technology is bringing all modes of communications into one grand system."

The two most important convergent technologies today are the computer and the mobile phones. With increased processor speeds and larger storage spaces, the computer has become the most powerful technologically convergent gadget. Text, voice, pictures, video, fax and the internet are the media that have converged into one technology – the computer. Computers have changed the way media organisations gather information, design the content and produce and distribute it to the audience. The mobile phone offers the second most important technological convergence, offering almost the same benefits as that of a computer, along with the benefit of portability. 

With a mobile phone, a laptop computer, a video camera and a microphone, the age of backpacking journalism has arrived. A single person can, with the help of these convergent technologies gather information, edit it and create the content for all the media channels – newspapers, television, radio and the internet. 

Convergence has also led to 'sharing' of content among the television reporters, where cameras are hooked up and footage shared. This leads to many television channels 'breaking' the same news at the same time.

This multi-tasking functionality is not easy to adopt for the traditional journalist. Moreover, multi-tasking has taken a toll on the quality of news content, in the mad race for ‘breaking news’. This has raised concerns among journalists, researchers and also the audience about the quality of news appearing on the TV channels and also in the print and the internet. With large media organisations in India beginning to diverge and cater to print, television, radio and the internet audiences, the effect of convergent technologies will be more and more evident in the coming years.

The other most important phenomenon is the divergence. With information available at the click of the mouse, today's reader is not satisfied with the newspaper or the news on television or the radio. There are many more information channels availabel to choose from. Websites, news websites, blogs and community sites are all there to get more spicy and sometimes illogical and a lot of times, unauthenticated information. Add sites like YouTube and several similar sites and you also have videos available online. This has led to divergence of news.

So what could be the future of journalism? What are the skill-sets that a journalist should have in this mad race of 'breaking news' to survive and to prosper? The ideal scenario would be this....

Today's journalist ideally should : 

  • Handle and use the video and still camera
  • Think quickly spicy and attention catching headlines on the field 
  • Once the shoot is done, capture the footage on a laptop
  • Be adept at using a word processing, video editing, sound editing software
  • Write the story for newspaper, television, radio and the website.
  • Edit the footage, lay music and sound tracks
  • Encode the footage for the television, online video site and portable devices like the iPod
  • Create an audio file for the radio
  • Email the story to the newspaper
  • Upload the video and the audio files in different formats to the channel server as well as the online video website using FTP or by uplinking to the satellite
  • Move on to the next place to cover more news

And all this in a period of about an hour. This is the kind of multi-tasking that I think journalist will have to adapt to in the future. The media organisations, in turn, will have to develop a system by which the journalist on the ground is fed with proper background research, which can help in writing a story which is thematic and not just episodic. Ideally there should be a bank of researchers with access to archives to constantly monitor and communicate with the journalists on the ground. Only then we will be able to see an inprovement in the quality in news. Convergent technologies will actually be beneficial and the high standards of journalism could be back. And we might actually be able to get a responsible press, the fourth pillar of democracy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Multi-tasking Professional

Only the fittest will survive. So said Charles Darwin. And how true it is in today's world!

With the world going digital, it is important for every professional to learn multiple skills and be able to produce content for multiple media, be it for the print, television, radio, computers or mobile phones. If you work in a corporate house, you should be able to put together a good presentation and also be able to work on a spread sheet. If you are in advertising, you need to understand Photoshop, CorelDraw and Powerpoint to present your work to your clients. As a journalist, you should be able to produce content for all the media. In short, one has to be a multi-skilled individual to survive.

I have been fortunate to have worked with all the media in one capacity or the other. I got introduced to computers in 1991 and immediately got addicted to them. The past 18 years has been an exciting roller-coaster ride for me and my computer(with several upgrades) and I do call myself a multi-tasking individual. I teach at the Department of Communication, University of Mumbai and try to share whatever skills I have learnt over the years, with my students. 

I am going to visualise different scenarios in a variety of professions and talk about the skill-sets required by professionals in today's world and may be the future. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Electronic Media

In 1947, the first transistor was invented by William Shockley and in 1958, Jack Kilby invented the first IC or Integrated Circuit. These are arguably two of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. These two inventions kickstarted the electronic industry and the result is for all to see. Today there is electronics in almost every facet of our life. From the time you are woken up by the electronic beep of your alarm clock to the time you crash out in the bed with the remote in your hand, electronics rules your life. 

In his book 'The Medium is the Massage', Marchall McLuhan argues that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. Meaning the medium itself becomes the message. He also writes about how modern media are extensions of human senses.

It is very important that a student of electronic media should learn the medium itself as well as the message that can be broadcast through the medium.

The Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Mumbai has started a new post-graduate degree - MA in Electronic Media. This is a comprehensive course which will train the students to create content for the television, radio, films and mobile phones. The course will also teach the students how to create content for the internet and also to create interactive CD-ROMs.

MA in Electronic Media is a comprehensive course covering Communication and Media Theory, Global Electronic Medium, Writing, reporting and editing skills, Programming in C, HTML, JavaScript, PHP, Production for Television and the Radio, Content creation for the Internet including web designing and also multimedia production and programming which will include Flash, Director and also an introduction to 3D animation. These topics will be covered in the first three semesters. The fourth semester will be an exciting 'convergence' projects where the students will be required to write and produce content for all the electronic media - television, radio, CD-ROMs, Internet and Mobile phones & iPods.

You can have a look at the curriculum here: