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Are social experiments losing the plot?

Social experiments are trying to balance the act of gauging people's reaction to community incidents with garnering views on YouTube

Manavi Kapur 

The 'mugging' experiment by Gaurav Sharma and Prateek Verma

On a rainy July day last year, Surbhi Bhatia and her friend decided to take a pedestrian subway in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. To their horror, a young man, his face covered with a handkerchief, violently cornered another man, robbed him of his wallet and iPhone and ran away. A stupefied Bhatia called the police, who promptly responded and caught the “mugger”. The young man told the police and Bhatia that the “mugging” had only been a “social experiment” to prove that Delhiites would never step forward to help someone in trouble.

Gaurav Sharma and Prateek Verma, the mugger and his associate, who call themselves SocioCatastropheTV on YouTube, are not alone in conducting such social experiments. Amateur videographers are taking to YouTube in large numbers to show short films with a hint of a social message. And they are defiant about how they do this. “We tried to explain that it was only a social experiment, but the lady wouldn’t listen,” insists Sharma. The youths, who live in West Delhi’s Najafgarh, a middle-income settlement, say that spreading a social message is more important than YouTube views, though videos on YouTube earn money for their makers if they go viral and cross, say, the one-million mark in viewership.

Sharma and Verma’s YouTube channel gained popularity after a video they made 10 months ago garnered two million views. In it, Verma tells his father that he has got his girlfriend pregnant. The father is livid and starts beating him. The video ends with the young man telling his father that it is a “prank” and that there is a hidden camera. “My father was hesitant, but now that he’s a celebrity, he is completely on board,” he says. Verma and Sharma have since been hired by a technology start-up in Gurgaon to manage the company’s video blogs. They attribute their jobs to their experiments on YouTube, which helped them present a portfolio of sorts.

Social experiment by Sahil Bedi to see if people react to rape
The phenomenon of social experiments caught traction after the December 16, 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape in New Delhi, when the victim and her friend lay helpless by a busy road for hours without passers-by coming to their rescue. Delhi-based Sahil Bedi decided to see for himself if anything had changed since then. He parked a van with tinted windows on a busy street and played an audio of a woman screaming for help while a man ordered her to keep quiet. Some people walked past after pausing briefly, while others were ready to break into the van. “I had a five-minute conversation with each of those who were angered by the experiment to explain the format to them,” says Bedi. A friend who saw the video of the experiment thought it was an insensitive way of highlighting an issue. “Next time if something like this happens, I will wonder if I would end up looking like a fool for being ready to help,” he says.

Bedi explains that the creation of such videos comes from a curiosity to see how people react under certain circumstances. The video, complete with an emotionally-heightened background score and annotated commentary, has got over two million views on YouTube. According to Bedi, a news channel replicated this experiment across cities and asked him to be a part of a panel on women’s safety in India that had personalities like Kiran Bedi in it. He made the video soon after his Class 12 exams and gave up a seat at Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College to take a gap year instead. Bedi now makes fewer videos because he feels that too many people have joined the bandwagon.

NDTV also has a segment based on social experiments called What’s Your Choice?. Here, the channel takes up issues like racism and mistreatment of the elderly through actors staging a scenario in a public space, usually a restaurant or a departmental store. There are hidden cameras and microphones, and reporters reveal themselves after they receive a satisfactory response through the simulated scene. In one such video, where a young man mistreats an elderly cashier at a departmental store in Kolkata, the other customers who retaliated are shown speaking to the camera later and encouraging people to “speak up”.

But recently on Facebook, a woman complained against this “horrendous” social experiment by NDTV, when she discovered that all tables at an upscale Delhi restaurant had hidden microphones. She was angry, she wrote, to find her privacy infringed upon and she found such activism “shameful”. A producer associated with the show at NDTV says that such a reaction was an “aberration”. “In our experience everyone else has been the opposite: supportive and helpful. But we understand their concerns and will not air the footage,” says the producer.

Often, these videographers are not worried about offending people. But Naman Sharma, founder-CEO of Uth Time, an online platform for Indian youth to share their views, has a more tempered view. “Social experiments come with a lot of responsibility,” he says, and insists that his social experiments have a positive outlook. After giving up a financial job at KPMG to be with his ailing father, he started Uth Time in 2012. Since then, an investor has bought a 75 per cent stake in the company.

Sahil Bedi
While they may mean well, these experiments are largely unsupervised. For example, any data collected is not always analysed, nor is the commentary backed by factual information. “These aren’t sociological experiments as much as independent videos that interact with an audience through the ‘platform’ model,” says Ravi Sundaram, professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “They are like agitprop theatre that employs melodrama and fiction to present a staged reality.” The videos, adds Sundaram, show audience what it already knows. During academic social experiments, formal consent is sought and publishing taped content must follow ethical norms.

Supreme Court advocate Pavan Duggal cautions that “those who come out looking bad can even file for defamation or for violation of privacy”. The filming and transmission of videos enter the electronic ecosystem, and those featured in the video could lodge a complaint under Section 66A of the IT Act, where the offence is punishable by up to three years of imprisonment and a fine. Another charge could be forgery, given that these videos seek to trigger a response to false information.

While Gaurav Sharma and Verma believe that it isn’t against the law to shoot films in the public domain, Bedi has been careful to get the consent of the people whose reactions he retains. Confident of the social aspect of their efforts, these young film makers are not ready to bow out without a fight.

SOIL students explain the initiative to the unsuspecting diners
Pay it forward

This was a social experiment not focused on garnering YouTube hits. Karma Kitchen, an initiative first started in 2007 at Berkeley, California, was aimed at building a “gift economy”. Volunteers offer meals to customers as a gift, who are then encouraged to pay for the meals of those who came after them. In India, this took the form of Karma Rasoi and was conducted by some students at the School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL).

Over a week, diners at a couple of busy restaurants in Delhi and Gurgaon were greeted with a ‘Your meal is free’ message. SOIL students then asked them whether they would keep the chain going by opting to ‘pay-it-forward’. The customer could walk away paying nothing or shell out whatever she felt was appropriate.

The experiment was supervised by Sunil Sachdev and his team at Flip Bistro outlets in Safdarjung Development Area and Gurgaon respectively. Meenatche R was one of the students who participated. She went with three friends and was able to convince 15 customers to pay-it-forward one Sunday afternoon. “One couple was excited about donating and emptied their pockets (they had Rs 800-1,000) and wished us luck. Another couple who had seemed to enjoy their lunch were sceptical, and eventually refused to pay but asked for the actual bill,” she says.

Rachit Garg, a 21-year-old engineering student at IIT-Delhi, had gone to Flip Bistro with a friend about a month ago. They were taken aback when it wasn’t the waiter but two volunteers from Karma Rasoi who came forward on asking for the bill. His first thought was that they must be seeking donations, but when they explained the initiative, Garg and his friend were surprised and volunteered to continue the gift cycle.

Overall, the total bill for the meals came to Rs12,570. While the customers donated Rs10,740 to pay-it-forward, the difference of Rs1,830 was footed by the students. A self-confessed follower of social media trends, Garg ranks this experiment as one of the better ones he has seen, since “a majority of widely popular social experiment is biased towards what the conductors feel about the situation or outcomes that help videos go viral.”

Ritika Bhatia

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First Published: Sat, February 28 2015. 00:25 IST