Twitter’s unknown celebrities

India is obsessed with Bollywood, politics and cricket on twitter—that’s old news. But there’s a growing tribe of everyday people who are becoming the opinion-maker of our times on social media


Sabbah Haji (right) often tweets about the Haji Public School in the Jammu region, where she is the director-cum-teacher. Photo courtesy: Haji Public School, JAMMU
Sabbah Haji (right) often tweets about the Haji Public School in the Jammu region, where she is the director-cum-teacher. Photo courtesy: Haji Public School, JAMMU

Just a year after Sabbah Haji joined Twitter in 2009, there were widespread protests in Kashmir following the death of an 11-year-old boy in police firing in Anantnag. Haji, who had been using her account, @imsabbah, for light banter on current affairs, and to participate in real-time quizzes on @kweezzz, now turned her Twitter handle into an amplifier of ground reports.

A resident of Doda in Jammu, Haji was too far away to record anything first-hand. But she was close enough to receive updates from friends, family and local reporters who were sharing news of the protests, including photos, on mobile phones and, intermittently, on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Most of the people posting, however, didn’t have the kind of reach or language skills that Haji possessed. Born and brought up in Dubai, she had studied and worked in Bengaluru before shifting to her father’s village.

Haji had access to real-time information about what was happening, and was convinced that reports in the national media were not providing an accurate picture. She started cleaning up some of the ground reports; often just correcting the grammar before retweeting text, sometimes simply forwarding a photo without any text to her own followers on the microblogging site.

On Twitter today, Haji is many things. She’s a Kashmiri with strong opinions about how the state is depicted, including in popular culture: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, she thought, was over-the-top in terms of the violence and ornamentation, and “inauthentic”. She’s an “out-there” Muslim who is happy to engage with anyone in a civil dialogue about her faith. She is director-cum-teacher at the Haji Public School run by her family trust in the remote Breswana village, and has tweeted asking for books, laptops, MP3 players, even volunteers, for the school. Strangers and friends on Twitter have contributed some 1,500 titles to the school library, four laptops, a couple of projectors and at least 20 MP3 players (these are still coming in), Haji says.

Sabbah Haji at the Haji Public Schol in Breswana, Jammu. Photo: Nitin Kanotra/HT
Up in the hills, Haji finds Twitter convenient. It’s a light app on her phone; plus, she says, she can upload GIF-format photos using her mobile device even from Breswana, where power supply is patchy and Internet connectivity still more dodgy.

Haji is also a Twitter celebrity with 101,000-plus tweets that include conversations around the school, cricket, movies, Kashmir, her politics, pets, and sometimes, inane everyday things like eating nachos in bed till you feel a bit ill. Haji’s 21,500 following is in roughly the same range as Rishi Jaitly, market director for Twitter in India and South-East Asia, who has 26,900 followers.

“A Twitter celebrity is a person who has a lot of followers, and who posts very frequently. Especially around a big event, like state elections or the fashion week or the IPL (Indian Premier League cricket tournament), people look forward to their posts,” says Nishith Sharma, co-founder of social media analytics firm Frrole.

To be sure, celebrities, especially actors, politicians and cricketers, are great for business for Twitter—in India and elsewhere in the world. No matter what revolutions it may or may not spark or aid, Twitter’s popularity charts are as predictable as prime-time TV: Amitabh Bachchan is the most popular tweeter in India with 14.2 million followers; worldwide, singer Katy Perry tops the chart with 68 million.

Jaitly says the microblogging site has seen a 600% increase in the volume of conversation around politics in India in the last two years (courtesy politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has 11.6 million followers). Events like cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement, actor Rajinikanth starting an account in 2013, and the 2014 general election, proved to be great for the site, Jaitly adds—fans couldn’t resist following their superstars online. In the midst of such big-bang events and super-celebs, how do people with more ordinary lives fare on Twitter?

We explored a small set of regular users who are airing views, sending out photos, and Periscoping (live streaming) videos to great effect. These are people whose Twitter personalities have made them minor celebrities; amassing a following of tens, even hundreds, of thousands, they have become opinion-makers on the site.

We checked back with Twitter for who the top Indian “Twitter celebrities” are. The team at Twitter India used software by social analytics company Topsy Labs to identify people whose tweets generate the greatest “impression” on the platform in the form of comments, retweets and likes—in other words, people who are continually able to start meaningful and engaging conversations on the medium. Twitter India responded with a list of the top 20 accounts. @imsabbah is one of them.

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Few things spark a conversation quite like the movies—even bad movies. We saw this with blogs like The Vigil Idiot, an intelligent breakdown of everything terrible that the Hindi film industry had to offer. On Twitter, Karan Talwar took on the mantle to rant against all things horrid in Hindi cinema at @BollywoodGandu. Talwar’s account now has more than 360,000 followers, including actor Sonam Kapoor, whom he poked fun at early on.

