India is home to 270 Mn Facebook users, the highest for the social media giant globally. But after recent controversies where data of users were harvested on a massive scale (87 Mn) by a third party, some are rethinking the need for what until now has been the quintessential social media platform.
Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the $19 Bn business conglomerate, Mahindra Group, is one of them.
Just over a week after the Facebook- Cambridge Analytica story broke (26th March), Anand Mahindra raised the question of whether the time has come for a social networking site that has a more distributed ownership and whose management is more professional than Facebook.
The responses were instant and numerous. Some were promoting native apps that will let users communicate in the Hindi and the broader Devanagari scripts, while others were pointing towards integrated (blogging, conferencing, private messaging, etc.) public-networking social media applications.
A tweet from Jaspreet Bindra, Senior Vice President, Digital Transformation of the Mahindra Group, suggesting a blockchain enabled social network – Social 3.0 – drew an almost immediate response from Mahindra who wanted to get cracking.
And today, almost three weeks later, Anand Mahindra announced the creation of the Twitter handle @peepul_social, which will be operated by Bindra and by the looks of it, the account will be one-stop-shop for updates on the initiative, where shortlisted ideas will be posted (could it be the name of the eventual social platform? We will keep you posted).
Here is the first tweet from the account:
But the issue is not about finding an alternative to Facebook but a deeper realisation of the fact that India hasn’t been able to produce a single successful social platform while talent has flown out to Silicon Valley and made a mark there.
Blockchain? Social media? Really?
Blockchain is a digitised and decentralised public ledger made up of blocks which contain unalterable details of transactions that are verified by users.
Inc42 spoke to Bindra following the day of his initial tweet to Mahindra and had asked him how this could work.
Bindra, whose role in Mahindra is equivalent to that of a Chief Digital Officer said that he has nothing against the existing social media platforms but their fallings are clear. There is a trust issue with everything being centralised with one company and data is at risk, he said.
Bindra strongly believes these are the issues that blockchain can fix but then the question arises if the existing blockchain technology is competent enough to address this, especially given that Bitcoin transactions take a longer time to be completed and hence catering to the speed requirements for the new social network will not be easy.
He acknowledges that there are problems related to this but he isn’t cowed down because every dominant technology that we see today has had to go through this.
“Blockchain is super early, think about the Internet when it started, speed was 14 kbps, you had to use a landline,” Bindra said. “The first business model of the Internet was pronography and if companies like Amazon, or Google had thought only about the limitations, then they wouldn’t have moved forward. Technology problems get solved”. (And we completely agree with this!)
The last part of the statement bears resemblance to the one Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way”. (Just some food for thought)
For now, one of the ways the speed problem could be addressed is by not using the blockchain network but switching to Ethereum which is faster or even building your own blockchain, the point being: it’s still early and more innovations are yet to be uncovered.
Facebook has over 270 Mn users in India, 30 Mn more than its home base, the United States and yet the data scandal rocking the California-based social network doesn’t seem to have the same fervor in India. But we could be at the forefront of what happens next.
Data is the new oil. In spite of the recent controversy involving Cambridge Analytica, changing a revenue model of the likes of Google and Facebook that inherently encompass this value is not going to be easy and might even be utopian in nature.
India, as one of the few countries and the most important one when it comes to being mobile-first, finds itself on the crossroads between the potential of the untapped masses numbering in millions and burgeoning privacy concerns. While the conversation earlier may have been about how we can realise the full potential of Social 3.0 in India, we may now have to redefine it.
Social 3.0, is an umbrella term and is often loosely construed. When you do an online search for this term, you will find the conversations hovering around all the tools that have come into disrepute today like using social channels to mine data, realising the power of “A.I.” in understanding users and making a collaborative economy. Basically, all innovations, after social media became more than just social, come under this bracket.
Bindra sees it as a decentralised network where users get rewarded and most importantly, it’s a peer-to-peer network where the data of the user is not sold without his/her permission. Unlike Facebook.
Power To The User
Bindra’s concept could see each user represented as a node on the Blockchain. The user would specify what data could be shared or not, and if it were to be so, it would be by some kind of consensus, rather than being decided by one single centralised monopoly.
Based on the data that users have shared with the advertiser, the advertiser would directly pay the user through a set of self-actuating smart contracts via cryptocurrency tokens or coins.
People, on the whole, are still very naive when it comes to privacy but one incident after another is marking huge undercurrents and with India, this is compounded by the ongoing and not so subtle debate over Aadhaar wherein the fundamental right to privacy has already been discussed (you have it, thank you Supreme Court) .
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has already expressed deep concern over the Cambridge Analytica episode with Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad even saying that our data protection laws will set a benchmark. Mind you, it took the U.S. far longer to come to terms with this or to even accepting the Russian interference in their elections.
It’s just not Facebook that has been and will be under the scanner for data leaks. It is eerily true that we are constantly monitored on a scale that would give George Orwell nightmares if he was alive (doubt he would be on social media).
Google, for example, tracks your every move on a web page; it monitors your cursor movement, your clicks, how much time you spend reading, what you like reading/listening and actively tracks your location, all of which could be used by a regime to spy on its citizens. Snapchat on the other hand, according to a recent report, was building the same kind of data-sharing API of Facebook that would let its users grant outside companies access to their Snapchat data.
The World Is Not Enough
Apart from the European Union taking action against Google, the global community has not yet identified how we can tackle the dichotomy of big data and privacy. India is a market that is one of the few regions that can give you growth unseen now in the developed world. Tech and social companies need India to drive their revenue growth and hence we could have the bargaining power to make these barons develop policies at our request.
This is where we might be on a cusp of our own little social revolution.
If we are to continue using the term Social 3.0, it definitely now includes data protection and thinking of new ways to create the next social network.
“India should codify the law on data protection and privacy rights which has end use restriction and not just mere consent of the data owner, so that there is a deterrent on the entities which are abusing the data and privacy. In this age of internet, even the Hon’ble Supreme Court has held that privacy rights are fundamental rights, said Pranav Jain, Partner at law firm MDP & Partners.
With over half the Internet population in India being rural by 2020 and increasing investment in technology, we can use this situation to develop our own native solutions that can be adopted worldover.
If we are able to establish platforms that are developed in house, the possibilities for adding value to the IT industry, wealth generation and employment opportunities will be huge and to have an idea of what that could be like, you need to look at China.
Every major Western social media application (blocked by China’s Great Firewall) has its own Chinese version and they are not some cheap rip offs but extremely successful companies. Take, for example, microblogging service Weibo which had a FY 2017 net revenue of $1.15 Bn or other multi-billion internet mammoths such Alibaba or Tencent; the Chinese have made a killing when it comes to social media which is also reflected in their ad spends that is close to a whopping $6 Bn on social so far in 2018.
In India, telecom operator Reliance Jio already plans to cover 99% of the country’s population and according to its Chairman Mukesh Ambani, India has jumped to number one from 150 in terms of mobile data usage in the world. Similarly, messaging app Hike raked in over 100 Mn subscribers over a period of two years and is valued at about $1 Bn. Thus we have already demonstrated that we have the capacity to innovate (don’t forget Paytm, Flipkart and Ola) but they are too far and few between.
During the Internet boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, we became the top outsourcing hub. During the social media revolution that began in the mid-2000s, India eventually became a destination for amassing users but in all of this, we never really got to have our say or ownership. Social 3.0 could be different.