Social Media, Revolutions and the Meaning of Community

I know I promised another post about the ComScore report – which I haven’t finished reading.  In the meantime, I had great fun chiming in with the excellent people at BBC India on a G+ Hangout about how social media is (and isn’t) creating change in Indian society.

The other panelists were a motley crew, including entrepreneurs and academics.  We didn’t really get to a consensus about some the main questions – for eg, could social media drive a revolution? – but here’s what I took away.

Community. Indians often complain that this country lacks civic sense.  Social media user data, unfortunately, support that conclusion.  A Pew research report from December 2012 polled social media users in 21 nations and found that a median of 80.5% of social media users in  four Arab Spring countries – Tunisia,  Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – discussed community issues online.  The median for the 21-nation sample (which included developed and emerging countries) was 46%.  When it came to politics, a median 65% from these four Arab Spring nations talked about political issues online, while the median was 34%.  Meanwhile, what are Indians talking about online? Turns out, 41% of Indian social media users have discussed community issues online, way less than the 21-nation median.  Forty-five per cent (well above the median 34%) have talked about politics, but a whopping 85% talk about music and movies (well above the median 67%).  So in India, at least, religion is no longer the opiate of the masses – Shah Rukh Khan is.

Of course, there are huge issues in comparing these samples.  The Indian user base for social media is dominated by young men and middle-aged women (this bit courtesy of the ComScore report).  Still, it can’t be denied that the difference in the number of people talking about community issues is important, and bears further consideration.

The conversation around how social media drive change depends on defining “community,” and what that terms means for Indians.  After the Hangout officially ended, a few of us stayed to chat, including Ashish Tandon of Gram Vaani and Sachin Taparia of LocalCircles.  GV builds audio networks in rural areas, LC does the same for urban ones.

I asked Ashish whether he’d noticed a sense of community among GV’s target audience (GV’s sets up IVR-based audio networks in rural Jharkhand).  After all, one of the things that we hear a lot is that rural India has preserved a village-y sense of community wellbeing.  Interestingly, Ashish said that one of GV’s big challenges and lessons was that although people within villages often relied upon and found common cause with each other, their notion of “community” was incredibly limited.  Their communities encompassed one or two villages, at most, and sometimes even fewer.  So the challenge was to get rural indians to start looking at community in a broader sense, and finding ways to unite with people from different geographic and ethnic areas.

Meanwhile, Sachin Taparia is attempting to re-define communities for urban Indians.  He mentioned that LocalCircles had a lot of success getting people in neighborhoods to band together to bring about civic improvements (things like getting drain covers replaced, etc).  Technically, almost every neighborhood has a Residents Welfare Association that handles such tasks; in practice, these RWAs are usually staffed by a few well-meaning octogenarians and disregarded by everyone else.  Delhi is not a community-driven kind of place (in fact, it’s famous for a Darwinian social atmosphere.)  However, people in urban neighborhoods face extensive civic problems that can be positively resolved by working together in groups.  By introducing social and digital gathering places for urban communities, Taparia said LC was able to re-invigorate the lapsed notion of community action, and on several occasions prompted urban residents to create positive change.

There is a broad but important connection between how people approach their communities and how they approach their nation as a whole. Once people feel empowered to fix one minor and local problem, they will cast their sights more widely.  Social media are excellent at curating these daily/mundane concerns, and revolutions are born out of high principles (rarely) as well as mundane things like the high cost of onions (often).  India’s political and media elites are aware of this reality, which is why we have things like the Food Security Bill, as well as today’s top story in our leading economic newspaper: “Stinging onions likely to gatecrash [new RBI governor] Rajan’s Party.”  But the divide remains.  If Indians start posting about onions and drain covers as much as they post about MS Dhoni, maybe social media could start a revolution here too.

Reading ComScore’s “India Digital Future in Focus” Report 2013, Part One

India digital futureSeveral interesting takeaways from this year’s ComScore “Digital Future in Focus India 2013” report.  For the first part of this reading, I look at the basics.  Slides 1-12.  Follow along by downloading the report here.


1. 41% (ie, a plurality) of the world’s online audience is APAC-based, and in absolute numbers, this audience is growing. This fact is significant for consumer-facing media companies for many reasons.

  • A) The political establishment in many of these countries does not necessarily have an established history of favoring the free press.  From a legal perspective, social networks and certain related online companies are intermediaries, not publishers.  From a practical perspective, though, their expansion will be deeply affected by media and free speech laws in these nations – a trend that we’ve seen emerge in India and that will only intensify.  America and many nations in Europe enjoy a high level of press freedom and protection of what Americans typically consider First Amendment rights.  Such freedom is not the global norm.
  • B) Online behavior can and can’t be generalized across APAC. One interesting trend – the increasing emergence of social networking as a standalone and/or “bridge to the Internet” experience, a reality promoted by the runaway success of programs like Facebook for Every Phone.  In India, much is made of the “fragmented” media market – separated by language, earning power, method of consumption and preferences.  This fragmentation will be visible in the online sphere as well.
  • C) The emergence of far more robust “alternative” media, with ensuing demands for greater transparency among established media players.  By lowering the barriers to entry for publishing, the Internet erodes the traditional monopolies on information enjoyed by media houses.  Also, on an anecdotal level, I can say that holding “Big Media” to account is a very popular activity in the Blog-verse.
  • D) Emergence of publishers/monetizable online communities.  I remember meeting Premesh of Malaysiakini at an industry event a while back and was struck by the love-hate relationship that his site enjoys with regulation. On the one hand, strict government regulation is the entire reason that Malaysiakini evolved and grew – print newspapers weren’t free to criticize ruling authorities. Malaysiakini, digital-only, quickly developed a reputation for its ability and willingness to criticize regimes. Of course, this also led to government raids and extreme difficulty getting advertisers. Malaysiakini survived as a subscriber-supported site, when all its nearby competition is free.  To an extent, this type of community is what the new Dish is supposed to be about.
  • E) An urgent need for greater creativity regarding migrating ad revenues to mobiles.  Increased competition for online ad spends as well as low cost per consumer/click/view will combine. We will be seeing much more micro-media and micro-payment, with related opportunities for profitable disruption of the media delivery model.

2.  Report says India is “at a tipping point for online businesses.”  Guys – whether this is true or not, I can’t say. But I can say that every day brings a new ecommerce site into the mix, many of which seem to be powered by little more than a Shopify front and a Facebook ad campaign.  Clearly, some of these sites are achieving stickiness, but how many? Wouldn’t mind seeing a more detailed drilldown of ecomm startup launches and failures.

Tomorrow: Significance of age and gender breakdown, what the heck is up with car rentals and blogs?

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