As social media terms increasingly become part of the vernacular (“unfriend,” the act of deleting a person from one’s list of acquaintances on Facebook, was even named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’), some of Pakistan’s big names are cashing in. Last month, former President Pervez Musharraf set up his very own Facebook page, so far garnering (by my last login) 33,277 fans. To further affirm the officialdom of his page, Mushy <insert PR team> even uploaded a video, discussing his motivations behind joining said Facebook. He said, “I’ve seen with all my interactions, particularly with the youth…that [they] are extremely concerned and disturbed with what is happening in Pakistan…and what is the future of Pakistan…this got me thinking how I could contribute my bit to quench their thirst.”
I have long been intrigued by the social media phenomenon, and the real versus imagined benefit they bring, [see related piece for Dawn]. Facebook currently boasts more than 300 million active users with about 70% located outside the United States. In Pakistan, it is one of the most popular social networking websites and, as of October 16, 2009, there were approximately 1,094,040 active users. Although this number is relatively high, these users constitute a small percentage of Pakistan’s population – namely those who are literate, speak English (to varying degrees) and own/use computers. Moreover, the transnational nature of these online mediums mean that websites like Facebook can also act as a bridge, bringing Pakistanis (or people of Pakistani origin) living abroad into the same forum as Pakistanis living in the country, fostering an interesting “supranational” dynamic.
This demographic appears to be Musharraf’s target audience on Facebook, who are now part of a far more “democratic” dialogue than many were afforded under his emergency rule. While I laud efforts that allow Pakistanis better access to current and former leaders, I also question their purpose. What is the logic behind initiating this dialogue now and what tangible purpose does it serve, particularly since those who use Facebook are not necessarily the same people who turn up at the polls?
It could be that Musharraf is just trying to remain relevant, and he is attempting to do so by engaging young Pakistanis at home and abroad. While memories of his last year in power are arguably still fresh, the cyclical nature of Pakistan’s politicians does allow for constant rebranding and reinvention.
In fact, RehmanMalik.com could stand to take a few pointers from said PR exercise – especially since “a welcome massage” may not be welcomed by all. No indeed.