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Year of the Netizen

Political posters trying to woo citizens in India's elections.
Sandip Roy
Political posters trying to woo citizens in India's elections.

It’s election season in India which means the ordinary citizen is once again the most important person in the media. Pollsters talk to ordinary citizens to figure out the mood of the nation or the neighborhood. Politicians woo them and vie with each other to be seen as their champions. Every day ordinary citizens in small towns crowd around television cameras to air their grievances.


As the election caravan moves on, so do the cameras. And the citizens return to obscurity.
But these days there’s someone even more important than the citizen - it’s the netizen.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

I am not sure when exactly we discovered the netizen. But YouTube helpfully defines one for us


Now you cannot go into a news portal without stumbling over netizens. Citizens tend to stick to issues like unemployment, inflation, political scandals and political candidates. But netizens have a thought (or rather a tweet ) about everything.
A sex scandal breaks out involving a politician. Long before the police can act, the netizens weigh in. An elephant uproots a massive tree leaving netizens stunned. Netizens react to toppling killer billboards, viral videos on the right way to pour beer into a glass and the new man-in-red portrait of King Charles.
Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai’s outfit on the Cannes red carpet causes a flurry of netizen reactions. One newspaper says her look leaves “netizens amused.” Another says netizens “praise” her Cannes 2024 look. Yet another outlet finds netizens wondering if the theme was “trauma” or the diva was promoting aluminum foil.
In most cases we have no idea who these netizens are beyond their social media handles. We do not know if they are fashion designers or literary figures or political pundits. It does not matter. They are experts because of a tweet or an Instagram status.
Netizen is of course a portmanteau word punching together internet and citizen. An animated film in Bengali explains the difference.


While citizen has a geographical boundary, the netizen roams free, a citizen of the internet. It’s a term that’s been around since the 1990s and some credit internet pioneer Michael F. Hauben for coining it.
Yet citizenship implies not just rights and privileges but also responsibilities and duties. Netizenship, is there even such a word? at one time also meant something which was more than its parts. It was about someone who was trying to make the internet a better place, just as a citizen might try to make their country a better country.
Since 2010 Reporters Without Borders in partnership with Google even gives out a Netizen prize to bloggers or cyber-dissidents fighting for freedom of expression on the internet. Like Syrian activists protesting the regime in their country


But now netizen is just a lazy way to churn out quick copy. I remember the death of a celebrated figure from the yesteryears of Hindi films. As soon as the news broke, obituaries popped up on my news feed. As I read them I realized no one had even bothered to pick up a phone to talk to someone about the deceased person. Instead all I was reading were regurgitated “a terrible loss for cinema” type banal social media posts. It was a DIY quickie obituary pulled together by copy-pasting. The tweets were strung together and then passed off as “Netizens mourn the death of X”.
In 1951 the Indian cartoonist R K Laxman created an unforgettable character called the common man. A bald bespectacled man in a plaid jacket and wrap around dhoti, he was the wry daily observer of life and politics in India. But he never spoke. Yet he remained the country’s most astute observer of the political circus.
I imagined today’s netizen wryly watching the day’s news unfold much like Laxman’s Common Man. But the magic of the Common Man was that his silence spoke volumes. The netizen on the other hand only counts if they tweet and post. They come with a quip’s worth of wisdom.
The netizen and what the netizen thinks has become the lazy person’s guide to getting the pulse of the nation. It’s Vox pop that requires us to go nowhere. Or ask any questions.
The French philosopher René Descartes once said (I think, therefore I am). Now we live in the age of “I post, therefore I am.”

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW