The influence of twitter in Pakistan became obvious when the US-led May 2 raid was unknowingly tweeted in detail by Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant living in Abbotabad.
As President Barack Obama announced the operation’s details, Sohaib Athar, the world weary consultant who had run away describing himself as “taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptop”, also became a globally famous tweeter, featuring in almost every major broadcasting channel and publication. According to Rory Cellan Jones, technology correspondent at BBC, the OBL tweets were “another huge day for the micro-blogging service”.
Out of Pakistan’s 187 million population, 20,431,000 use the internet, which is 10.9 per cent penetration, according to CIO Pakistan, a local chapter of the world's largest magazine on business technology.
In Pakistan’s first social media conference held in Karachi, we were told that there are 1.9 million twitter users from Pakistan, and it is the 9th most popular website in the country – one per cent of the twitter users come from Pakistan and they generate 1.3 per cent of the page views on twitter.
Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service using instant messaging by 140 character status updates. Tweeters discuss, react and throw in their five cents on trending topics. Journalists and bloggers use it as a platform to promote their own work and get real time feedback.
Although Pakistan may be making waves globally, twitter has not matched the same level of influence among the general population. The existing Urdu-English dichotomy of the media is further widened by the fact that major Urdu media journalists are not on twitter.
For example, Kamran Khan and Hamid Mir are present on twitter but not popular compared to English language journalists who actively engage, share, and exchange information.
Similarly major Urdu columnists like Attaul Haq Qasim, Athar Abbas, Mujeeb ur Rehman Shami, Nazir Naji, Hassan Nisar and Zaheda Hina, to name a few, are not in twitter either.
According to Rabia Garib, editor-in-chief of CIO Pakistan, “there is a generation gap. Internet is a recent phenomenon of about 15 years ago. Urdu is also fairly new on the internet. What we're seeing right now is the first mover advantage from journalists. Traditional journalists will follow soon.
"Nusrat Javed, the co-host of Urdu show ‘Bolta Pakistan’, says his presence on twitter has not had a substantial impact on his show. “A very little percentage of mass media viewers is active on twitter. But being here helps me in broadening the news-source taps.”But Saeed Shah, an Islamabad based foreign journalist covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Economist, McClatchy newspapers and others, finds it useful to be on twitter because of all the information that’s exchanged. “Plus it’s a good place to get a feel of what people are talking about.
”Nahal Toosi, one of the Islamabad based correspondents at AP, says: “I find it’s a good way to keep track of news. I follow a lot of people in Pakistan. I can promote my own and my colleagues work…also, it has a lot of funny content.”
But Wusatullah Khan, BBC Urdu’s roaming correspondent, says the culture of Urdu language inhibits the use of twitter. “The limit of 140 characters for an update is too short. What you can write in English in 140 characters would need approximately 500 characters in Urdu.” That is why Khan has not joined twitter. “I am content with facebook.”
Urdu and the internet’s compatibility may still not be perfect. But Urdu specific software is being developed. An application designed by an Indian American computer scientist, which deciphers data from Urdu social media, suggests that it’s not impossible to synchronise Urdu to the main language being used on twitter.
But language is not the only obvious barrier. Another simplistic division is the liberal vs the conservative. Both foreign and local media’s lists of recommended Pakistan related journalists to follow are dominated by English media folks. Currently the cocktail party on twitter right is being attended by “liberal, like minded journalists”.
For the total impact of twitter in Pakistan, much is yet to be discovered. But with the interest of the world and Pakistanis increasing exponentially in current news, the use of social media would be a natural progression for millions in the country.
Journalists, realising the importance of its relevance, are joining twitter. Whether it will be an all encompassing platform is yet to be determined. But at the rate of its growth and language-specific software development, in a few years twitter could become a source of communication for the 15 million mobile internet users in the country.