Social media & literary stars
By: Bina Shah
THIS week, Karachi is preparing for the Karachi Literature Festival: three years old, still only two days long, but the organisers promise this year’s festival is going to be bigger and better than ever before.
Judging by the names that are coming to town, they might just be right: Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, William Dalrymple, Anatol Lieven, just to name a few of the out-of-towners, and Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, H.M. Naqvi and Maniza Naqvi, to name some, but not all, of the major Pakistani literary talent.
Literature lovers, book readers, and culture vultures of all shapes and sizes will descend upon the Carlton for the weekend, while the weather is gorgeous, the marina and creek are at their most enchanting, and the authors are appealing.
They’re hoping to meet the writers, get their books signed, listen to the authors talk on a multitude of subjects, maybe, if they’re lucky, exchange a few words and get a photograph taken with a star.
This is why literature festivals are so popular: they provide a chance for connection between author and reader, to examine the face behind the book, to grasp that person’s humanity and sun themselves in its warmth for just a little while.
Interestingly, authors seem to want that same kind of connection with their readers: evinced by the number of writers who have taken to Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media to talk to their colleagues and their readers.
Perhaps the most famous author to make his presence felt on Twitter is a man whose name cannot be mentioned, like Voldemort in Harry Potter, because Death Eaters will descend and cause chaos and danger amongst innocent book lovers and festival goers.
Salman Rushdie’s appearance on Twitter made news headlines around the world when he joined back in September 2011, and he’d grasped the 140-character world quickly enough, soon exchanging pleasantries with other luminaries and responding to critics with his trademark cynical wit and quick-mindedness.
But things took a serious turn during the Jaipur Literary Festival, with the acclaimed author prevented from attending the festival in a series of events that became more and more surreal with each passing day.
Underworld gangs, local police, electioneering politicians and enraged demonstrators all joined hands to keep Rushdie out of India, and when the festival organisers wanted him to be beamed in via videolink, that plan too met with a sad end.
The literary festival was overshadowed by the controversy, much to the dismay of the festival goers, and numerous accounts have emerged since then by writers at the festival, the organisers, and many commentators about how this episode marked a shameful episode in the debate on freedom of expression in India.
Refusing to take the insult lying down, Rushdie took to his Twitter account in order to make his voice heard around the world, tweeting his disgust with the protesters, apologising to his expectant fans, and appreciating the four writers who read from his banned work at the festival as a show of support.
Some of the festival organisers in a recent interview have suggested that his tweets may have encouraged the four writers who read from his work to take an impulsive step that endangered the festival.
Yet the entire episode was a fascinating study in how the immediacy of social media can influence real-time events; the Rushdie affair at Jaipur is another example of the monumental sociological effect of social media is having on the world.
The Karachi Literature Festival seeks to avoid controversies of that sort, but there will be plenty of discussion in the world of social media on the events held during the two-day festival.
Festival goers will bring their smart phones and live tweet the event; the sponsors of the event have arranged for sessions to be livestreamed on the Web for people who can’t make it to the festival in person. Reporters will file their news items straight from the festival venue, thanks to wireless technology.
One day, perhaps festival goers will even be able to buy books electronically as soon as they’ve finished hearing a speaker at the festival, and download them on to their reading devices (although they haven’t yet figured out how an author can autograph a Kindle).
This all brings to mind an interesting question concerning writers, celebrities, and the ordinary folk using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquared, LinkedIn, and so many other social networking platforms, when looking at the impact of social media on our lives: when is social media true connection and when is it just an audience?
It is important for people to know the difference, because it shapes their expectations of what social media is and what it can do for them, and to what extent it can enhance their relationships off screen.
But with technology providing a platform for both connection and audience; it’s up to you, the reader, the festival-goer and the consumer of social media, to design your festival experience, and really, your wired world, the way you want it.
As a major cultural event, the Karachi Literature Festival is the way forward: the convergence of traditional methods of accessing information — face-to-face discussions, physical books held in people’s hands, real time spent with real people — with social media, technology and the Internet.
And being at the forefront of that convergence is something that we Pakistanis can be truly proud about.