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Vernacular sites can drive social networking in India
Mar 19, 2010 Published in content
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At least one-third of the Internet users in India, estimated at between 20 mn and 30 mn by most sources, use a social network. The maximum number out of these (over 7 million) use Orkut. Facebook  has 1.6 million users. Locally grown Big Adda has 1.4 million and Bharat Student 1.7 million users. MySpace never took off in India.  

Add smaller social networks, factor in duplication across social networks, and the total user base for social networks in India may be 10 million.

Impressive enough? Not if you take Orkut out of the list. The picture is positively dismal when we find that India focused web 2.0 startups, including social networks, have only 1.5 million users. Sites such as BuzzinTown, RevvsCommon Floor have hardly created  enough buzz.

Homegrown sites  

Homegrown sites such as Minglebox, FropperSirfDosti and Bigadda are doing well, but are yet to achieve a threshold that would make them comparable with their global counterparts. The situation may change going forward, if these players are able to find ways of satiating local needs in ways that global sites may not be geared to address.  

As they are mostly clones of the Facebooks and Orkuts of the world, they fail to attract the metro crowd in India who form the bulk of the Internet users.

Need for niche, India-specific identity  

It is worth noting that the profile of most of the users of homegrown sites are from small towns and districts. For such clientele it is important to  create a niche identity with India-specific appeal. Matrimonial websites  — like BharatMatrimony, JeevanSaathi and Shaadi are also a form of social site in India. They are the Indian equivalent of international dating sites. Those who wouldn’t like to be seen on dating sites register in matrimonial sites – to meet interesting people and probably marry. As such sites conform to Indian cultural norms, most are successful, where members readily join, even on paying a fee.

Vernacular sites can capture a large audience  

The future of India-specific social sites lies not only in creating such niche identity, but also in offering them in languages the particular segment is comfortable with. An India-specific social site in Hindi is likely to attract a sizeable portion of the population who don’t feel free in an English site. And it will be a tremendous platform for advertisers and sponsors.

According to National Readership Survey 2006, the readership of English language newspaper is only 26 million, less than 10% of the overall readership of newspapers in India. As most social network sites are in English, they are leaving out the most sizeable section by not offering vernacular sites.

Presently a small section of this group goes to major global networks, but their scope of making connections is limited to those belonging to their own language group with whom they communicate in “Hinglish.”

Probably with this in mind, the proposed Facebook office in  India  will provide language support globally as well as locally. More than 70 translations are available on the website, including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. There are plans to introduce more Indian languages

Web usage in India to be driven by the mobile web  

According to TRAI, there are 250 million mobile phones in India compared to only 3 million broadband connections. It is also estimated that there are 38 million mobile web users in India. Even if we leave alone mobile web, 250 million Indians have access to SMS compared to the 20 million to 30 million Indians who have access to Internet and the 3 million Indians who have access to broadband. Not only that, mobile phone access is more widely distributed across both urban and urban Indian than Internet access.

This is a big reason why future web usage in India will be driven by the mobile web (with SMS integration) and not the PC web.
By Abhijit Banerjee
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