Mar 22 2009

How Internet and Mobile Technologies are Transforming Election Campaigning in India

by at 10:44 pm

Politics in India is essentially local and India’s voters elect their representatives based on small local and regional issues, instead of the big national issues. As a result, election rallies and door-to-door canvassing, supplemented by local hoardings and print ads in the vernacular languages have traditionally been at the core of election campaigning in India.

In 2004, the incumbent BJP broke away from this pattern with its aggressive nation-wide ‘India Shining’ campaign. It recruited advertising and PR agencies to manage its campaign, focused on the urban first time voter, advertised heavily on print and television, and allocated 5% of its campaign budget to an e-campaign, for revamping its campaign website, pushing out text messages, pre-recorded voice clips and emails to its database of 20 million email users and 20 million phone users, and offering campaign-related mobile ringtones for download (BBC/ BBC/ Rediff/ Hindu). The ‘India Shining’ campaign didn’t work eventually, and Sonia Gandhi led Congress to a surprise victory, once again reaffirming the almost magical appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family amongst India’s voters. Many observers even attributed BJP’s loss to its “elitist” ‘India Shining’ campaign (Live Mint).

In spite of its “failure”, BJP’s India Shining campaign has set the pattern for all Indian election campaigns since then: spend 40-50% on print, 20% on outdoors, 15% on TV, 5%-10% on internet and mobile and the rest on radio, film theaters and on-ground activities (Live Mint).

What, then, has changed since 2004? For one, the demographic profile of India’s electoral based has shifted. More than half of India’s 1150 million population is younger than 25, 42 million new voters have entered the electorate since 2004, and, as a result of the newly delimited constituencies, the importance of urban votes has increased in the electoral collage. Not only that, the internet and mobile penetration in India has increased dramatically since 2004, from 26 million to 365 million for mobile, and from 16 million to 80 million for the internet. Even more importantly, shaken by the 11/26 Mumbai terrorist attack, and inspired by Barack Obama’s success in the US elections, the young urban Indian is likely to step out to vote for the first time in India’s recent electoral history. As a result, both BJP and Congress are targeting young, urban voters like never before. BJP and Congress, however, have adopted different tactic to appeal to this audience. While Congress is banking on the youthful appeal of Rahul Gandhi, the 39 year of scion of the Gandhi family, BJP has embarked on an aggressive 360 degree campaign, inspired by the Obama campaign (Chicago Tribune/ AFP/ Indian Express/ TOI/ Reuters).

While BJP’s official website is nothing but a brochure, Lal Krishna Advani’s website has several interesting features. To begin with, LK Advani’s blog has been active since January 2009 and each of the ten odd posts have between 50 to 150 comments. Surprisingly, the Hindi version of LK Advani’s blog has very few comments. The forum on LK Advani’s website isn’t much to look at, but it’s doing well, with 6586 members, 2940 topics, and 9354 posts.

The Advani@Campus initiative seeks to build a grassroots volunteer campaign “to contact and mobilize young voters in thousands of college campuses across the country” (Telegraph/ DNA/ NDTV/ Indian Express). The focus on recruiting volunteers is reflected in a well-structured volunteer program. The tasks range from recruiting first time voters, promoting LK Advani’s website and social media profiles, translating sections of the website, designing banner ads, and helping out with other campaign work. According to one report, BJP has recruited more than 7000 volunteers through the website (Business Standard).

Bloggers for Advani

Especially interesting is the Bloggers for Advani initiative run by Mallika Noorani. The initiative is coordinated through a Google Group (started based on a suggestion by yours truly), and encourages bloggers to display a Bloggers for Advani button and promote BJP’s ideas on their blogs.

Advani youtube channel

It seems that most of the social media initiatives on the Advani campaign are run by volunteers and encouraged by the campaign coordinators. In any case, it’s difficult to identify which profiles or groups are official and which are unofficial. The official website links to a LK Advani Facebook page (with 390 supporters) and an Advani for PM Orkut group (with 960 members), but there are several other unofficial groups with similar memberships. The (official?) BJP Supporters Group on Orkut has 22,157 members. Similarly, there’s confusion about whether the @BJP_ Twitter profile, which has 416 followers is indeed official.

bjp_twitter_profile

A group which seems to work closely with the campaign team is the Friends of BJP group (Facebook/ Orkut), which includes several prominent professionals including Rajesh Jain and R K Mishra. Another unofficial website which is getting some traction is Join BJP.

