There’s been a convergence of sorts in my reading this past week. As I worked on my literature review on the role of social media in business – a SWOC (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Challenges) to be precise – two items, caught my attention: Han Rosling’s TED Talks India presentation on Asia’s rise and an article on Obama’s Mumbai trip. The former uses the Gapminder bubblesets to demonstrate the growth of the Indian and Chinese economies while the latter spoke to the paradox that is India, where cell phones outnumber toilets in the slums.
It suddenly occurred to me that social media, as determined in the US/Western perspective might take on a whole new meaning, not to mention dimension, in Asia and other parts of the world. In the US, and possibly other “Western” countries, Facebook and Twitter are the obvious symbols of social media, although in Brazil Orkut is dominant. For the most part, access to these social communities is via the Web, primarily through computers, although smartphone access via a mobile browser has grown to 30% this past year.
Can it – does it – mean the same thing to a slum dweller in Mumbai, however? Consider the data for a minute: The United Nations University predicts 1 billion cell phone connections in India by 2015. In the Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar, nearly every family has a cell phone, some more than one, yet, there’s not a single toilet for the 10,000 people who live there.
From personal experience, this prediction is not completely surprising. The first cell phones emerged in India in the late ’90s, but adoption has grown in leaps and bounds since then. When I made my first trip back home in 2001, maybe a couple of my family members had cell phones, and it was still, clearly, the domain of the affluent who could afford them.
It was a whole different experience in 2005, when we returned for my brother’s wedding. At that point, not only did every member of my family have a cell phone, but so did the auto rickshaw and taxi drivers out there. In fact, my father was able to arrange an auto rickshaw to come pick up for our wedding shopping simply because he could contact them on their cell phones.
However, there is an interesting nuance that needs to be noted here: In India, SMS takes precedence over voice calls because it is cheaper. It is also a huge marketing channel and cell phone users are constantly at the receiving end of a barrage of offers and contests and the like. These are further integrated with mainstream media such as TV and radio shows that also display the same SMS number. This is a phenomenon that has just begin to gather steam in the US; Dancing With The Stars is the only TV show that comes to mind where viewers can vote via a text message, and even that is open only to ATT customers.
Yes, it is mind boggling that a technological gadget would take precedence over basic sanitation, but the more important question here is why? And what ramifications does this have for the common model of social media that encompasses blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al? The answer to the “why” might lie in India’s cultural essence, it is, after all, a nation that thrives on the human connection, especially offline, and SMS accentuates and facilitates those connections.
Thus, social media business as usual may not be the model that works here, especially if one were to consider a potentially untapped market of 1 billion cell phone users, not all of them Web-savvy or English-speaking. On the other hand, the conventional model could be a good fit with the affluent, educated yuppie-class with access to smart phones and computers.
Ultimately, the real lesson here is that there is an untapped market here, for marketers and their ilk, and academics alike.