In 2017, the year that Facebook declared India as a country with its largest user base, domestic social network Mooshak began tapping people who write and converse in vernacular languages.
Over the last nine months, the Mooshak app has been downloaded 200,000 times and roughly 5% of users, almost all non-English speakers, are active on the desi social network. It is tiny — or a David vs Goliath comparison — as Facebook has over 241million users in India.
Anurag Gaur, the founder of Mooshak, says the idea is to get more small-town users to engage in their language on the platform and build stickiness.
“No Indian language has more than 0.1% content on the internet,” said Gaur. “One cannot find more than 100 Facebook pages actively updating content in vernacular languages like Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, etc. When you talk about a desi Facebook, everybody talks about technology, but it is about social in the social network. You cannot replicate Facebook.”
Mooshak timed its social network around the time when Indian users began to experience high-speed data on their smartphones. After the initial experience, users are looking to converse in their language.
Mooshak and other platforms such as Sharechat, the largest non-English social networking application in India, are emerging as the platforms to tap this opportunity. Sharechat, backed by SAIF Partners and Xiaomi, has around 20 million daily users.
“Content-wise, ABCD — Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, Devotion —is what works in small towns,” said Gaur. “Local celebrities like Khesari Lal Yadav (a Bhojpuri singer) and Ashish Chanchlani (YouTube celebrity) are way more popular than Priyanka Chopra or Katrina Kaif.”
Another Indian startup that is trying to bring in better debate and discussion on social media is Gutrgoo. Founder Piyush Kulshreshtha says his platform is trying to solve the dual problem of echo chambers and censorship on traditional social media.
Platforms Which Failed
The platform, with around 5,000 registrations, is akin to a Twitter-meets-Slack application that allows online panel discussions and town halls for people to participate in “rich” conversations.
“Silicon Valley platforms like Facebook and Google tend to censor views from the right. (Views from all sides are) required to have a healthy debate,” Kulshreshtha said.
“We have created a 360-degree debate feature called RoundTable on Gutrgoo, where not only the hosts and panelists engage in a specific debate but also the viewers. There’s another feature, GlassChamber, where two or more subject experts could have a flash debate on a certain topic in full public view, without ever having any interruption from users or abusers.”
India had in the past internet groups that targeted specific communities. BharatStudent, which was founded in 2007, three years after Facebook, began as a campus social network and prided itself as the largest social community for students in the country. But it soon shut down due to a lack of a viable business model.
BigAdda.com, the social network by the Anil Ambani group, shut in 2011 despite getting Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan to blog on it. New players have since emerged, such as Amazwing, Peppty, Parkpays, and Fastra.
“From a content monetisation perspective, for a large social network like Facebook, the United States and the European Union are the major revenue channels. Even if India contributes heavily with numbers, it contributes very little with revenue,” said Yash Mishra, co-founder of VoxWeb, a voice-augmented picture sharing platform. “India might have 10% of FB user base but contributes only 2% of revenue. This is a reason why we haven’t seen a successful Indian product for India.”
The need for a dominant Indian social media network was kindled again after Mahindra and Mahindra chairman Anand Mahindra tweeted that he would back a local firm in the wake of the controversy of privacy of users on Facebook. Anand Lunia, founding partner at India Quotient, said it is a tough road ahead for Indian social network startups to compete with Facebook because of its ability to spend billions of dollars on user and traffic acquisition.
“It is unrealistic to expect India to suddenly create a social networking site that would replace Facebook after the recent security threat. The reality is that one would take even a minimum amount of one year to just hire the engineers required to create a simple social networking app,” said Lunia.
Portfolio companies for India Quotient in the social networking space include ShareChat, Clip, Roposo, and Pratilipi. “Our own portfolio companies have faced serious challenges where machine learning capabilities are concerned. The talent needs to exist to create a technology product that would rival international players. Many of the Indian talent that exists is already working for Amazon, Facebook, Google or the likes of Flipkart in India,” said Lunia.