Vantage point

Monday, October 09, 2006

One Year On...

It was on this very day last year that it really hit the fan. It was a Sunday. A little past noon, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Pune with a friend of mine who had returned from Germany. We were shooting the breeze, cracking PJs, and speaking Hedao(inside joke, don't even bother). That is when I got a call from a senior VP in IBM about IIPM's threats of burning laptops.

The next few hours are still clear in my mind. I remember each and every conversation down to the last world. My conversations with Sarika, Rashmi, Amit, my boss at IBM, a couple of other senior colleagues at IBM, my mom, Yazad.... half these conversations happened when I was in the bus back to Bombay later. In fact I even remember that the movie playing in the bus was 'No Entry'.

It was somewhere around Khopoli that I decided to resign. Frankly, it was mainly a decision taken to avoid some headache for me as well as for IBM. The harder decision to take had been to not remove the posts. But resigning from my job didn't seem like that big a deal. Which is why I was surprised at how the resignation acted like some sort of a spark and kicked off this amzing chain of events.

Even though "Blogger quits job over a post" makes a great headline, from a personal point of view, it was not that massive a decision. Even now when people talk to me about it, I try to underplay the resignation part. I mean seriously, consider this. I am an IIM graduate and the economy was doing very well. I was sure I would get another job easily. So that was no sacrifice or act of heroism. It wasn't that hard.

What was hard was keeping the posts on and eyeballing IIPM. In India, people with money and influence can often get away with anything. And considering the sort of threatening comments that were being left on Rashmi's blog and being sent to me by mail, my next job was the least of my concerns. My own safety and my family's safety was a bigger worry.

And that is where the bloggers' help played a huge role. Bloggers all around the country reacted spontaneously and spectacularly, and the news of this issue spread like wildfire. It didn't quite achieve the breaking news status, but it was reported in media well enough. And this widespread publicity to the issue from bloggers and the media acted as the biggest shield for us. With so much public glare, the "dark side" could not dare to do to us some things that they were reputed to have done in the past.

The issue also served as the first real demonstration of the possibilities of how bloggers can come together and make an impact. We Indian bloggers may not be influential enough to end political and media careers, but we can play a significant role in information diffusion. The biggest impact of the whole controversy was on google search results for IIPM. Even today, I get about 200 hits daily directed from a google search for IIPM.

When someone is talking to me or writing to me about the negatives of blogging, they say that blogging could be used to spread rumours and falsities. That the blogosphere can destroy reputations. This is a fear that arises from a lack of understanding of not blogging, but the human mind. A reputation will be destroyed by the blogosphere only if it is a hollow reputation in the first place. Bloggers are not a bunch of demented loons out to take down any one at random. IIPM was hit not because bloggers are evil or incestuous, but because IIPM was in the wrong. They were and still are issuing tricky advertisements. They are still making false claims. And their response to criticism has been cheap and dastardly, that of making threats and setting up splogs.

If a person or organisation has no chink in its armour and no skeletons in its cupboard, the blogosphere can not...and will not want to... destroy its reputation. Remember, bloggers write and link to each other, driven not by personal gain, but by social capital. They will not stake their own credibility by attacking someone whom they are not sure is in the wrong.

That the Indian blogosphere, which usually is very polarised on various politco-social issues, unanimously stood together shows how unequivocally wrong IIPM was.

So did we have an impact? I am sure we did. I think we have ensured that there is enough information in the public domain about the truth behind IIPM's claims. I doubt if there is a single MBA aspirant who will apply to a school without googling its name. The students will thus read all about it. If they still decide to join the school, that is their decision.

Remember, at no point in time was the objective to drive IIPM out of business.... or even forcing them to comply with AICTE guidelines. We were just bugged by the information asymmetry, since no major media organisation in India except for JAM was willing to (in some cases able to) carry out an expose about their tall claims. Blogging gave us a means to do that. To convey the information that the media could not because of a conflict of commercial interests. And that for me is the biggest takeaway from the whole episode. Bloggers can not topple governments, change policy and end world hunger. But what they can do is remove asymmetry of information. And this is bound to have massive implications in the world of business in general and marketing in particular.

At least with regards to IIPM, the symmetry of information has been restored. No student going to IIPM will be doing so because of lack of complete information.

And that makes our "Bloggers Movement" launched a year ago, a total success.

To the thousands of bloggers and blog readers, I can't say this enough - Thank You.