Apart from these national level initiatives, several BJP leaders, including Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and V K Malhotra also have well-designed websites. Narendra Modi and V K Malhotra also have Twitter profiles.

The BJP is also running an aggressive online ad campaign, primarily with Google, with search ads across as many as 200,000 keywords, placement ads across 50,000 websites, and banner ads across 2,000 websites. With a billion searches every month, BJP’s campaign is expected to recah 75% of India’s internet users (Live Mint/ Economics Times).

BJP is also planning to send one billion SMSes to about 250 million cellphone users, who are not enrolled in the Do-Not-Call registry. Overall, telecom operators expect to make an additional revenue of $10 million from an extra traffic of 3-4 billion SMSes sent by all the political parties, apart from money from from multimedia messages, songs and wallpapers (Economic Times/ Indian Express/ Financial Express).

Last week, the BJP also released a detailed 30-page IT Vision document (PDF) with much fanfare. The document is partly a road map to reform and partly a pre-election populist pipe dream. It promises to give the highest priority to developing IT infrastructure and leveraging it for better governance and inclusive development. Specifically, it promises to match China on all IT-related parameters within 5 years. While many observers have dismissed the document as pre-election populism, others have pointed out that it is a testament to BJP’s forward looking thinking that it believes that it can win an election by promising to transform India into an IT super-power.

vote_for_congress

The Indian National Congress, on the other hand, seems to be stuck in the web 1.0 era. Both the official Congress website and the Congress Media websites are online brochures. The Vote for Congress portal, which was supposed to revolutionize its online campaign by providing the Congress candidates a platform to blog (Hindu/ TOI), is still not up. None of the senior Congress leaders — Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh — have a website and, what’s worse, their URLs are owned by cyber-squatters (Indian Express). The party does want to set up 600 internet kiosks across the country (Hindu) but without engaging interactive content, their effectiveness might be limited.

Shashi Tharoor — author and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations — is perhaps the only Congress candidate to seriously leverage the web in his campaign, with presence on Facebook and Orkut (CIOL/ Sify). Former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna has a Twitter profile. Some of the younger Congress candidates like Priya Dutt, Milind Deora (Facebook) and Sachin Pilot also have well-designed websites, but aren’t really active on social media.

vote_for_cpim

Several other regional parties have either set up, or revamped, their websites, in the run up to the general elections. The CPI-M (Live Mint/ Hindu/ Economic Times/ Indian Express) and Samajvadi Party websites seem to be the most well-designed. However, none of these websites are using social media tools, beyond asking for donations and newsletter subscriptions.

Many observers have pointed out that the digital campaigns by BJP and other Indian political parties are amateurish in comparison to Barack Obama’s social media campaign (CIOL/ Networked World) and they are right. BJP’s digital campaign can hardly be compared to Obama’a campaign, in terms of ambition, execution or results. The campaign is hardly going to change the course of the election; the election will still be decided in India’s small towns and villages. But, even if it “fails”, the campaign will set a precedent for all future elections in India, just like the ‘India Shining’ campaign did, five years ago.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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Feb 28 2009

Shiv Sena’s Orkut Campaign: The Limits to Freedom of Expression in an Intolerant India

by at 3:30 am

Introduction: Freedom of Expression in the Indian Blogosphere

The Indian blogosphere is abuzz with discussions on freedom of expression after the Supreme Court refused to throw out Shiv Sena’s defamation case against 19 year old computer science student Ajith D (TOI).

However, the Indian blogosphere’s reactions to the controversy are mostly based on reports on the incident in Indian media. The quality of this reporting, however, has been very mediocre, with few details and little background information. As a result, bloggers are reacting to incomplete information.

So, before I do a roundup of the Indian blogosphere’s reactions to the story and share my own views, let me first present the basic facts.

