A few weeks back, I participated in the net.works case study competition of IIMA’s Confluence along with 3 of my classmates in SJMSOM, IIT Bombay. As a part of the competition, we were asked to prepare a report on what a social network with 500 million users in India would look like. To this end, we conducted a survey to understand the expectations of users from a social network. We also researched the new developments and requirements for such a huge user base.
One of the things that is evident is that to reach a user base of 500 million as the case states, it is imperative that the social network is accessible to users in rural areas and bottom of the pyramid. There are nearly 6 lakh villages in India and around 60-70% of the population is in the rural areas. So, we dedicated a section in our report for this part of the population and the possible ways to get them on board and the value proposition for the different entities in this regard. I worked on this portion of our report and below is the extract from our report (with some links inserted for clarity) that dwelled upon this part. (Incidentally, my team mate, Parasuram who wrote the introduction of the report has also posted his part online)
There are numerous challenges that present when trying to increase the penetration of a social network in rural areas ranges from lack of infrastructure to that of education and local languages.
Since social networks are internet based and the internet penetration is negligible in the rural areas there is a major challenge in getting the potential users on the network. Mobile phone based access could be a potential solution, thought the penetration is not that high. However, majority of the devices used in these areas are of limited functionality in terms of internet access. Some areas may however have internet browsing centres, but they do not give users anytime access to the network. Thus, the traditional means of accessing the social network are unlikely to succeed in rural areas as the infrastructure is severely limited.
Education & literacy
Even if social networks were to become accessible in rural areas, there would still be challenges in gathering users as very few of the people there are familiar with computers or the internet since they lack basic computer education. Moreover, the internet largely assumes that the user can read and write which in case of rural areas is unlikely to be the case. Thus there is another layer of complexity that needs to be removed or overcome.
Here again, the internet and most social networks have been designed for English speakers (at least none for native Indian languages). So, even if the people were to be educated in the local languages, the language barrier would still remain. Many social networks and other sites do provide Indian language interfaces, but these are not ubiquitous. Also, there are numerous languages in India increasing the challenge further.
Since the challenges are manifold and diverse in nature, they have to be tackled from various dimensions. Some of them need to be tackled at the grassroots and it will take a significant amount of time and effort from various stakeholders to overcome them all.
- Mobile: The internet penetration or even personal computers in rural areas is negligible, but the relative penetration of mobile phones in these areas is significantly higher. This makes for a strong case for making the social network accessible on mobile phones. However, it must be noted that majority of the phones are going to have no internet access, and even if they do, the current mobile interface for the sites are unlikely to work on them. This means that an entirely new user interface has to be designed for such users. Some of the requirements of such an interface would be:
- Largely voice driven to tackle the literacy barriers
- Support for local languages
- Maximum information in minimum space without compromising the usability since screen real estate is at a premium on basic phones
- Postmen with MIDs (Mobile Internet Device): The Indian Postal service is probably the only organization with access to even the remotest of locations. This makes it an ideal partner for increasing the outreach of a social network. The last mile entity, i.e., the postman in this case could be equipped with an MID which would provide functionality on par with a desktop and allow the various households to check their social network profiles in the areas covered by the postman. While this approach tackles the problem of accessibility and increases the richness of the interaction with the social network, it makes for a fleeting user experience as the postman is not going to be able to spend too much time per user. Other complexities would be the initial investments in establishing the infrastructure for such a system and subsequently supporting and maintaining it.
- Mobile internet centres: This solution could be seen as a cross between the postman MID solution and a browsing centre like ITC’s e-choupal centres. In this case, a vehicle equipped with multiple PCs/netbooks and mobile internet connectivity could go from village to village on a periodic basis enabling the people to access the internet and consequently the social network. There could be a hourly charge for accessing the service depending upon the ability to pay.
- DTH television services: The social network could also be made accessible on DTH television services as there are a fair number of DTH users in rural areas. However, this has two limitations. First is the unidirectional nature of DTH due to which the service will probably need to be complemented with mobile services to make it interactive. Second is that a new interface will need to be designed for this medium.
