Social media maven Sree Sreenivasan on digital media, trolls, and India

Pranav Dixit August 17, 2016 17 min

Sree Sreenivasan is tired. It’s just after 6 on a rainy Sunday evening in Delhi, and the social media maven has been on his feet for more than 12 hours, squeezing in meetings early in the morning followed by a 4-hour session on using social media effectively at the Taj Vivanta hotel in Khan Market.

Sreenivasan, who was Columbia University’s Chief Digital Officer for 21 years and then held the same job at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for three years, recently made headlines after he went public with his dismissal from the Met at the end of June following a financial restructuring at the institution. Shortly after that, he was appointed Chief Digital Officer of New York City.

Sreenivasan let FactorDaily ride with him in his car on his way to Delhi’s T3 airport terminal to catch a flight to Bengaluru — the next stop on his Twitter tour of India — and spoke candidly about his unique role, how he keeps up with technology, and the digital transformation that India is going through.

Let’s talk about social media since you’re on a Twitter tour of the country right now. Do you ever worry about the gatekeeping role that big companies like Twitter and Facebook are now playing in terms of what information we access online? 

Well, in the range of things to worry about, there’s a lot of stuff. We are all so new on social media, there’s millions of us learning how to do it, figuring out Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, all of this stuff. I think worrying about the impact these tools are going to have is important, especially as they’re changing the world. They’re helping pick winners and losers in the media, especially, and across all fields. So yeah, I think it’s important.

But at the same time, you see a lot of complaints in India, in Delhi, this hyper awareness that social is filled with trolls. The narrative that that’s all that matters is very high here. While that’s true, I think that we have to focus on the positive aspect of social media as much as we can.

Part of what the government and other people have to do is to show the value of this to people. I think of that as a part of my job as well.

But are you concerned about big tech companies picking winners and losers? Do you think there should be any kinds of checks and balances? Can there be any checks and balances?

We have to remember that we’re talking about issues that are not new in technology. People used to worry about IBM, the evil empire that was Microsoft. Now in India you don’t think evil when you think of Microsoft (first of all you’re very proud that Satya is Microsoft, it’s pride).

So these kinds of things come and go and are historically a part of the situation that we worry about. Something else will come. Something else will be big and then we worry about that. Right now I worry about people playing Pokemon Go while driving, crashing into you. Right now, that’s a bigger worry for me than worrying about what does it mean that Twitter or Facebook has a billion users.

Technology is going mainstream in India. There are millions of us coming online for the first time, and smartphone and data prices are falling by the day. Do you have a sense of where the country is headed?

Well, when I was talking to some people in tech, they were talking about the next one billion Indians. They’re going to be non-English speakers, phone people, they’re never going to touch a desktop. They are all going to be watching video, all going to be reading. What does it mean? I don’t think most content providers are anywhere ready, equipped or even thinking about it. We are not there yet in terms of understanding the scope. You can look at it as a problem, opportunity, threat, maybe all of those things. But as producers of content, you have to now be ready to actively participate in the next ways in which Indians are going to get on board.

And a lot of this is unpredictable. No one could have predicted WhatsApp.

But what about going beyond content consumption? Things like people paying online, leapfrogging traditional banks by sending and receiving money through mobile phones?

Part of it is possible because the government did a lot of hard work on the Aadhar project. That’s where it’s connected. It’s a great network that can be used for good, used for bad. I don’t know enough about the Aadhar Card, but from what I understand, everything is in one place. How good is the security? Well, Nandan ran it, so I am confident about that.

Does it surprise you to see the country going through these big tech transformations? Or was it inevitable?

Well, one hopes it is inevitable, it happened in China.

Here’s what everyone wants to know about you: What exactly is a Chief Digital Officer?

I think about it all the time. This is my third time being one, so maybe I’ll finally learn how to do it! (laughs)

I think that it’s different things in different industries. Even in the same industry it’s a different thing. One of my great friends is a woman named Perry Hewitt (who is one of the best follows on Twitter, by the way). She was Chief Digital Officer at Harvard and she is fantastic and you should follow her. She was in Harvard, I was in Columbia, and we had completely different jobs, even in the same industry. I have a friend who was the CDO of Starbucks. His job was different than mine.

But in the end, the job of a CDO is doing the heavy lifting around digital transformation. And every company needs transformation. If you have any doubt about that, look at Hotmail, look at Yahoo. You can be a company that has one billion users every day and still be considered a failure. How are you as a institution changing what you’re doing?

At New York City, we have 300,000 employees. They’re all doing amazing work, but is their job going to be exactly the same five years from now? That’s what we don’t know. We all have to learn together as we go forward.