“I started tweeting because the rubbish they (the Hindi film industry) were putting out bothered me. When people like Sonam Kapoor started following me, I realized they could take a joke,” says Talwar, a stand-up comic.

Abhishek Asthana. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Bollywood was also the inspiration for @GabbbarSingh, which started as a parody account in 2010. Creator Abhishek Asthana was writing a blog entry devising a scene where the villain Gabbar Singh from Sholay threatens to follow Basanti on Twitter. Asthana meant to chuck the account once the blog was done, but it took on a life of its own as hundreds of people followed it on Day 1. Asthana continued tweeting in character for two-three months, till he got a bit bored.

Tongue-in-cheek, topical comments have made up most of Asthana’s 124,000 tweets so far. Asthana has found that people appreciate his one-liners—so much so that he says brands like Nestlé, Cadbury and Coca-Cola last year paid him, in cash or kind, to plug their products or share links to their TV commercials. “I did some 30 campaigns last year. Ninety per cent of the time, I don’t have to endorse it (brand or product); they send me the TV ad or content and I share the link,” says Asthana, a marketing manager for mobile recharge start-up FreeCharge, which was recently acquired by e-commerce website Snapdeal in multi-million dollar deal.

Like @BollywoodGandu, people tune in to @GabbbarSingh for their tweet-sized humour fix. Recently, Asthana conceptualized a list on his Twitter of what celebrities like Salman Khan might have done if they had discovered the CCTV camera pointing into the trial room at a Goa outlet of Fabindia instead of Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani. In the man-walks-into-a-bar format, he wrote:

“Salman Khan walks into the trial room, tries few shirts, walks out, gets the camera footage from the manager. Releases it, earns 500 crores.”

“Deepak Chourasiya walks into the trial room, nothing fits. Chks camera & shouts ‘Cameraman Fabindia ke saath mai Deepak Chourasiya, Aaj Tak’”.

“Sunny Leone walks into the trial room, notices camera, changes clothes, then waits for a Director to shout ‘CUT’.”

A funnyman on Twitter, Asthana is not too worried about offending people with his remarks. Laugh and forget—the sheer volume of tweets quickly buries what has gone before. Hashtags make comments searchable, even in regional Devanagari-based scripts since February, but public memory is short and he can take some liberties, and heat, for a hoot.

“If you goof up, people cuss at you for a day. But then they forget and come back again (to read your tweets),” says Asthana.

Asthana also bends his humour to talk about serious issues like Net neutrality, to garner support for a free Internet where telecommunications companies can’t selectively put websites in the fast lane for a fee or to curry favour, and targeted online marketing that can get annoying. “I looked up a mattress on Snapdeal, now that mattress is following me everywhr, Facebook/Google/Any fkin website CALM THE FUCK DWN MATTRESS,” Asthana wrote on @GabbbarSingh in early April. It’s funny, and at once personal and general enough to strike a chord. All reasons why 241,000 people follow him.

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Social media watchers agree that people who attain celebrity status on Twitter often have specialization or keen insight into a subject. “Twitter is a content network, not a social network like Facebook. I don’t go to Twitter to talk to my friends; I go there to learn, and talk, about issues that interest me. Twitter celebrities have some expertise in the field they write about, like Nitin Sundar (@knittins) on cricket,” says Sharma of Frrole.

Take Krish Ashok, for example. A Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) employee, avid blogger-tweeter-SoundClouder, all-round “continuous partial attention guy” and Twitter celebrity with more than 30,200 followers, @krishashok has built his following on the back of his mashups of popular Western songs with Carnatic-inspired tunes.

“There was a surge in following (on my account) when we set an Arnab Goswami-Subramanian Swamy debate to Hans Zimmer’s Time,” says Ashok. His adaptation of Eric Clapton’s LaylaLeela—also had Sanskrit lyrics.

Krish Ashok. Photo: Nathan G/Mint
For Chennai-based Ashok, joining Twitter was a natural progression from writing his hilarious blog, Doing Jalsa & Showing Jilpa, started in 2000. “A whole lot of the Chennai blogging crowd came on to Twitter (around 2007),” he says.

Aditya Gupta, co-founder of social media knowledge portal Socialsamosa.com, says a person’s offline credentials add to their credibility online—in other words, it’s not lost on his followers that Ashok has a great job with TCS as head of social media and workplace reimagination practice. @BollywoodGandu’s Talwar seconds that: His job as a stand-up comic reinforces his reputation as someone who can write a good joke, and his Twitter account gives audiences a sampler of the wit they might see at work in a live show.

For his part, Ashok tweets because he’s drawn to the idea of becoming a “Renaissance man”, someone who, in these times, works at a blue-chip technology company, composes blogs, tweets a lot, hangs out with friends and his two-year-old, is in a band (Parodesy Noise), and plays the violin, cello, guitar and keyboard. “I collect instruments whenever I travel and then learn to play them (from YouTube videos),” he says.

