Social media in rural India: bridging the digital divide
Is the Internet actually changing society in the second biggest country of our planet? Is it even possible to respond to such a question, in such a complex demographic scenario?
Recently BBC India held an Hangout with several experts in the field (more info here) to discuss the digital landscape in the country, focusing on one main question: can social media drive change in India?
During the live coverage of the event, one tweet perfectly synthesized the main issue:
“165 million potential social media users unlikely to drive social change in country of 1.2 billion. That tipping point yet to be reached.”
The two faces of digital in India
There’s a very important factor to always keep in mind: language. The first 50 million Internet users in India were English savvy, but the growth of Internet penetration created the need for websites and devices speaking different languages. The evolution of platforms has been following the evolution of users: more languages, more option and more focus on mobile.
This guaranteed the success of SNS like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and IM apps like Whatsapp, that now counts 20 million active users in the country (source: NDTV).
On the other hand, approaching the Indian digital landscape by just looking at Facebook and Twitter can be misleading.
The first step to understand the impact – and even more the potential – of social media in India is to acknowledge its limits: 70% of India’s population live in rural areas, with no access to modern Internet infrastructures.
Among those who reside in urban areas, over 165M people are active online. A good slice of the pie is on Facebook: around 62 million users populate the American social network – recently becoming the second biggest Facebook-population after the US.
But what happens on the other side of the digital divide? How is social media penetrating the areas where people don’t have PCs and smartphones – yet just telephones, TVs and a strong need for information?.
Let’s focus on two of the platforms that have been presented during the BBC Hangout: Gram Vaani and Local Circles.
Gram Vaani: across the digital divide
From the digital perspective, India is divided into two very different communities: 70% of rural population vs. 30% of urban population. The latter has access to Google and Facebook; all the rest simply can’t affort 2000 rupees (US$30) for a monthly Internet connection, be it desktop or mobile.
As Ashish Tandom says, “they can never have that Facebook experience urban people have.”
Mr. Tandom is the founder of Gram Vaani, an organisation providing social media for rural India; a voice-based social network to connect families and farming communities living in outland villages.
According to Mr. Tandom, the 60 thousand Gram Vaani users would never want to pay any money; the social network works by simply dealing numbers and leaving voice messages and listening to the ones left by others.
Topics of the discussion are the ones relevant to the community: local updates, issues related to agriculture, government announcements, information sharing. But also politics: most of the rural areas are reached by television, therefore political awareness is relatively high.
In this peculiar context, 60 thousand users have a peculiar meaning: it means 60K mobile phone numbers, which means 60K families of 6 or 7 people, now connected to a virtual community. All of this through the mobile phone owned by the head of family.
The Gram Vaani flagship development in Jharkhand, a region in Eastern India, counts over 20K users and more than 2,000 calls every day.
It has be pointed out that Gram Vaani has been enabling the farmers voice to come out, in their language and local idioms. Here’s how Mr. Tandom depicted this big innovation::
“In the past, the community used to be the village; now the community can be a blog, or a group of people connected together via social media. Now we see communities of people living even 2000 kilometres far from each other; people that never traveled not even 10 kilometres, to the nearest village.”
And there’s something even more important: in the future they will be able to get cheap smartphones – more likely Chinese products like Xiaomi – allowing them to finally reach the internet. At that point the real social media revolution will probably occur.
Local Cirlces: the power of communities
The value of the online communities is also what drove the success of Delhi-based start-up Local Circles, co-founded by Sachin Taparia.
Although Local Circles targets people living in urban areas, it has something to do with the peculiarity of the Indian social media scene: local communities and relevant information are the king.
The website works as an “online neighbourhood watch”, taking social media to a more local – and therefore relevant – level of interaction. According to Mr. Taparia:
“For the first time in the history of Delhi, neighbors have been connected electronically and they are communicating zealously with each other. Finding a trusted local Doctor, a good hospital or some reliable advice on common ailments was never available on fingertips till now. There are 30 similar health need or interest based local circles available, all designed to make daily life of a citizen easy in Delhi/NCR.”
Accordins to Sachin, 50% of Local Circles’s users come back to the platform every week, and more and more of them do it via smartphones. The average age of the network is 35 year old: quite high compared to other SNS. The majority of users are seniors, or – in Sachin’s words – “people thinking that Facebook is for their kids and grandkids.”
The main takeaway from the BBC Hangout is that the real impact of social media can’t be measured only by trending topics on Twitter or viral million views on Youtube. As well as it happens in Sub-saharan Africa with technologies like M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer system, the real digital innovation is what actually enable people to do something relevant they couldn’t do before.
Which is not necessarily a picture of a sunset uploaded on Instagram.
(Some of the pictures in this post are taken from the Gram Vaani Facebook page).