Vernacular Internet in India & why you should understand it

Shashank Shekhar
Feb 27, 2018 · 7 min read
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Let me start with the more familiar mediums we all have grown up watching & listening to- radio, television & film. Recently carried out a brilliant report on how Hindi & Tamil are taking over cricket commentary in India. The report analyses how the broadcasters realised the power of making quality communication in the language of the people. This strategy has clearly paid dividends as the viewership of Hindi & Tamil broadcasts have bypassed the English ones. The IPL which will be hosted from April this year will be broadcasted in six different languages — English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali — by Star Sports. It could be a mere coincidence but the languages mentioned (HTTKB) also happen to be the fastest growing languages on Indian Internet (Google-KPMG report 2017).

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When the Indian economy was opened in 90’s, television saw a series of private label channels popping up in major Indian languages to satiate the entertainment hunger of the masses. During the past decade the flavour has turned even more vernacular with existing channels catering to regional dialects like Marwari, Haryanvi & Bhojpuri in their TV shows and new channels coming up. 2008 saw the launch of first Bhojpuri channel Mahuaa TV and today, there are more than ten channels in the same language. Even amongst the News channels category, a lot of new News TV channels have come up to deliver a state specific experience. Today there are TV channels exclusively in Bundeli, Maithili, Chhatisgarhi, Assamese & Konkani.

Talking about another traditional medium, radio, Big FM launched 5 channels in 2017 in UP & Bihar and 4 in North-east with a focus on regional dialects. This is a strategy being followed by most in the tier-2 expansion of FM radio. Regional cinema has also become interesting in the last decade. An ET report in 2017 gives a value of 2000 crore to the Bhojpuri film industry. Cinema is also seeing a revival in smaller dialects like Chhattisgarhi (where 12 movies were released in 2017), Assamese (where 24 movies were released), along with Haryanvi & Rajasthani. And it will come as a surprise to many that the print & newspaper business is also growing primarily because of further expansion into tier-2 & tier-3 cities and a growing focus on regional content. The above examples clearly show the business potential of the regional languages and how many businesses are tapping into it.

I was introduced to the vernacular internet in the starting of 2015, when I took a couch in the first office-cum-residence of ShareChat in Bangalore. I was surrounded by discussions & discoveries which the founders of ShareChat were making in this unexplored part of the internet ocean. Being from a small village in Awadh region of UP, I could very well relate to all of it and we all could guess that this is something really big. A fresh stream of new internet users are pouring in and their behaviour and expectations are very different from the existing ones. Try to remember your first encounter with internet and think how your behaviour has evolved over the years. I remember my first google search in a cyber cafe- “aurora borealis” and the excitement which engulfed me after seeing so many images all at one place. I kept searching about aurora for months. The excitement and curiosity of a new internet user is always so large, that it is almost impossible to envisage again for experienced users, despite going through the same user cycle.

In 2017 Ankush took a trip to the hinterlands of Rajasthan-Haryana border, where he observed a rapidly growing internet userbase, with at least 1 smartphone in every home. The most astonishing bit was that none of these users were completely comfortable with Hindi, leave alone English and its modern avatar. This handicap ultimately leads them to use only vocabulary agnostic and language agnostic platforms for almost everything, case in point: Whatsapp.

Similarly, when Alan, Sohil & Wahab took a trip to Kerala to study the user behaviour, they found stark differences in the behaviours, aspirations & interests of users from North and South Kerala (a comparatively small state). In 2016 I was on ground in UP and travelled across many cities and towns for a month on a political consulting assignment. I observed how the introduction of mobile and internet (particularly Whatsapp) was changing everything from politics to journalism. Later when I moved to ShareChat, we tried to forecast the UP elections result using data from ShareChat and guess what, we were pretty accurate. The masses of India are adapting newer platforms designed for them but people keep looking for them somewhere else.

You may not know:

  • Sapna Chaudhary the recent television sensation, is a bigger internet sensation in Haryana and parts of North India since 2016. Searching Sapna Chaudhary on Youtube gets you videos with 132M, 83M, 66M views (even earlier it used to be in the range of 2M-10M before you got to know about her).
  • Jimikki Kammal (a Malayalam viral song) dance performance by some college students was one of the most viral videos on ShareChat & Whatsapp. It went on to become the second most trending video in Youtube India.
  • ‘Make Joke Of’ videos published and created by a bunch of guys from Kanpur were the most viral trend in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and you can literally find them in the gallery of every phone, from kids to adults. One of their videos went on to take the fourth position in the Youtube India Trends list of 2017.
  • And the most recent Priya Prakash Varrier phenomenon started from Malayalam, where we first spotted the trend in ShareChat very early. We watched it spread across languages & platforms over days and take the entire internet ecosystem by storm.

This is the force of vernacular and in words of Farid- “ye to bas ek trailer hai, picture to abhi baaki hai mere dost!”

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Screenshots from Youtube

Now lets talk about some data. A Google-KPMG report published in 2017 estimates that by 2021 we will have 536 million vernacular internet users in India as compared to 199 million English users, roughly 2.5 times of the English. 9 out of 10 new internet users in India are likely to be Indian language(vernacular) users.

The report analyses the key reasons of this growth as-

  • growing internet penetration
  • reduced mobile data charges (thanks to Mukesh bhai)
  • growth in smart phones
  • rising disposable income
  • improving digital literacy and
  • a growing support to the Indian languages on internet.

Yes all these things are helping but there is still a lot to be solved to provide a comfortable stay to these 50 crore+ users on the Internet. Imagine the number of products & services available to the 17 crore English internet users right now. However, for the vernacular users you can count quality internet products on your finger tips. If you have a look at the AppAnnie report of 2017 you will come across apps like ShareIt, MX Player, UC Browser, Ludo King, Bigo in the top charts and you might wonder who uses these apps this much. Well, you know now !!!

Last year, Google constituted a “next billion users (NBU) team” in India with a focus to create products and experiences for the Indian language internet users, later to be taken to other emerging markets too. Google announced Android Oreo (Go edition) in Dec 2017 aimed at the next billion users. They have launched a series of custom apps for the NBU like Files Go, Youtube Go, Gmail Go, Tez, two wheeler mode in Google maps and are about to add Hindi language in the Google assistant. Alibaba Group is eying this opportunity through UC Browser, UC News & Paytm. Tencent is looking at this opportunity through Hike & NewsDog (investment not confirmed). Even the rising unicorn of China, Toutiao, has invested in DailyHunt- a vernacular news aggregator and launched video platform Hypstar and camera tool LemoCam. And last of all, Facebook has clearly shown their strategy with Whatsapp payments & recent full page color ads in newspapers across tier-2 cities for their main product fb.

While the tech giants of the world are taking their bets on the next billion users, the young Indian talent looks clueless about this. Well, it is a big technological, design & communication challenge to deliver a world class user experience at scale, on a phone with 1 GB RAM & 4 GB memory. And if you find it easy or challenging enough, do drop us a mail :)

Maybe it’s time to engage more in those family Whatsapp groups, maybe it’s time to accept those friend requests of distant relatives on Facebook, maybe it’s time to go back to your home town and understand how internet is changing the social and economic fabric, maybe it’s time to come together and create an industry-the biggest India has ever seen.

~Shashank (with inputs & edits from ShareChat team)


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