WireTap

Desi Power Online

There are 2 million South Asians in America today. They read, date, party and, increasingly, organize for political change online.
She asked me what Friendster was. I stuttered. She was a high school friend of mine, and we had met up for coffee when I went home this break. Our lives took drastically different paths since high school, and when we had gone shopping that day, I was excited to buy a braided belt and she a Dyson vacuum cleaner. She's a fourth-grade teacher now, goes to bible study every Thursday, and is a married homeowner. We are both 26. And, she asked me, "What is Friendster? What's a blog? How do you date online?"

I was floored. This alternative web world is so much a part of my daily life -- I connect with friends online, write stories online, found a place to live online and, yes, even date online. Most importantly, I have a sense of South Asian American identity because of online. In the past couple of years, I have witnessed an explosion of South Asian American youth subcultures on the web.

"We've gone through many different phases in terms of the internet," says Sumaya Kazi, co-founder of the website The DesiConnect, a new weekly e-magazine and website directed at South Asian youth. "Now we're in what's called the Participation Age; young adults are actively and without hesitation using the internet as not only a resource pool, but a tool to make change with," Kazi added.

With the advent of listserves, online communities, political blogs, we have learned that the web is a great activism tool and a great resource to national organizing. We saw this during the election 2004 with successes of viral fundraising efforts by MoveOn.org and text messaging GOTV efforts by Rock the Vote. But is web organizing of South Asian Americans different than general web organizing?

First of all, who are "Desis" exactly? They are South Asian Americans with heritage from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan and Tibet. The migration of this ethnic community into the United States increased when the immigration laws changed in the late '60s and contributed to the technical-professional wave of Desi immigrants. Our ethnic heritage, as well as the common experience of living isolated in the Diaspora, compels us to unite under a united political identity of South Asian Americans.

But how is political organizing done in this community different from others? Here I come with the stereotypes. How many brown people do you know that are IT (information technology) folks? I know, there are a lot of brown folks who are not HTML savvy -- I am one -- but there are a whole lot of South Asians who have a knack for technology.

In addition to being tech-savvy, they are young. According to U.S. Census 2000, there are 2 million Desis in the United States, and their median age is 29, making half the population a part of the youth demographic.

These youth, (time for stereotype No. 2) have a larger tendency to be college-educated, and thus have more opportunities to access the web. In addition, South Asian Americans usually don't live in borough-like neighborhoods outside of New York City; they are more scattered, making traditional community-organizing methods -- such as door-to-door communication -- less effective. Taking all of these things into consideration, one of best ways to connect and politically mobilize South Asian American youth is by using the web.

In the past few years that I've been involved with the South Asian American youth culture, I've noticed an explosion of networking uses online. There are now 412 groups for the keyword "South Asian" in the Friendster groups, 1,286 listserve groups pop up under Yahoo Groups: Shaadi.com linking Desis that want to get married. Desiclub.com links Desis that want to get wasted together, and Ratedesi.com links Desis that simply want to rate Desis on a scale of 1 to 10. We are creative, I'll give us that.

But there's also a burgeoning alternative Desi subculture that has been using the web for the betterment of our society through political action (not that marriage, clubbing and judging don't better our society).

Connecting and mobilizing on the web

One of the most common places where we see this Desi subculture unfolding is in the "Blogosphere." "Blogs are the place to be," says Abhi Tripathi, founder of SepiaMutiny.com, a South Asian cultural blog. "Bloggers can often go at a story from angles that would get mainstream media in "trouble." To be fair, without real journalists out there who are doing their jobs, most bloggers would have no material to work with. But a blog can provide you with that extra bit that a conventional news source can't."

Personal blogs talk about their experiences of being a Desi-American and can create online communities of like-minded people and stories. There are many blog sites serving the Diaspora audience, Deepak Chopra's site, or the popular DesiPundit.com.

The one that is most relevant to the South Asian American youth community is Sepia Mutiny. With 10,000 daily hits, the site is an open forum where people from the South Asian American community learn about politics, Bollywood, literature, and experiences. "If Sepia Mutiny ever lives up to its ambitions," comments Tripathi, "the people that read us will spread something they have learned on our blog to others, and they will in turn pass it on to still others. Soon there will be a lot of South Asians aware about issues that affect all of us. Then the real mutiny will begin."

The most innovative site to hit Desis by storm in 2003 was Badmash.org. It features comic strips, animations and videos to connect the South Asian American community through witty and relevant humor. Their site first exploded with peer-to-peer passing of "The Singhsons" animation. During the elections, "Amitabh Bachan for President" also created a viral storm. The rest, as they say, is history, and now their comic strip enters over 160,000 email inboxes a week, with over 40,000 visitors to the site daily.

Sanjay Shah of Badmash.org says, "We are definitely among that group of sites that is exploring how to use the internet to directly deliver entertainment to viewers without a whole lot of middle people." As far as how the site has changed the South Asian American community, Sanjay comments, "It's made them a little less productive at work, I hope."

There aren't many print magazines catering to the South Asian American diaspora (at least those not dealing with beauty), and the e-magazines that do relate to the Diaspora are mainly on the internet sites like Nirali, Samar, and others. Last fall a new weekly e-magazine hit the scene, The DesiConnect. By profiling a nonprofit and a young professional in the Desi community each week, they are networking the youth community with people and do-gooders all over the country.

"One of our goals with our magazine is to really put the spotlight on South Asians so that others are able to identify and learn more about what others like them are doing," says co-founder Sumaya Kazi, "It also highlights those individuals that step outside of South Asian "stereotypical" roles of being a doctor, lawyer and engineer." With a readership of 5,500 in the short span of six months, you know that they've hit on something hot.

"South Asian American youth have greatly benefited from the internet and specifically from this new era we live in. The agenda is now set by the youth. The youth can have an idea, act on that idea and make a world of difference," says Kazi. "By bridging other young professionals with each other, and young professionals with nonprofits, we have created a larger, stronger network of individuals that are set out to create and set the agenda in their community, country and world they live in."

Protests and marches move online

And why are online tools especially effective to engage young South Asian Americans politically? The stats are in from Harvard's Institute of Politics survey of college students. It found that this new politically active generation uses technology to further their political agenda. Namely, 36 percent have signed an online petition and 30 percent have written an email or letter advocating their position, and 18 percent have contributed to a political blog. If this doesn't prove an opportunity for a new way of bolstering political movements, I don't know what does.

Using the web to organize youth online has been especially beneficial for South Asian American Voting Youth -- the nonprofit I founded to mobilize young political voices nationally. As a virtual organization, the web helped us network within our board and with our fellows that were on the ground all across the nation. Our listserve continues to nationally disseminate information regularly on trainings, conferences and articles to youth. Our online 'Vote SAAVY' kit provided materials to run a voter campaign -- the first web resource of its kind for the Desi youth community.

In that perfect world, I would also have a SAAVY podcast of South Asian American weekly news, an online action center to send out emails to representatives at a moment's notice and an online organizing resource center mapped out regionally for trainings and leaders in that area.

So back to the friend who didn't know what Friendster was -- I couldn't explain what it was exactly. I tried -- trust me -- but it's surprising to see just how fast technology has caught up with us, and how easy it is to get behind the web craze. But I'm not running away from it, I am embracing it. I am now connected to a larger community of South Asian Americans that, in addition to reading blogs and enjoying witty humor, also want to connect with other do-gooders. Through this virtual community, I no longer feel alone. And then, to quote Abhi Tripathi, "the real mutiny will begin."
Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth, a national nonprofit organization that politically empowers South Asian American young people. She is currently pursuing her master's in public policy at UCLA.