Shiv Sena’s Tradition of Violent Protests

Let’s start with Shiv Sena itself. Shiv Sena is a far right political party in Maharashtra that built a strong base amongst the Marathi community in the sixties based on its militant ideology that Maharashtra belonged to the Marathi community and migrants from other Indian states should be thrown out. Starting from the mid-seventies, the Shiv Sena shifted its focus to a strong pro-Hindutva (and anti-Muslim) ideology, a shift that solidified in the mid nineties, when it became an integral part of right wing alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Shiv Sena has often been accused of being involved in coordinated political violence against against non-Marathis and non-Hindus. It is widely acknowledged that Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery, who is revered amongst its supporters, has been instrumental in inciting such violence on many occasions. The Shiv Sena also has a long and well-documented history of violent protests against journalists, writers and artists who speak against its extremist ideologies (see BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, NYT 1, NYT 2, NYT 3, NYT 4, Guardian 1, Guardian 2).

It’s important that we look at Shiv Sena’s ire against Orkut in the context of its long history of ideological intolerance and violent protests.

Shiv Sena’s Unholy Nexus With Orkut

The story started in November 2006, when Shiv Sena activists stumbled across an anti-Shivaji community on Orkut. Shivaji is a 16th century Maratha warrior, who is revered by the Marathi community. Pune police asked cyber cafe owners to block the anti-Shivaji community after violence by Shiv Sena. A public interest litigation was also filed in Bombay High Court to ban Orkut for hosting the anti-Shivaji community (TOI 1, TOI 2, Rediff 1, Rediff 2, NDTV, Financial Express).

In January 2007, the Maharashtra government requested the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), a Delhi-based regulatory body under the Ministry of Information and Technology, to remove the offensive content. According to the Information Technology Act of 2000 and the gazette notification issued in February 2003, the CERT is responsible for investigating requests to block websites from notified officers of the Union government or the state governments. If it finds the website objectionable, it communicate its decision to the licensing and regulations cell of the department of telecommunications for passing the order to the internet service providers to block the website (Indian Express, Live Mint).

The Shiv Sena also asked its supporters to flag these communities on Orkut, so that they could be banned (Orkut discussion thread 1, Orkut discussion thread 2). This resulted in a flagging war on Orkut, where users who were part of pro-Sena and anti-Sena communities flagged each other’s communities. For a short while, many pro-Sena and anti-Sena communities were banned by Google, but many of them were quickly reinstated (Orkut discussion thread).

The Shiv Sena also sent letters to Google and internet service providers in India to block these communities and even met up with Google officials, along with Maharashtra government and Mumbai police officials.

In January 2007, Google decided to cooperate with the Mumbai police and instituted an informal arrangement called the Priority Reporting Tool which enabled Mumbai police to directly report objectionable content to Google and also ask it for details of IP addresses and service providers. Based on the recommendation of Mumbai Police, Google deleted communities against Shivaji, Bal Thackeray and dalit leader B R Ambedkar (TOI, IHT, Indian Express).

Google usually uses IP blocking to block controversial content only in countries in which it violates local laws and refuses to share the IP addresses of its users (NYT). Under Indian law, if IP addresses of the offenders need to be obtained, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) needs to be involved. So, it’s strange that Google decided to help Mumbai police short-circuit the Indian legal system. Google, by the way, hasn’t really explained why it made an exception in Orkut’s case, when the Indian cyber law already had a process for handling such a situation.

However, even as Google banned some communities that contained defamatory content, it initially refused to ban several other communities that were against Shiv Sena’s leaders or ideologies. As a result, Abhijit Phanse, the president of Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the student wing of Shiv Sena, took matters in his own hands and led a violent campaign against Orkut.

In May 2007, the Sena sent letters to internet cafes threatening attacks against their establishments, if they didn’t stop their customers from accessing these Orkut communities. In June 2006, it followed up on its threats by ransacking several internet cafes in Mumbai and physically abusing cafe owners and customers. As a result, cyber cafes in Mumbai registered a drop in traffic and were forced to put up notices asking their customers not to visit Orkut.