But in more concrete terms, what exactly are the next steps for you?

So the Mayor tweeted my job. Exactly what I had to do. It’s like the mayor of New York says what your job is, it’s like holy shit! The way he has spelled it out — so clear, so simple, and so much work.

Yeah, why don’t we go over the terms he tweeted one by one? Tech friendly, transparent, digitally equitable.

Bill NY Mayor

I think they are all different but connected. Tech friendly means, among other things, for startups, make it easier for them to move to New York and stay in New York. Remember that moment in The Social Network where Zuckerberg and Severin have to decide where to go, whether New York or San Francisco, and there was no doubt they were going to go to San Francisco. That was 11 years ago or something like that, maybe 10 years. Today, we want to be an option. I think what’s happening is with Brexit, companies are going to leave the UK more. Startups in Madrid, or Vienna… when you have a startup, you move to London or Berlin. Well, how do we get them to come to New York?

Instagram just opened a New York office, for instance. You can have a lot of the benefits of being in America without being all the way out on the West Coast. So my job will be to encourage people who have the traction to come.

It’s also about thinking of all the pain points that come when you’re working with the government or the city and trying to resolve them.

OK. “Transparent.”

Let me give you an example. One of my biggest frustrations in India is the pain in getting a SIM card. I won’t mind the pain if I knew that the terrorists were going through this too, but I don’t think they do. I don’t mind beuracracy as long as I know everyone’s suffering with you. But you know, in India, you always have a guy who gets special treatment because he has called the minister or something. That’s a problem. How do we change that? That’s transparency.

“Digitally equitable.”

You see such a great socio-economic divide in Mumbai and also in Delhi to a lesser extent. That happens in New York also. We have one of the richest ZIP codes in America right next to one of the poorest ones. So how do you make sure that people in both have an equal chance at accessing technology? So lot of workshops, lots of training, training the trainers, community leaders, influencers, and get them to use social, get them to be mobile first.

The Hispanic community, for instance, over-indexes on mobile, they really use it. So if you’re creating things on a desktop, stop doing that. Those are a couple of examples in each category.

How do you keep up with tech? Because it sounds like you need to know everything about everything.

Or you need to know who to ask. Having domain experts in various fields helps you in yours. I read a lot and I have people who I follow regularly.

What do you read every single day?

I read a lot of newsletters. I read the Scroll email newsletter, I love what they’ve done with it. I open the Skimm newsletter, and another one from a startup I did called DNAInfo.

Newsletters are exciting to me, and I keep thinking, what if New York City had a newsletter? What if the city wrote to you every day? Like, here’s what’s going on in New York today. But it’s so huge, how would you do that? Or if the city tweeted. Not as the government, but as the city itself.

I get my news on Twitter, I have great Twitter lists, some of them are public, some of them are private. And I use Flipboard. Is that something that people use in India?

Some of them do. It’s too pretty for me, I’m an RSS feeds kind of a person. 

I wonder how the RSS feels about RSS feeds.

It’s funny how they are going out of fashion.

Yeah, I loved Google Reader, why did it die? It was so good! Google Reader was really smart.

Yeah, Digg Reader is pretty good now. Let’s talk about our Prime Minister. This is the most digitally savvy government we’ve had till date, right from the elections to what it’s going now in terms of engaging people on social media. The Wall Street Journal called Modi a “social media superstar” last year. What do you think of him?

I’m reading it from afar and understanding and watching. I think it’s very smart stuff. And I think it’s a process of learning, in the sense, I hope they’re learning from what’s working and what’s not working.

But I think that a lot of the digital savvy is also a function of the latest PM you have. So as people get more sophisticated and start using it, then the public will also start using it. It’s a self-fulfilling kind of thing. You’re right, the next PM could be a zero user of Twitter, but that wouldn’t be smart of him or her. This is, it’s…it’s going forward, it’s progress.

Do you think we need a CDO in India?

Of India or Delhi?

India, I think. Or actually, just Delhi to begin with.

It depends on how you’re going to use , what you’re going to do. You can have a CDO but if they have no power, you might as well not have a CDO. And one day, the CDO might not exist because the CEO is so super smart about technology so why would they need one? So you have a CTO and a CEO and a CMO, but you may not have a CDO.

I think the CDO is the most transferable or the most fungible of those functions. I think of myself as kind of…in 10 years, there won’t be CDOs anymore. Because the people who come out are already so good at it. Having people who are digitally native move up, that will happen.

Like, Columbia used to have a Chief Telephone Officer, somebody in charge of the telephone, probably a very senior person! Eventually, there’s still somebody in the charge of the telephone, but he’s not in the C-Suite, he’s in the cellar.