Ashok’s lifestyle is a glimpse of what the tech-abled “Renaissance man’s” days may look like: He has a system of content consumption—news, podcasts and audiobooks played at three times the normal speed on work commutes; tweeting his thoughts on the day’s events and news as and when they happen (he says tweeting is such a habit now that he doesn’t have to think about it any more); and meeting friends in the evenings and on weekends to make his famous remixes.

*****

Whatever your interests, there is likely to be a Twitter account devoted to it somewhere in the world. The variety, as well as brevity, can be a compelling reason for some users to curate their own experience of the site. Social Samosa’s Gupta says a lot of people use Twitter just to consume information, whether it’s public policy or watching an Instagram video of Salman Khan feeding langurs (@BeingSalmanKhan).

Think tank Takshashila Institution’s founder Nitin Pai, who tweets on foreign affairs and public policy at @acorn, is one of the top 20 Twitter celebrities in India. “You as a tweeter are looking for an audience, but that audience is also looking for you,” he says. Sometimes, this give-and-take can even change a person. One of Pai’s most meaningful takeaways from a series of Twitter conversations is that he has now altered his view on the death penalty. “Until five years ago, I used to think the death penalty had a deterring effect, but some people I interact with on Twitter have convinced me that there is no place for the death penalty in civilized society,” says Pai.

Karan Talwar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Twitter has also become a slate for on-the-ground reports since at least the 2009 presidential contest in Iran between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. From a platform simply for posting status updates (and an unofficial time sink), it became a pin-up board for information, meaningful interaction and activism.

In late March-early April, Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj used Twitter to communicate what the government was doing to evacuate Indians from war-torn Yemen. In the midst of providing details of the evacuation, she took time to acknowledge pleas of help from people like Sabah Shawesh, who was stuck in Sanaa. “Hugging my baby & closing his ears is how I sleep every night under heavy bombings in Sanaa Cant hope for anything than reaching India safe!” Shawesh wrote on @SabahShawesh on 2 April. After engaging with Shawesh on the public forum, Swaraj was able to say on 5 April: “Welcome home baby and @SabahShawesh”.

Pai followed the developments in Yemen closely. He even retweeted some of Swaraj’s updates. It was, in fact, to have interactions around foreign affairs that Pai had joined the microblogging site in April 2007. He has an even-keeled response to whether Twitter has the power to effect real change.

Some issues like gender-based discrimination, he says, are getting traction. When tweeter Angellica Aribam posted photographs of some men on board an IndiGo flight to Imphal who she said had photographed an air hostess on the sly and ogled at her sister feeding her infant on 23 March, 2,000 people, including Pai, shared the tweet. It was also picked up by mainstream media to highlight the issue of harassment.

In some other instances, tweeting and blogging have failed to move the needle by themselves.

When Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was introduced in 2008, the Twitterati and blogosphere raged against it. Till late last month, when it was struck down by the Supreme Court, the section made it possible to send someone to jail for writing “grossly offensive” or deliberately annoying tweets, Facebook updates, emails or messages on any electronic service. It was cited in arrests like that of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was booked for forwarding a cartoon of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on email in 2012. Pai spoke up against the section several times on Twitter in the six-odd years it was in force. But it wasn’t enough. In the end, it took a public interest litigation and court order to quash Section 66A.

“You can’t think social media activism will carry the day or that I’ve posted something and change will happen tomorrow morning,” Pai says. He adds that we need social media to generate awareness, and public interest litigation and right to information filings to follow up and see the process through to the end. It’s beyond the pale of most slacktivists or armchair activists on social media today, Pai says.

Slacktivism means people can align themselves with a point of view by simply liking or retweeting a comment. Often, these people have nothing at stake in a protest or debate online. And they seldom want to learn anything from a conversation, says Pai. More often than not, he adds, they want to broadcast their opinion and leave.

Pai says that as more people join the network, it’s becoming harder to have meaningful conversations on Twitter. A random or aggressive comment can derail an intelligent exchange, he says. For him, few public exchanges on Twitter promise the kind of engagement that got him to change his mind on the death penalty five years ago.

Twitter is still a great way for him to meet interesting people, but he finds that intelligent conversations often move to direct messaging on Twitter or private group conversations more quickly now.

“Even the sensible comment will attract trolls. The bigger and broader someone’s following, the more likely it is,” says Gupta. “Already, people are becoming conscious. Because you never know what gets picked up on Twitter or what it gets turned into.”

Haji has a simple rule of thumb on how to deal with trolls—and she has had her fair share of them, most recently when she criticized the January attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s staff in a tweet. She says that if someone has a genuine question or differs on something, she’s happy to talk to them. She draws the line at foul language and vitriol. At that point, she disengages—something that’s much easier to do on Twitter than in real life.

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