The Shiv Sena also pressured Mumbai police, which has often been criticized for being partial to the Sena, to support its cause. The police instructed internet cafe owners in Mumbai and Thane to prohibit their customers from accessing Orkut, asked Google to block the controversial communities on Orkut, and even requested CERT-In, to ban Orkut. The Sena also sent a letter to President A P J Abdul Kalam, requesting him to ban Orkut.

The Sena even announced that it was developing a special software that internet service providers could install to block any message containing certain words and phrases such as “I hate” or “I despise”.

These incidents were widely documented in Indian media (see Reuters 1, Rediff 1, Rediff 2, IBN Live, NDTV, Indian Express 1, Indian Express 2, Indian Express 3, Indian Express 4, Indian Express 5, Economic Times, Business Standard 1, Business Standard 2, TOI) and debated in the Indian blogosphere and Orkut community (The Hindu). It’s especially worthwhile to see two opinion pieces by Amit Varma in LiveMint and Sevathi Ninan in The Hindu criticizing these trends.

The news stories don’t give details about CERT’s decision on banning Orkut, or the final settlement between Shiv Sena and Orkut, but several anti-Shiv Sena communities have been banned since then.

The Mumbai and Pune police have also put their arrangement with Google to good use since then.

In September/ October 2007, the Pune police arrested four Bangalore based software engineers — 25 year old Lakshmana Kailash, 23 year old Manjunath Betegowda, 23 year old Harish Shetty and 22 year old Kiran Reddy — for posting an obscene profile of Shivaji on Orkut, in which he was shown clad in female innerwear (Economic Times, TOI). It was later found that the arrest of Lakshmana Kailash, who was detained for 50 days, was based on wrong IP addresses provided by Bharti Airtel (TOI 1, TOI 2, TOI 3, The Hindu, Rediff). Lakshmana then sued Airtel, Maharashtra government and Mumbai police and demanded Rs 20 crore in damages (IBN Live, TOI). The status of his case isn’t clear from the news reports.

In August 2008, the Mumbai Police arrested Ghaziabad based computer engineer Adarsh Sinha for posting death threats against Bal Thackeray using a fake email identity in the name of Faizab Farooqi. They also arrested Mumbai resident Suresh Shetty, a moderator of this community. (TOI)

Shiv Sena isn’t Alone on Orkut

Incidentally, there are similar communities on Orkut against other political parties and political leaders, including “We Hate Congress”, “I Hate Indira Gandhi,” “I Hate Rajshekhar Reddy”, “We hate Pratibha Patil” and “I Hate Deve Gowda” (Business Standard, Rediff, TOI, Mid Day, Salon).

In October 2006, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court directed the Maharashtra government to issue a notice to Google for hosting a community called ‘We Hate India’ on Orkut, forcing Google to delete the community (TOI, Business Standard, Economics Times).

In March 2007, Google deleted a community that had defamatory content against West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, after Kolkata police asked Mumbai police to help it ban it (Economic Times, The Telegraph).

In May 2008, the Pune police arrested 22 year old Gurgaon based IT professional Rahul Vaid for posting derogatory content about Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi on an Orkut community named “I Hate Sonia Gandhi”. In June 2008, they also arrested 22 year old Hyderabad resident Nithin Sajja for a similar offense. Interestingly, the person who formed this community wasn’t considered guilty as per the law. The police said that “hating Sonia Gandhi is a personal opinion of the person who formed the community and having a personal opinion about someone is not an offense as per the law” (TOI 1), (TOI 2).

The Pune police is also looking for three Uttar Pradesh residents — Rohit Wadhwani, Amit Arya and Ankit Sharma — for posting abusive messages involving Mahatma Gandhi on Orkut (Indian Express).

It’s interesting to note that Mumbai and Pune police is involved in almost all the cases related to defamation of political figures in Orkut communities, even though Google has similar arrangements with police in five Indian cities (Telegraph). One news report says that Pune police itself has arrested 16 people in such incidents (Indian Express). It seems as if there is a war of oneupmanship amongst Shiv Sena and Congress members in Maharashtra to win brownie points with their leaders by pressuring Mumbai and Pune police to pursue these cases.

