By Mohit Gundecha
How many times were you uncomfortable when your brother-in-law or father sent you a friend request on Facebook? How often have you resisted posting about a wild night you had, fearing reprisal from office colleagues? Haven’t you felt embarrassed when a friend ‘tags’ you in a picture that you don’t want everyone to see? Have you felt obligated to respond to someone’s WhatsApp message?
We all censor ourselves on Facebook. It is a ‘real’ network’ of your real friends and family just like WhatsApp groups. We want to project an image of ourselves there for we know that every activity is watched and documented and it leaves a trail! This consciousness spoils the fun. You can’t be your real self the way you were say during your school days!
Facebook has now become a place of blurt, not just by our intimate circle of confidants, but also by the 900 “friends” we have on Facebook. There’s nothing wrong about but, what if we get bored of a Facebook or a WhatsApp in India? What will it take to get Indian people to be ‘real’ online? What if you were on a social network where no one knows your name? Wouldn’t it be fun to say everything on your mind without worrying about alienating or offending or being judged by anyone?
As and when India gets bored of a Facebook, it could follow one of the two trends of social networking – Chinese or the US. China indulges in anonymous social networking. Most Chinese have their avatars or a virtual identity on networks like QQ or YY. They decorate their avatars, have virtual pets, send virtual gifts, buy virtual merchandise and play social games. QQ boasts of more than 800 million active users. Even in the smallest village in China, you will find QQ being extensively used. And does QQ make money? Well, yes! Tencent, the parent company of QQ is a 120 billion dollar company today.
Else, India could go with what’s emerging in the US today – ephemeral social networking – where nothing is permanent. US teens are flocking to a social network call SnapChat – which allows people to send ‘snap’ pictures or videos that disintegrate within 10 seconds. You can post a naughty picture or a selfie and it disappears in moments. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! You may not want to give unnecessary visibility into your life to your extended family or your office friends. SnapChat’s early success is representative of increased desire for privacy. There are other apps like Secret or Whisper that allow users to post updates (aka secrets) under a cloak of semi-anonymity.
Most of us want entertainment. We may want to share our photos and views in a different way than a mere trail on our timeline. So, many look at their online social networks for entertainment apart from just a social communication channel. And from my personal experience of growing mig33 (a virtual social network with 60 million users in South Asia) in tier 2 and tier 3 cities of India, people come online for entertainment! Check someone’s mobile phone in Patna or Bhagalpur – Apart from a Facebook or a WhatsApp, you will see them active on at least one virtual social network – say a mig33 or Nimbuzz or Rocketalk.
These are early trends, but they are here to stay. Teens are fickle and they move really fast. No wonder Facebook bought WhatsApp to cover its insecurity. It had earlier offered to acquire SnapChat for $3 billion! Would these virtual or ephemeral social networks make money? They are actually much more monetisable compared to Facebook. The dominant business model for social networks is advertising.
You can charge a premium on advertising if you can show targeted ads to your audience. These virtual networks have a real potential to actually feel the human being. Thus, monetary benefits are obvious! Facebook sure knows a lot about us – and hence can claim to push targeted ads. Say, if you ‘like’ a lingerie brands fan page on Facebook, it will show you ads of lingerie ecommerce companies on the right menu bar.
But, the big argument is – if we are not our real self on Facebook, and always have a projected image of ourselves, Facebook doesn’t know its users enough!
Plus, history shows that ‘utilities’ are hard to monetize. An email or a messenger is a utility. How many of us will be willing to pay a subscription for using a Google talk or Skype messenger or even a WhatsApp? We expect that for free as it was always like that on the web.
Contrast this against a virtual social network – where you have no social or peer pressure. You will openly talk about your favourite alcohol brand, school crush, your desire to gift something personal to your partner etc. The virtual social network knows a ‘real’ you. And hence has a higher possibility of targeting the ads that are relevant to you! Plus, people have a higher propensity to pay for entertainment online (not utilities).
Is virtual social networking new to India? Not really – Internet’s big pull in early days was anonymity. Remember the days of Yahoo groups? So, with a strong business model and a stronger value proposition to the end user, I won’t be very surprised that Virtual or Ephemeral Social Networks will make a comeback to India.
Mohit Gundecha is the CEO of Jombay, a People Science & Analytics Company. Previously, he studied at Stanford University and was the head of India Operations for mig33, a virtual social network with 60 million users in South Asia.