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The power of social media

28 March, 2013

I have gone through a love-hate relationship with social networks lately, and have selectively disengaged to focus my bandwidth. While I am drawn to contribute and stay in touch with friends, colleagues and family, I sometimes wonder about the overall opportunity cost, and productivity loss, as I get sucked into the tangential links. This typically begins with reading about emerging market macroeconomic trends, and two hours later, I find myself watching a dog playing piano and exploring  Icelandic shale gas reserves. There is legitimacy to staying updated on the newest applications, browser extensions and products. But, there are still many unknowns around long-term social and psychological impacts of our society’s addiction with being online constantly. Another dimension that most folks have not considered: for the first time in human history, every keystroke, ‘like’, smiley-face, expletive, and written thought is archived in perpetuity. The “beam me up Scotty” generation of the future will use their Google Glass equivalent to do a time warp and consider what ordinary humans of the early 21st century were doing, capturing and thinking. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens online stays online and mostly in the public domain, forever.

The reason I have been reflecting on social media specifically is because it has impacted me in more meaningful ways than I could have imagined since returning to the US several months ago. I have been rekindling U.S. connections that may have lapsed when I moved to India in 20076, as well as meeting new people and thus, a nicely evolving social graph. Connecting via Facebook with my former UCLA or MIT classmates, and Linkedin with my professional network has been nothing short of amazing, and would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

But the most amazing bit of social media impact occurred just a few weeks ago when I was in Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress, which is a remarkable opportunity for Spain and the city of Barcelona to highlight all the people, history, and culture they have to offer. This was my first visit to MWC, although I had been to Barcelona several times over the last two decades. I ended up planning the trip fairly late, and as a result, paid a seven star hotel rate for a youth hostel room. I had gotten to Barcelona a day before the conference began to orient myself, pick up my badge and explore the city. On the first day, I was ready to join 200,000 of social, local, mobile geeks to pay homage to the mobile gods and demigods at MWC. With a fit bit in my pocket, I decided to walk a couple of miles (still on the Retrofit programme), to Placa Espana metro station and take the train three stops to Europa Fira, where the conference was being held. It was chaos at the metro station as thousands of people tried to rush into trains. I have not seen this level of population density since getting lost in Bhindi bazaar in Mumbai last year. We were absolutely packed. I could actually “feel” that people around me breathing.

I had my iPhone in one of the front pockets, some cash and keys in the other front pocket and wallet in the back pocket with the MWC messenger bag on top of it as conscious protection against a potential pickpocket. When the train stopped at the first station, no one stepped off the train, but a couple of people got on, one of them being an impeccably dressed old lady (probably in her mid fifties). She was the last person who squeezed onto the train as the doors shut. Over the next sixty seconds, she made her way from one side of the train slithering to the other side, since the doors were opening on the other side at the next train stop. As she slithered behind me, I felt a slight tug in my back pocket, but didn’t really think much about it since there were at least three people who were pushing against me at that time, and I also had a messenger bag covering my back side. At the next train station, several people got off, and everyone had a little more room. At that moment, I felt that my back pocket was a little lighter than it should have been: my wallet was gone. Another woman panicked and said that her wallet was gone as was another gentleman’s from the U.S. I stepped out of the train for a moment, thinking that I ought to look for someone who might be running away, then considered the thief could still be on the train. I got back on the train as the doors shut and started looking at people suspiciously, along with the other two victims. The victims (including of course, yours truly) raised the prospect of the lady as the culprit since she got on at the last stop and got off at the most recent stop. I regretted not reacting when I felt something on my backside, and regretted not carrying my wallet in my front pocket.

I got off at Europa Fira, went straight to the metro station policeman (and there seemed to be plenty of security at train stations, ironically) and asked what to do. I was hoping to be escorted to a room with high-resolution cameras that had recorded every person going in and out of the trains with a time stamp, resulting in quick apprehension and recovery of my wallet. Instead, they suggested that I go to the main conference hall where there was a make-shift police station. Without an ID, the process of entering the conference took some time. Fortunately, I had a business card and I shared my bio on the DFJ team site as further authentication. I spent the next hour with the help of a translator filing a full Catalan police report, which I have kept as an MWC souvenir memento to hang on my office wall. While the lost cash and cards can be replaced, the piece that I miss the most was a little ziplock bag in my wallet that contained the first lost tooth from each of my three kids. Luckily two of the kids still have teeth to lose, so a replacement sale is possible.

The anger had subsided and turned into a bit of admiration for the prowess of a lady who, within a period of about a minute, wiped out three people in a crowded metro train. I spent another half an hour with various credit card companies and banks cancelling my cards, left without ID or cash. That’s where twitter (@jollymoh) and Facebook became extremely useful and relevant. I posted that I was effectively stranded in Barcelona with little cash or cards. One of my partners happened to be in Barcelona thankfully and helped out. I had left the passport at my hotel, so I knew I could get home.

The post was picked up and in about an hour I had dozens of people, either friends or friends of friends, offering support (financial, housing, culinary and otherwise). A friend from Marvell who happened to be at the conference reached out and fed me gourmet lunch at their booth; another Vodafone friend took me out to dinner at a swank Tapas joint, and a startup from India and a friend from Dubai took care of snacks and drinks for the next day and a half. One acquaintance ended up inviting me to the Barcelona-Madrid Copa Del Rey game, which was a once in a lifetime experience. As I have shared this experience in conversations with friends, there has been a bit of theft envy. There may actually be a rise is such incidents on purpose with a subsequent surge in social media activity with individuals asking for help. I did have some people responding to my tweets and posts asking if this was an online African scam which many readers will be familiar with.

Jokes apart, were it not for the modern social-media connected world, I would have been in a world of trouble, but instead, thanks to a single post, the misery turned into a fantastically positive experience. That, combined with the Linkedin universe on the professional front, is an obvious indication of the power and leverage that social media provides, even with the long- term effects that are yet to be realised.

(Mohanjit Jolly is the managing director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. The views expressed are strictly personal. They do not represent the views of the organization he represents.)

To become a guest contributor with VCCircle, write to shrija@vccircle.com.


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The power of social media

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