By the way, the Indian government has also considered banning user generated videos on mobile (MMS) and the web (Economic Times) and the Mumbai police has installed keystroke logging software in cyber cafes to tackle piracy and cyber crime.

Shiv Sena’s Case Against Ajith D

Ajith D, a 19 year computer science student from Kerala, started a community called ‘I Hate Shiv Sena’ on Orkut. One of the anonymous commentators on the website posted a death threat to Bal Thackeray. It seems from news reports the Mumbai police has charged Ajith for both criminal intimidation and hurting religious sentiments.

Mumbai police tracked Ajith’s Orkut and GMail accounts for a week to ascertain his address and sent a team to his hometown in Cherthala, in August 2008, to nab him. However, television channels flashed news of their arrival, helping Ajith to escape and the police team could only confiscate the hard disk of his computer. The team also said that they were observing the Orkut postings and Internet activities of around 50 other members of the community (Hindu).

Subsequently, Ajith got anticipatory bail from Kerala High Court and moved the Supreme Court through counsel Jogy Scaria seeking quashing of the criminal complaint based on the ground that he hadn’t posted the death threat and the community itself wasn’t defamatory. The Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice P Sathasivam, however, refused to protect him and said: “if someone files a criminal action on the basis of the content, then you will have to face the case. You have to go before the court and explain your conduct.” (TOI) The media has also quoted very vague remarks from the judgment that can be interpreted very loosely: “You are a computer student and you know how many people access internet portals” (TOI); “Anything that is posted on the internet goes to the public” (The Guardian); “If a case is filed in a foreign country go and face it” (The Hindu).

Roundup of Blog Discussions on the Ajith D Case

As I mentioned above, several bloggers have reacted strongly to the Supreme Court judgment, often based on partial information (CXOToday).

Lawyer Lawrence Liang at Kafila writes a detailed post on whether a defamation case should be settled under civil law or criminal law and delineates a history of defamation cases against Indian bloggers. He also makes a pertinent point in the Ajith D case —

When organizations like the Shiv Sena and the Sri Ram Sene start using defamation laws, it smacks of chutzpah to me. The definition of Chutzpah is a person who kills his parents, and then claims clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan. What other way can we describe the bizarre situation of the violence prone macho men, who suddenly run around screaming about the violation of their legal rights and the slurring of their reputation?

Patrix thinks that the Indian legal system is biased against freedom of speech —

As you see, anything under the sun can be categorized as an restriction to your freedom of speech. If I say something innocuous and that leads to couple of weirdos smashing shop windows in the town, all it does to get me into trouble is the weirdos saying that my words made them do it. My freedom of speech will be curtailed under “public order” or “incitement to an offense” restrictions. Shouldn’t actions be punished instead of words?

Marshall Kirkpatrick at RWW thinks that the Supreme Court judgement has repercussions for bloggers in all democratic societies —

It’s a good idea for us as individual web users to remember that even as new internet technology sets so much information and so many voices free, even in a celebrated democracy – online freedom may be one repressive legal ruling away from being put at serious risk. No matter where you might live – do you trust that your local judiciary would understand the issues in a case like this? We don’t.

Nikhil Moro from Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group thinks that freedom of expression lost a case in India —

Historically India’s courts have accorded a high place for expression in the hierarchy of freedoms, but as Mr. Ajit’s unfortunate affair shows, social media activists should expect the state to use a myriad of laws other than libel.

Sanjukta thinks that the Supreme Court decision is good for Indian blogging —

This would help clean up a lot of #@%$ that goes around the blogsphere, will help us become more responsible and mature writers thereby establishing credibility for bloggers’ opinion and most importantly it would kill the terrible habit of writing all kinds of indecent, uncivilized, abusive things anonymously in the comments thread. This would also compel the blog owner or community discussion board owner to keep the discussion clean and abuse free. It will enforce the dicipline of self regulation on bloggers, isn’t that a great thing to achieve.

2s at Mutiny warns against a simplistic discussion on freedom of expression —

The laws of the land must find better ways to control what is being written or said in a public forum than restricting and threatening bloggers with action. Bloggers in India must together call for what I think is a more mature approach and law towards dealing with public defamatory comments on the internet. Bloggers are, after all, not “public” figures like political leaders are and to judge both by the same yardstick might not necessarily be the best method. Besides, is this restricted to just blog posts? What about comments on these posts? What about tweets?

