The Memes 2019

Messaging Apps
Our New Public Squares and Private Escapes

“With smartphone users set to increase by 176 million in the next five years and 90% of new users expected to be Indian language users, penetration of smartphones among Indian language users will increase. Government has mandated smartphones sold in India to be Indian language enabled. This will lead to increase in user-generated online content (video, audio and text) in Indian languages.”

- Indian Languages: Defining India’s Internet, KPMG & Google Report

WhatsApp, the intuitive and simple interface through which billions of people around the world exchange messages every day, has found particularly strong resonance in India. Whether it is as a collective emotional pipeline through which we connect daily with our friends and family, or as a channel for spreading fake news and propaganda, there is no escaping the primacy of WhatsApp in the lives of Indians today.

A recent NY Times piece hailed WhatsApp’s ability to provide “an open, democratic forum where Indians can share and codify their knowledge and skills, in new ways, and even profit from them.” While acknowledging the destructive potential of its misuse, the article describes in detail the advantages that WhatsApp offers by allowing historically less empowered groups – from farmers to home-makers – the ability to access the market economy armed with more information and support than ever before.

Perhaps what is even more intriguing going forward, is the possibility that, away from the metros, WhatsApp may get overshadowed by the more vernacular ShareChat and the more visual Instagram.

For a vast majority of Indians, messaging apps are their window to the outside world and a private escape from the harsh reality they grapple with in our wildly unequal society. Local language voice and video content is one panacea that allows them to access these public and private worlds on their terms.

ShareChat, India’s vernacular solution to multimedia sharing, is rapidly gaining momentum. Unlike most social networks in India, it supports 14 Indian languages and, pointedly, does not support English. Structured much like Facebook, the app allows people to scroll through user generated content so that they can ‘like’, comment and share. The app allows users to post directly to WhatsApp, a move that has reportedly fuelled ShareChats popularity. In December 2018, the app recorded a user base of around 25 million Indians.

The free-fall in bandwidth costs (by over 93%) and lower cost of smartphones, is seeing rapid growth in penetration of telecom among India-2 and India-3 consumers. They are most comfortable in their local languages and tend to be alienated by mainstream English platforms. So a vernacular WhatsApp group or app like ShareChat is most likely to be where they find comfort and acceptance. As ShareChat’s co-founder Farid Ahsan puts it “We are building a desi social network for the next billion smartphone users”. ShareChat’s user based already extends to prominent Chief Ministers and political leaders from the BJP and Congress.

Meanwhile, as the next billion Indians continue to overcome literacy barriers by accessing the internet through voice and video (by swiping and watching, as opposed to texting and typing), an entirely visual app like Instagram is even more intuitive for them to use than WhatsApp.  India is already the second largest user base for Instagram in the world, led only by the US.

These messaging and sharing platforms will continue to serve as deeply personal networks for millions of Indians into the foreseeable future. WhatsApp is said to be testing UPI-based payments and has already partnered with MakeMyTrip, Netflix and BookMyShow in India, while ShareChat is looking to go deeper into micro-markets, including the Northeast, and offer in-app purchases. Expect messaging and sharing apps to be integrated ever more comprehensively into all aspects of our lives, accessed by more and more Indians across all strata in the coming years.