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August 13, 2015

“If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead”

Text by Parmesh Shahani

A visit by a mentor has Parmesh Shahani mulling over digital Indian culture

I am writing this column in the middle of a Bharat-darshan, while travelling to MBA campuses across India, as a part of the Godrej LOUD challenge. LOUD stands for Live Out Ur Dreams (we’re being creative with our spellings!) and this is a recruitment programme through which we encourage college students to tell us all that they’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t do so far because they didn’t have the time or money. We consider their dreams to be their job applications and we reward the best ones not only with a job at Godrej but also with the money to turn their dreams into reality. In previous editions of LOUD, we’ve helped students fly planes, build wells, motorbike across the country and dance on mountaintops wearing The Sound of Music costumes. I can’t wait to see what cool ideas they are going to come up with this year.

This time, we have decided to bring the world’s convergence culture guru Professor Henry Jenkins to India, to give a masterclass at each of these campuses. Henry is the founder of the MIT Comparative Media Studies programme, from which I graduated some years ago, and is now the Provost Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he does other cool things like being on the board of the Peabody Awards. During our campus visits, Henry has been talking about the ideas that have informed his work over the past 30 years, so it has been a good exam revision of sorts for me! I want to share some of these ideas with you. One of these ideas is to think of participation as the lens with which to understand how people consume media. So media is not something we passively consume but actively participate in. The experience is one of co-creation. The second is to think of the digital revolution and especially media convergence as a cultural process, not a technological endpoint.

Henry is also famous for popularising the idea of transmedia storytelling — the act of embedding different parts of a story universe in different formats — like The Matrix did with their films, graphic novels, animation series, and video games — and now consumers of this story universe actively participate in seeking out all the different story elements for a richer entertainment experience. Today, Henry’s concepts have been taken up by film producers in Hollywood, start-ups in Silicon Valley, advertising folk on Madison Avenue, and activists all over the world.

Henry has also almost single-handedly made the study of fans legitimate, and research that he has been doing for years with Star Wars or Harry Potter fans is now considered gold as the different entertainment, technology and advertising companies try and understand what works and what doesn’t work in a world of rapidly scrolling Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds.

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” is actually the subtitle of a book Henry co-wrote some years ago, called Spreadable Media. Henry hates the term “viral” — he believes that things don’t get shared online just because of some virus-like infection but rather because of individual agency. We decide what we like, and we pass on things that we like to our friends, both to connect with them and also to showcase our own personality to them.

Having Henry around enabled me to take a fresh look at the rich digital media universe being built all around us in India. We spent an afternoon with the AIB (All India Bakchod) team for instance, and I realised just how clever they are, and how astutely they are able to control their own brand, image and messaging, even while reaching out to their fans. Roast or no roast, these guys really know how to do their stuff, as does Vijay Nair of Only Much Louder (OML), their roast organiser, who has built up his own alternate media empire with festivals like NH7 Weekender, a record label, artist management, video production and more. In a world of spreadability, small companies such as OML are often more nimble. They can thus reap disproportionately high rewards. Culture Machine, which focusses almost entirely on YouTube and other online video platforms as the future of entertainment content, is another company I like a lot. It was founded in 2013 by Sameer Pitalwalla, former director of Walt Disney India, and Venkat Prasad, former product manager at YouTube.

What I like about Culture Machine is that they marry analytics with creativity. They have built a very smart intelligence platform that uses big data to help understand, identify and monetise what content resonates with which audiences across multiple video platforms, globally. At the same time they have built their own studio, and network of creative artists, that can respond to the trends they are tracking by creating content around them.

Take the example of beauty videos. Culture Machine identified them as a global trend and predicted that it would surge in India. They then quickly tapped into Elton Fernandez — our desi and very video-genic makeup wizard and started a channel for him. Today, Elton has become a huge online video star and his channel has followers from all over the world.

Culture Machine has been doing similar things across genres. Sometimes, they take the local and make it global, like with their Epified Indian mythology videos. At other times, they tap into the global, and fine-tune it to be extremely local. One of their coolest videos is called What If Batman Was From Chennai? I can watch it a million times. It has the global currency of Batman, but some very local elements like a father who is constantly comparing his son, in this case Batman, to the neighbour’s son who has a job in IT. The video has been designed for spreadability — people who will forward it include superhero fans, Tamil fans, and you, after reading this piece or seeing it online.

I feel that Culture Machine, OML and others like them, will be strong challengers to the big media companies in the future. At the same time, it is not that the big media companies are sitting around doing nothing. They too are becoming spreadability-savvy — and engineering their content accordingly. We spent time on the Indian Idol Junior 2015 set and witnessed an episode being shot. Even though it is a fixed format, the show organisers are now tweaking it with a desi touch and every tweak is designed to create content that can be forwarded, like judge Sonakshi Sinha spontaneously dancing with the anchors and contestants, Urmila (Matondkar) style, after a rendition of Rangeela re.

Our Bollywood brigade has in any case mastered the art of creating for spreadability — with their Twitter savviness, led by patriarch Big B. Actually one doesn’t even have to be on social media platforms to create spreadable content. Arnab Goswami, my favourite TV anchor, doesn’t have his own Twitter account but he is an astute user of hashtags to create buzz around his show each night.

During his LOUD sessions across campuses, Henry has also been speaking a lot about the difference between participation and interactivity. Interactivity is what we do with gadgets. We press a button something happens. But participation involves agency and choice. In today’s world, as Henry notes, people don’t just consume and produce content but they also have a civic imagination and imagine a better world, especially young people. The tools they use for this imagination are often components of popular culture, such as The Hunger Games and its three-finger salute. So Vishavjit Singh, a Sikh in New York, dresses as Captain America and talks to people on the subway about what it means to be on the receiving end of racism and intolerance.

Priya’s Shakti is another innovative multimedia project that creates spreadable content for theme-based activism. It currently comprises an augmented reality comic book, app and videos. The storyline of the first comic focusses on the character of Priya, a devotee of the goddess Parvati who goes through a brutal rape and then has to face stigma after the ordeal. When goddess Parvati learns of this, she is shocked. Inspired by the goddess, Priya breaks her silence and inspires thousands of other women to do so too. While the origins of Priya’s Shakti are in New York, they are collaborating across continents. My friend, the brilliant documentary film-maker and writer, Paromita Vohra, is going to pen the next installment in the series and I can’t wait to read it. I’m also waiting for my new friend Ritesh Mehta, who Henry advises in LA, to finish writing his thesis about the links between Rang De Basanti, and the popular Anna Hazare and AAP movements that followed.

And here’s some news that I do hope you will spread, because it is time-bound. I’ve been humbled to be selected on the jury of the Global Teacher Prize at the behest of my friend Vikas Pota, the CEO of Varkey Foundation that administers the prize. This is a unique award that will give one million dollars to the best teacher in the world, and the initiative has many supporters including former US President Bill Clinton and actor Kevin Spacey. So please do nominate a superstar teacher that you think deserves this honour and attention on http://www.globalteacherprize.org/. Applications close on October 10, 2015, so either nominate, or spread this news soon!

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