Pramit Singh believes that the SC judgment shouldn’t scare bloggers in India —

Some might think the days of free-for-all Orkut groups are over. Others will say they are in fear of treading against people with might – the politicians, big business, virtually anyone with an army of lawyers, who, in this case are trying to put fear of appearing in courts for God knows how many times and thus choosing to ‘write wisely’.

However, I have faith in our Justice system. Bloggers are not going to face a million lawsuits in India.

Dhananjay Nene thinks that the Supreme Court’s judgment isn’t a conclusive blow to bloggers’ rights —

One important aspect which is perhaps easy to lose sight of in this debate is that the Supreme Court did not weigh in on the guilt or lack of it in this case, but on the fact that the person could not shy away from the responsibility to face the charges in a court.

Lawyer Praveen Dalal also says that we should not read too much in the Supreme Court’s judgment —

With the Constitutional Protections on the side of Bloggers there must be very strong reasons to book a person for Defamation or disturbing Religious Harmony. The case is before the lower court that is also a fact finding authority. It is only after the lower court comes to a conclusion that we can proceed either to convict or acquit the accused Blogger. The Supreme Court of India did not found reasons to “Quash” the criminal proceeding against the accused and in the absence of the complete facts of the case as well as the copy of the judgment, it is very difficult to judge the correctness or incorrectness of the same. However, in all probability the accused would be either acquitted or released after admonition.

In an email reproduced in Vijay Mohanty‘s post, senior blogger-journalist Prem Panicker also thinks that the Supreme Court verdict is no big deal —

The SC only said that it cannot, suo moto, quash a criminal prosecution.

It did not say the case is well-founded — that is for the court to decide on the basis of existing law.

Conclusion: The Limits to Freedom of Expression in an Intolerant India

As for me, I see the Ajith D case as part of a larger trend, which operates at many levels.

At the very least, we should see this case as part of Mumbai and Pune police’s crusade against inflammatory Orkut communities. Sixteen Orkut users have been arrested in the last two years on charges of criminal intimidation and hurting religious sentiments, and one of them spent 50 days in police custody based on a mistake in identifying an IP address! It’s a serious crusade that will only become more intense in the foreseeable future and it raises several important questions.

To begin with, do we really want to defend a blogger, or a community owner, or a commentator, who has posted death threats against a common citizen or a public figure, or allowed these comments to be posted and then refused to remove them?

Going beyond that, should the Indian legal system apply the same standards for defamation for a common citizen and a public figure, especially a public figure as controversial as Bal Thackeray?

How can we allow a political party like Shiv Sena, which has set unprecedented standards in inflammatory religious speech (and violent action to back it up), to complain about blog posts or community comments hurting religious sentiments?

And, finally, given Google’s willingness to short-circuit the Indian legal system and share Orkut and GMail personal data with Mumbai and Pune police, how comfortable should we feel in building our entire online presence on Google’s services?

At another level, we should see this case as part of a trend, in India and in democratic countries internationally, where traditional institutions are fighting back against the internet and trying to limit its freedoms.
Barkha Dutt and NDTV threatening to sue blogger Chetan Kunte for defamation is a part of this trend. Shri Ram Sena beating up women in a Mangalore pub and then threatening to sue the organizers of the Pink Chaddi Campaign is a part of this trend. US senators refusing to believe that child predators aren’t a big threat on the internet is part of this trend. US, UK, Australian and Indian governments introducing tough censorship and cyber crime laws are also a part of this trend.

All these actions, individually and collectively, curtail our personal and public freedoms and also our ability to fight for these freedoms. By threatening to sue a blogger, rightly or wrongly, NDTV has curtailed Indian media’s ability to question violations of freedom of speech in India. Similarly, by closing down the internet in their own countries, US, UK, Australia and India have curtailed their ability to question violations of freedom of speech in Iran or China.