Educating the rural masses is essential to growing the user base beyond the city boundaries. In this regard, partnering with different organizations and even the government in a mutually beneficial manner is key. One of the interesting approaches adopted in this regard was the Hole in the wall experiment conducted over the last decade. This approach seeks to emphasize on peer to peer learning in an unsupervised environment using a computer. This would have to be a long term initiative and an internet focused operating system like the Google Chrome OS would be ideal in shifting the learning emphasis towards the internet and subsequently social networks.
For a massive initiative to raise social networking awareness and tap into the potential rural user base, it is imperative to have complete buy in from all stakeholders who are numerous. We are listing some of them here:
- Telecom service providers: They are essential for the success of social networks in rural areas as they form the backbone of the access infrastructure in any area. Since the rural user base is going to be targeted primarily through the mobile interface, the service providers will have to enable the new means of access to social networks through their networks. In fact tie ups to enable one key access to the social network, like in the case of Aircel-facebook, or feature the social network on the provider’s web interface (accessible through mobile phones) would be key in expanding the user base. In turn, the providers would benefit from increased usage of their services.
- Corporates: Rural Indians can be seen to be quite brand conscious as many of the major corporates are coming out with smaller SKUs that are affordable to the masses. Moreover, label and container imitation are also quite prevalent in such markets. Thus, corporates with a presence in rural areas would want to increase awareness levels regarding such issues in those markets. This requirement could tapped to become a major source of advertisement revenue for the social network as the social network seeks to connect people and build communication channels between them which is ideal for advertising and recommendations.
- Government: In any social development effort, it is important to have a buy in from the government for it to succeed. Since these efforts seek to tackle many of the basic issues like literacy, education and communication, there is a major role for the government to play in order to promote development by the means of favourable legislations, rules, regulations and the wide array of resources including the Indian Postal service at its disposal. Moreover, such an effort also has synergies with making e-governance services accessible to one and all.
- NGOs: Just as the government can extend its support through various resources at its disposal, NGOs can also help in implementing all the activities required to promote the adoption of social networks in rural areas. Tie ups with NGOs are likely to be essential to reach out to the various areas and put into action all the plans for education, infrastructure setup etc.
- Political parties: Since the solutions reach out to the masses in rural areas and seek to ultimately connect them in a better manner through the means of a network, political parties also have a major stake in this effort as they hold to benefit from this effort. A thoroughly networked rural India means a very efficient means of communication and reaching out to the masses that would be of interest to the parties. This would change the dynamics of campaigning for elections, holding rallies and other such efforts due to the wide connectedness brought about by a social network.
Applications for bottom of the pyramid and rural population
- Job search: India has a huge labour class sitting at the bottom of the pyramid of the socio economic triangle. However, most of the poor Indians in such category remain poor not because there are not better jobs but because of the fact that they lack connections to find such jobs. We wish to target this facility to include skilled yet illiterate / low literacy level labour class like drivers, plumbers, gardeners, housemaids, electrician, carpenter, midwives etc. who can register on the social networking site at least once. The people in need of such services can search for skilled labour on the social networking site for “occupation” & “location”. Also, many seasonal jobs can be filled in this way and such an application will be a boon to seasonal workers in rural areas in search of work. We propose that the registration of a social networking site should also include “occupation” field which should also occur in the search field. Thus when a person in a city like Mumbai has to find an electrician for a small job, he need not go on a lookout. He can just search such a person from the social networking site & get the contact details from the same. This will have a high value proposition for such skilled labour as finding a job will be much easier & hence a high incentive to register on the site & keep checking for jobs available. At the same time, for households, it will bring in a lot of convenience, especially when you are shifting to a new place.
- Mail service augmentation: Social networks can make for a rich user experience when accesses through a capable medium. The postman access point mentioned earlier would effectively enable people in rural areas to gain access to richer experiences. For ex., they would be able to view photos and videos from their relatives in distant places through the postman’s MID.