India Online: Surfing with one of the world’s biggest populations

Last month as part of my research into how the world engages with the online economy, I spoke to a PhD student who spent 7 months in Pune, a medium sized city not far from Mumbai.

Read on for some of my key takeaways or see a full transcript of my conversation with Rahul Advani here.

Individuals are less trusted than organisations

Rahul told me that “If you look at a lot of Indian mythology, stories of friendship are always haunted by the threat of deceit.” This mistrust was something young people were very aware of online.

This air of suspicion didn’t apply to organisations like Facebook. Nobody Rahul spoke to was concerned about advertisers exploiting their data, instead worrying what friends might think of their latest selfie.

This highlights a blind spot, and not one unique to South Asia. As the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted, internet users should be more aware of what information they share and how it might be used.

Online ownership has real value

For the Indian youth, their online personality is a big deal. Rahul told me how Indian kids collected Facebook friends like trading cards:

“Because they don’t own that many things in real life, the internet and their social profiles are things that hold a lot of power for them so whatever they do post online, it’s seen as a big deal.”

Not mobile-first, mobile-only

The concept of ‘mobile-first’ has been thrown around for over a decade. It’s nothing new. Internet users in emerging markets have leapfrogged desktops going straight to mobile.

It goes beyond mobile first though. Many of young Indians have never used anything else. Using them for everything from editing photos to making mobile payments.

“Most of the middle-class youth I spoke to in Pune never visited the coffee shops and many of them had never used a laptop.”

Extension not Invention

Rahul told me how many young Indians could be suspicious of how people behaved online. They didn’t see it as an accurate representation of reality but rather a playground to express personality through edited selfies and over-the-top tributes to friends.

When compared to China, the only place on earth with a larger population, things are different. Behind the great firewall, internet users cloak themselves in anonymity to express things they’d be unable to say in real life.

As internet access continues to grow in a country that’s home to 1/6th of the world’s population, we’re going to see a huge shift in the languages and cultural backgrounds that make up much of the web.

It will also be interesting to watch if the Indian Government attempts to tackle the challenge of uniting the digital and physical personas of it citizens. (Initiatives like the Government’s Aadhaar programme are already working towards this), and what impact, this could have on civil liberties and financial inclusion.

Infrastructure is a real issue.

While Pune is known as one of India’s ‘Tech Cities’, accessing to the internet is apparently harder than you might think.

The Indian government talks a lot about smart cities but, from what I’ve seen, they can’t even provide basic infrastructure. So I don’t know how the smart city is going to work because, the government is trying to skip over a big step, which is to get the city in basic working order.

Rahul explained how access to Wifi was usually in areas where the young people of the city didn’t feel welcome. It highlights how much work needs to be done before real digital equality exists in the country.

Initiatives like the Digital India campaign show that infrastructure is something the government is investing in, but there’s still work to be done. I hope that with the support from organisations like Google’s Project Loon and the work we’re doing here at BuffaloGrid, one day everyone will have equal access to engage with the world’s digital economy.

Thanks to Rahul Advani for talking to me about this incredibly important topic, and Ron Bezbaruah for the great photography of Pune, originally appearing in the incredibly insightful photoessay, Life In a Metro.

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