So you see your role as a sort of a transition point, helping legacy places take steps into the digital world and 10 years later, they won’t need that hand-holding.

Well I hope they’ll need it so that I have a job. I think what’s going to happen is that people are just going to be a lot more savvy. You don’t need an expert on WhatsApp today, everybody knows how to use it.

Sreenivasan then spoke, without being prompted, of how he lost his job as Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and how he went public with the news instead of trying to hide it.

Part of why I went public with my story was because on social media, you think everybody has a perfect life — they have better vacations, better cars — that’s what you think. That’s not really true. You think life is about going from one success to another, and part of what I did was acknowledge that life is about stumbling and how you recover is a part of the thing.

People wrote to me from all over the world saying thank you for telling the world that you lost your job. I gave people a form to fill in and 1,300 people filled in the form saying what you should do next. People say that the internet is full of evil and trolls and all, and that’s true, but the vast majority of the internet is so positive. And India has not experienced that to the degree as other countries have. We have had 20 years of dealing with trolls, except they weren’t called trolls. They were in very early Usenet groups, very early blogging, very early YouTube comments. So in America we have experienced this.

But here, everything was all very controlled for a long time, and then suddenly you can do anything. You can say anything about anybody. It’s all changed now. So how do we look at the positive side of social and digital is one of my pet obsessions.

So the troll problem, in your opinion, is not that big.

No no, it’s a problem. And the answer, as you know, the thing that make Twitter, the thing that makes it so successful, is that people are able to start a little Twitter feed that exposes some corruption or something, and that’s the value of it. The moment you become Facebook where everybody has to be validated with an ID, then that’s a barrier to entry and people are not going to do that.

The troll problem is real and I have felt it a little bit. Look at what’s happening to women journalists, it’s, like, unacceptable. But then look at Donal Trump. The biggest troll is Donald Trump. That’s the worst troll of all.

I want to get your thoughts on the digital transition that the Indian media is going through right now.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’ve been coming to India for 21 years. In the last 10-15 years, I’ve been saying that digital stuff is coming. I’ve been saying a storm is coming. There is no way there can be 15 newspapers. I mean it’s sad, I hope you enjoy it while you have it. When I talk to publishers, they say, but oh, we make so much money, what are you talking about?

There is no reason there should be 50 channels of news and they’re all breaking news, like every single thing is the same 10 people in a box yelling at each other. It’s not sustainable.

And if you talk to young people, they are not connected to television news at all. That’s because it doesn’t speak their language, it doesn’t speak to them, it’s not relatable, so how do we change all of that is the question. We’re seeing the storm coming to India much sooner than anyone thought it would.

And I won’t name them, but I have talked to owners of media companies in India and they tell you that we’re doing this for other reasons in addition to what we’re already doing, so print might still survive because of that. But it cannot be what it is today, it is just not sustainable in a world where all these other tools are available.

What do you think of the digital media landscape right now in India? We’re chasing numbers, chasing eyeballs, committing the same mistakes that the American media did at the beginning of its digital transition.

I don’t think they’re studying the American media and learning any lessons from the American media. Every day in American media they are learning new things, they are sharing it on Nieman Lab. I ask journalists here about Nieman Lab, they don’t know it. There is not a culture in India about professional development, and how do you learn from America, not because America is so great, but America failed! They’re telling you that this is about to happen, so listen, and then they don’t listen. And they just make the same mistakes.

I think there is so much opportunity for India. The reason you are so successful on mobile is that you didn’t go through the pain of desktops like America and now you have that advantage, and how do you do that? Journalists don’t think about it, their owners don’t think about it. I would be very hard-pressed to tell then difference between most of the television channels or most of the websites here. And most of the newspapers. They’re all stuck in 2008 and 2009, because they make so much money.

One of my professors is Fred Friendly, who is the guy Geroge Clooney played in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. He used to say that American media, American television, makes so much money doing its worst, it has no incentive to do its best, and that’s what happening with Indian television. Like, why should they try harder or scream a little less because they make so much money screaming? And that’s why I think Indian media has to pay attention, has to learn.

The Indian media is not doing that. Here the news organisations get the startup guys and girls to come in to try and change things, and then say OK, we’re not going to do that today, we’re going to take care of this other thing, and then those smart startup people get sucked into working on this big behemoth.

But I think what we can do with mobile, with data visualisation, with storytelling, how can we think of longform journalism in a way that makes sense, all of that is still to be learnt, and of course many people are thinking about it. But how much support are they getting — all that is still up in the air.

Photo courtesy: Lia Chang/ Wikipedia.


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