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Friday, December 23, 2011

(Published in Sify.com, on 23 December 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/why-followers-is-my-word-of-the-year-news-columns-lmxk5Dfjaeh.html)



As December yawns to a close, there are two things on everyone’s mind – how to be the first to say, “Oh, how fast the year has gone by!” at every random party attended by the same people in the same week; and how to stretch their reflections on the-year-that-has-gone-by-so-fast into a series of philosophical musings that cleanse their souls and showcase their newly-shined minds to the readers of those.
Fortunately, some of us fall ill, or have accidents, family emergencies, or babies hours before those random parties. Even more fortunately, we get paid to impose those megalomaniacal, soulful reflections on the world, and so don’t have to worry about creative ways of sneaking in links to blog posts on emails bearing the season’s greetings and sent out to the world.
My year was as interesting as always – I got paid to whine about a lot of things, to read a lot of books, to watch a lot of movies, and to meet a lot of fun people.
But my vocabulary has been affected by a single word – ‘followers’. Now, political and religious kingpins found followers in political and religious goons. Dead political and religious kingpins found followers in hereditary political and religious goonites.
This year, though, the followers of two particular people who are neither political nor religious kingpins have haunted me.
The first of those non-political-or-religious kingpins is myself. I installed a widget on my blog which allowed people to ‘Follow’ me. Soon, I had over a hundred people who clicked a button, and that made me feel important. If I managed to finish writing that book I’d quit several jobs to write, these people would probably want to buy it. If I didn’t, these people would make me feel I had achieved something. Anyway, I found out that most of them would post comments inviting me to follow their blogs in return for their clicking that button. I considered removing the widget, but felt too conceited to do so.
And then, my ‘Followers’ found a new medium. I got on Twitter in the course of a Gmail chat session with a friend who had been offered more freelance writing assignments after impressing editors with 140-character rants on Twitter. I learnt from some interview with Amitabh Bachchan that words like “hashtag” existed, and you could increase your readership by using them. He also said something about “trending”, but I have no clue what that is.
I read some blog post about an Idiot’s Guide to Tweeting. It went on about how else one could increase one’s followers. Apparently, you annoy celebrities, or you chat them up, and then you shove your Twitter posts into your blog, Facebook and LinkedIn.
My only interaction with a celebrity was to make a wisecrack, which he retweeted, doubling the number of my followers in the process. Within a week, they disappeared, along with some of my earlier followers. Several more – especially old classmates and colleagues – disappeared when they realised I wasn’t following them back.
I didn’t figure out how to put Twitter on Facebook or LinkedIn, and since my Facebook is already crawling with Twitpics of friends’ babies, I’m not planning to try.
In the context of the paltry number of my followers, this other non-political-or-religious kingpin and his effect on people presented an interesting case. To compare myself to him would be considered blasphemy, especially since I have never fasted, worn a white cap or protested against corruption. So I won’t. But it was Anna Hazare who gave yet another dimension to my understanding of ‘followers’.
I happened to be in Delhi towards the end of March this year, when he had about ten times as many followers as my blog sitting with him in Jantar Mantar.
When I got back home, several people asked me, “You were in Delhi, and you didn’t take a picture with Anna Hazare before leaving for Madras?! I mean, it’s India’s Tahrir Square!”
It was uttered in the same tone of incredulity as the question I heard several times over the previous five years – “You lived in London, and you don’t have a picture with your arm around Hitler and your legs around Gregory Peck?! I mean, how could you not go to Madame Tussauds?”
Truth is, even if I could have foreseen that the movement would snowball into the ‘Annarchy’ everyone delighted in punning on, I would not have taken that photograph. It was all getting too hyped, like Casablanca and The Fountainhead.
But what was it that caused this hype? Did people understand what he and his A-Team were fighting to bring in? Did people want to force V S Naipaul or Amartya Sen or Venkatraman Ramakrishnan to become the Lokpal? Did they simply want to express their anger at the government? Or did they want to be followers of someone they considered a leader they had elected?
Over the last year, the anti-corruption team has found itself in several hotspots, with Bedi’s flight expenses, the Bhushans’ land deals, Arvind Kejriwal’s dues to the government, and Hazare’s birthday celebrations from years ago and his ‘just one slap’ comment becoming the focal points of media attention at various junctures.
Through all this, though, there are those who cry out ‘I am Anna’, sport the right caps and receive him wherever he goes. The government has been held to ransom several times, and if the arrest drama was anything to go by, it’s dug its own booby traps several more times. And yet, its main players have approached Anna Hazare with folded hands, as if they were receiving a distant God with strange customs.
While I was mulling over this concept of ‘Followers’, I happened to watch the Nanni Moretti film Habemus Papam. One of the lines in the film goes, “There are some people who lead, and some who follow. I am not one of those people who can lead; I must be led”.
But, secretly, perhaps, everyone wants to lead. That’s why we put ourselves out on various platforms, and that’s why we ‘Follow’ people – in the hope that they will ‘Follow’ us in return and we can spend the rest of our lives chasing each other’s tails.
And as we run around in circles, we perhaps search for a bigger creature to run those circles around, and we find someone whose attributes may render him or her flawless. And when the flaw creeps out, we get angry, curse, rage at the con, and find a new voice to follow – if not in real life, on a social network.

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