Missing In Action — Indian Social Media Apps

There are quite a few Indian social media apps out there. But why aren't they taking off? Are they caught in a firestorm of Tech Wars? What's really going on? Let's find out.

Indian social media apps: Where are they?


August 29, 2023: Over the last 15 years, social media has become the benchmark of a country’s power in the internet world. Just like it is in diplomacy and politics, America and China are dominating the scene. Look at the most widely used social platforms in Bharat today. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp – well, they’re all American.

Most of them are run by companies based in Silicon Valley in California. We don’t realise it, but Bharat’s massive population of internet users completely depend on digital platforms owned by Californian companies. In that sense, we are pets of Silicon Valley.

Bharat is the world’s second-largest market of social media users, with over 755 million netizens. No.1 China has over 1 billion social media users. The US is at No.3 with over 302 million. Then come Indonesia and Brazil, with 217 million and 166 million social media users each.

Globally, about 4.88 billion people use social media. That is almost 61% of the global population. Just during the last 12 months, at least 173 million new users have joined social media. An average internet user visits almost 7 social media sites in a day, and spends about 2 and a half hours per day on social platforms. It means people spend 15% of their time glued to social media.

And now, there is yet another social platform in the market. Threads. The new American microblogging site is Facebook’s response to Twitter. Threads was launched on 5th July in 100 countries, including Bharat. In just a few days after its launch, Threads already saw 100 million signups. In fact, Bharat has already become the biggest market for Threads. More than 25% of Threads users are Indian. It is double the market share that it has in its own country, the United States.

Spotlight on Indian social media apps

There’s a question that we Indians need to ask ourselves. If Silicon Valley is easily exploiting the huge market in our country, why can’t Indian companies make use of it? Don’t we have enough talent? Can we stop relying on American social media sites? Why don’t we Indians use our homegrown social media apps? Actually, it will be wrong to say we don’t have our own social platforms. We do have, there are quite a few, but people hardly know about them.

There’s a Bangalore-based app called ShareChat. It was fully local when it started. Later, Twitter and Google bought stakes in it. Then there’s Koo, India’s answer to Twitter. It is now also used in Nigeria and Brazil. Then there’s Chingari, Moj, Josh, Kutumb, Leher, and a few other local apps. They are stable, safe, and were created locally. An interesting trend is, after these Indian platforms passed the test of time, foreign companies started buying stakes in them.

So, what is stopping the people of Bharat from switching to Indian social media apps? There are two reasons. One. The Indian government is fighting a slow battle with American Big Tech companies. But it has not made it a national agenda to push homegrown apps. So, the public is not aware that local apps exist. Just like you felt surprised to hear the names of some of the Indian apps, most Indians never heard of them. People are only familiar with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and so on.

Remember, Bharat has already shown that it is capable of producing high-quality digital products. Take UPI, for example. The payment platform was built by the National Payments Corporation of India. It has become so popular that other countries are now using it, such as Bhutan and Nepal. Some Gulf countries have also shown interest.

Then take the example of Paytm. It was created entirely by Indians. Later on, foreign stakeholders took partial control of it. Cashless apps are not good for Bharat. At Empire Diaries, we don’t support cashless systems. But Paytm stands out as an example for the world that Bharat can create world-class digital platforms.

Indian social media apps vs. Big Tech?

Now, let’s talk about the second reason why Indian social media apps are not taking off. It might sound too speculative, but there’s perhaps some kind of pressure from western Big Tech companies. Companies like Alphabet and Meta completely control India’s digital marketplace. They will never want to lose control of this vast market. They are powerful monopolies. They can go to any extent to try stopping Indians from using Indian-made platforms.

History shows us that the US can do such things. Remember the Stuxnet virus attack in Iran? Let me recall the chilling story. When Iran was developing its own nuclear facility, the US and Israel jointly created the Stuxnet virus. The mission, called Operation Olympic Games, was to use the virus to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. It was basically an illegal cyberattack launched by the US and Israel. Why? Because America didn’t want Iran to become nuclear independent.

So you will have to connect the dots. In the same way, Silicon Valley companies won’t want Bharat to popularise Indian social media apps. If that happens, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, and Google Pay will lose control over India’s digital marketplace.

There’s a dark irony to this whole episode. All the social media companies in the US rely heavily on Indian staff and Indian expertise to run their digital products. From prominent faces like Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, to ground-level engineers – it is Indian talent that keeps the system alive. It is a pity that the country which produces this talent is itself dominated by foreign tech companies. 

Map wars

MapmyIndia is a real example. MapmyIndia is a high-quality navigation app built entirely in Bharat. It’s a great advertisement for Indian social media apps. It was founded by Rakesh Verma and Rashmi Verma. It is now headquartered in Okhla in Delhi. MapmyIndia is as good as Google Maps. Both of them have the same features. Use it after watching this video, and you will see how good it is.

But Google owns the Android operating system for smartphones. So, it uses its position to influence Android users to use only Google Maps, which is built into the phones. As a result, MapmyIndia gets ignored. In October last year, Indian regulators fined Google 1,338 crore rupees for misusing its position to push Google Maps and other apps.

India’s regulators are fighting a low-profile war with American social media companies over their monopolistic practices. From time to time, the Competitions Committee of India or the CCI punishes Alphabet, Twitter, and Apple about their undue influence in Bharat.

Look at China. You will get more confirmation of how America reacts if you promote your homegrown digital products. Many years ago, China created something called the Great Firewall. It was a national project to stop Silicon Valley companies from controlling China’s internet space – so that homegrown apps can become popular.

The Chinese wall

China banned or partially blocked platforms like Google search, YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia. After that, the country encouraged domestic social media companies to fill up the Chinese marketplace. Result? Most of the social apps used in China today are locally made, such as WeChat, TikTok’s local version Douyin, Tencent QQ, and Weibo.

Silicon Valley does not and cannot control China’s internet landscape. What do we see today? The American media is attacking China left, right, centre, calling it conservative and regressive. In fact, the US has started portraying Bharat in the same way, too. Every time the Indian government takes action against some Silicon Valley company, it gets branded by the West as undemocratic.

Bottom line is, Bharat is a large country with the world’s biggest population. Shouldn’t we ourselves take the initiative and support our domestic social media platforms? The potential is there. The examples are there. It’s all about our decision to end our fascination for anything and everything that’s foreign.

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