Twitter in India: Are you following the god of cricket?

MUMBAI, India — A cricket star took India by storm last week when he joined Twitter and began racking up followers at the rate of almost 4,500 an hour. Within the first 24 hours, Sachin Tendulkar’s following reached almost 80,000, sparking a media frenzy and countless tweets about the so-called god of cricket joining the social networking site.

Local Indian publications pounced on the story, and the following day, the Mumbai Mirror splashed across its front page: “Sachin Breaks Record With Tweet Nothings.”

Everything from which personal photographs he uploaded to how his follower statistics compared to other Indian celebrities (he outdid Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s day one) became fodder for an article.

The reaction stems from India’s obsession with cricket, Tendulkar and, increasingly, social media. “India's love for cricket verges on the pathological,” Jason Overdorf wrote in GlobalPost in March.

Walk by a field, beach, back alley or even cemetery, and you are likely to find a few boys or young men gathered around a bat and ball. And Tendulkar, who uses the account name sachin_rt, is considered one of India’s all-time greatest cricket players. He breaks record after record for his batting prowess. In February, he became the first cricketer to score 200 runs in a one-day international match.

As equally impressive as the number of people who have flocked to Tendulkar on Twitter — his followers at this writing stood at more than 253,000 — is the level of enthusiasm expressed by his fans. Many who have sent him messages or written notes on his photographs sound overwhelmed with joy by the mere presence of him on Twitter.

A fan who goes by the Twitter handle @anil_vp commented wrote: “its like a dream ... to be able to interact with the GOD of cricket for a layman ...thk u so much sachin making the dream come true.”

@raam1711 commented: “I am able to achieve my goals and target by following you. You are a very great person and human being. I admire you for eveything [sic].” And @rakasit wrote, “never i expected that God would himself be on twitter :)”

Some argue that the role of Twitter in India should not be over-emphasized because most people in this country of 1.2 billion do not have access to the internet, let alone the knowledge, ability or desire to type away often frivolous 140-character messages.

On the other hand, social media expert Gaurav Mishra argues that while Twitter has only about 2 million users in India, the local media follow the big names on the site and then broadcast to the rest of society what they have written.

“Celebrities in India use Twitter not only because they can talk directly to a few thousand fans, but also because they can make provocative statements in public, which journalists can pick up for new stories,” Mishra, CEO of the online marketing firm 2020 Social, wrote in an email. “The actual reach of Twitter is much higher than the number of users.”

A former junior minister of foreign affairs, Shashi Tharoor, repeatedly made the news for his controversial tweets on everything from visa restrictions to cows.

The presence of celebrities on Twitter, along with the occurrence of national crises and the role of mainstream media, have been the three big drivers of the site’s growth not only in India but across the global online community, Mishra wrote. Many of Tendulkar’s fans commented that his presence caused them to join Twitter.

The phenomenon of being a fan is based around being excited about a celebrity and then hoping you can have a connection with that person, said Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media professor and the dean of student affairs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Celebrities develop strong followings on Twitter because the site gives fans the impression they can form outgoing and incoming connections with their heroes, he said.

Many of Tendulkar’s followers seem to think that they are now reaching their fan, that their personal note to him, while broadcast for all to see, will be read by the cricket God himself. And it very well might be, creating an outgoing connection between the fan and the celebrity. For example, @kranthi_543 wrote to Tendulkar: “We are very lucky that you are on twitter. you made millions of people to reach you.”

Twitter enables fans to feel they have incoming connections with their heroes every time they receive the tiniest scrap of information or insight into the celebrity’s personal life, Sreenivasan said. And while Twitter may be criticized as a network where people share mundane, boring aspects of their lives, fans crave such banal information.

“When it comes to celebrities, that is exactly what people want,” Sreenivasan said. “You want to know what they're eating, who they are meeting.”

As for sachin_rt, his fans now know he ate at the Zodiac Grill, a restaurant in the exclusive Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the two five-star hotels attacked by Pakistan-based gunmen in 2008. “Meal lasted 4hrs but it was totally worth it,” Tendulkar tweeted.

Twitter also enables fans to have a window into the personal life of a celebrity in new and different ways, Sreenivasan said. In the past, fans would have to rely on journalists to write a story or on the celebrity or his staff to update a website. Now, the celebrity can send updates instantly.

In India, Twitter also provides a connection to celebrities for fans who might have less mobility and disposable income than their counterparts in the United States and cannot easily drive across the country stopping at every baseball stadium or concert.

"If you are sitting in Kerala and you love Shah Rukh Khan, where are you going to go?" Sreenivasan said.

If you have access to the internet, you only need to go here.