So, what happens in the case of Ajith D is important in itself, but it is also important as part of what’s happening with the internet itself. It’s critical that we force ourselves to open our eyes and see the bigger picture before it’s too late.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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Feb 18 2009

Comscore Report on Social Networking Sites in India

by at 1:27 pm

According to a Comscore report on social networking sites in India, visits to the site category increased 51 percent from the previous year to more than 19 million visitors in December 2008.

Orkut is still a strong #1 with 12.8 million visitors and a 81% growth over December 2007. Facebook is far behind with 4.0 million visitors, in spite of its impressive 150% growth. BharatStudent is a surprising #3 with 3.3 million visitors and a 88% growth.

Other international social networking sites Hi5, MySpace and LinkedIn also did well at #4, #6 and #7 with 2.0 million, 0.7 million and 0.5 million visitors and growths of 182%, 110% and 71% respectively.

The Indian social networking websites Ibibo and BigAdda, however, didn’t do well and fell down by 50% and 25% to 1.0 million and 0.4 million visitors respectively.

I’ll look at the Comscore data with suspicion because it excludes traffic from cyber cafes, an important venue for internet access in India.

Still, the data is mostly consistent with my analysis of search trends for social networking sites in India, with the exception of BharatStudent’s surprise #3 position. I knew that both Ibibo and BigAdda were struggling, in spite of refocusing on entertainment, but I thought BigAdda was struggling more. Part of the reason may be that Comscore has only released one month’s data but the traffic for Ibibo and BigAdda fluctuates based on their ad campaigns.

I expect the trend of international social networking websites gaining ground from Indian social networking websites to continue, because most Indian players in the space are mere me-too clones. As I said in my social media predictions for 2009, several Indian social networking websites will shut down in 2009, unless they reposition themselves as niche player.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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Oct 26 2008

Universal McCann: Social Networking for Making New Friends, Blogging for Socializing with Friends

by at 2:31 pm

In my earlier post on the recently published Universal McCann study, I had written about how we use different communication channels to stay in touch with our contacts.

Perhaps the most important insight in the Universal McCaan study is that we use the internet for expanding our network of contacts but use the mobile phone to maintain our current network.

Here’s another interesting insight from the Universal McCann report: we use social networks for making new friends and personal blogs for socializing with friends —

Universal McCann Social Media Study

In the previous post, we found that Brazilians and the Indians are amongst the most social online whereas the Americans are amongst the least social. The same trend can be seen here.

While differences in culture partly explain this significant difference in online social behavior, self-selection is also part of the explanation. Given the low penetration of the internet in Brazil and India, social media usage in these countries suffers from a serious early adopter bias.

But, let’s return to the idea that we use social networks for making new friends and personal blogs for socializing with friends. The idea presumes that our social network profile is more public than our personal blog, and I think that it’s indeed the case for most of us. I’m sure that many active social network users who have hundreds of friends on Facebook or Orkut have personal blogs that are rarely updated and read only by a few close friends and family members.

However, many of us have built substantial readerships for our blogs and use them as much for broadcasting as for socializing. For us, the opposite is likely to hold true. We meet new readers through the blog, interact with them via the comment section, e-mail or internet messenger, become friends with them, and then add them as a friend on Facebook or Orkut. I think that Twitter and FriendFeed are more similar to blogs than social networks on the broadcasting/ socializing continuum, in the sense that they are also hybrids, used both for broadcasting and socializing.

What’s the directionality for you? Do you make new social network friends via your blog or do your social network friends become readers for your blog? Do share your experiences in the comments section.

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Oct 22 2008

Social Network World Map: Why Do Indians & Brazilians Love Orkut?

by at 2:18 pm

Here’s the latest world map of social networks based on Alexa data (via Oxyweb) —

World Map of Social Networks 2008

— and Indian and Brazil are the only two countries in the world where Orkut is the most popular social network.

I have often wondered what joins Brazilians and Indians in their love for Orkut. The answer is a combination of serendipity, first mover advantage, faster loading time, simplicity of the name, similarity of the name to Hindi/ Portuguese sounds, simplicity of the user interface, and association with the Google brand name, but the most powerful reason is the lax attitude towards privacy common to Indians and Brazilians. Continue Reading »

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