By Passing The Language Barrier, The Rise Of The Vernacular Social Media Apps in India

Sapna Bhardwaj
Sapna Bhardwaj Dec 06 2021 - 9 min read
By Passing The Language Barrier, The Rise Of The Vernacular Social Media Apps in India
1.3 billion People, 125 million English speakers. The rest is the playground - speaking the vernacular languages, 0.3 million speaking their first language and the rest speak in one or more of the 22 vernacular languages.

The digital market space of India is fast moving and fast growing and changing by the hour. Things which are true today may not be true tomorrow. In the words of Howard Schultz, CEO and Chairman of Starbucks, “Social and digital media is a bullet train, and that bullet train is not coming home.” India being the platform with the right mix of being the most populous country in the world by 2028 and with a thriving vernacular language ecosystem of 780 languages, 19569 raw linguistic affiliations and 1369 rationalised mother tongues (Cisco) makes it the perfect level playing ground for vernacular social media applications.

India has experienced unexpected trends and disruptions in the information technology sector. The most prominent changing dynamics took place in the digital and the virtual landscape. Just a few days back the world’s largest professional network LinkedIn marked a new milestone with the launch of Hindi. Hindi was the first Indian regional language on LinkedIn and has a goal to support 600 million Hindi language speakers across the globe. This emphasized the importance of vernacular language and mother tongue leverage, LinkedIn taking this route proves it is here to break the language barrier. This will enable greater access to professional and networking opportunities to Hindi speakers across the world. LinkedIn now supports 25 languages globally.

With groundbreaking social media footprints in cities, towns, villages, zila, kasba, tier I, tier II, tier III and landmark disruptions in the vernacular space, it proves right to say - In context to the existing internet consumption trend in India. Language is a direct connection and undoubtedly  the king of all mediums of engagement and involvement with the smart phone user of India.  “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.” - Nelson Mandela

The social media club has a new friend. Similar to the 3C’s of business - currency, consumer and China. Heathrow of the Vernacular space, China has a role to play in the 3Vs which the users will hinge on and is presently ruling the internet content, thereby its usage of India - Vernacular, Video and Voice.

1.3 billion People, 125 million English speakers. The rest is the playground - speaking the vernacular languages, 0.3 million speaking their first language and the rest speak in one or more of the 22 vernacular languages. The number speaks for itself - existing market of 500 million users, soon to onboard 150 million new users, a market valued at $413 billion and growing rapidly. (KPMG, PwC, Cisco and Google)

Something is really working right - be it a smartphone becoming affordable and bandwidth at its cheapest. Investors are queuing up to back the Indian language vernacular apps. With valuation growing seven to nine fold in less than a year’s time. ShareChat was valued from $67 million to $460 million, Manch raised $700,000 from Stellaris Venture Partners not to forget the giant Tik Tok, currently valued at $75 billion and how the Chinese apps have cracked the code to address India’s language barrier.

But statistics and data is like a bikini, what it conceals is more important than what it reveals. Deep diving we found, all that glitters is indeed not gold, and even if it is just the tip of the iceberg, the hitchhike has just started. Kamala Das and Indian poet once said, “The language I speak, becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness’s all mine, mine alone.”

The ingredients of success of the vernacular app being timeline, content sharing features, user generated content, seamless and friendly uploading navigation and the local language. Not to forget the existing amalgamation between video sharing, messaging and payment.

Venture capital investors from China are betting big on this space, it’s a gold mine, if cracked well. We delved into and explored what are the challenges, issues and the ground reality faced by the vernacular social media apps in India.

The dream country for social media apps does have its unique challenges:

Topping the list is it’s demographic. Creating a holistic service that would be connecting with the right community, the right geography, the preferable age group and the right content. One such service could be connecting over WhatsApp status updates, trending topics and all that is making news.

 Following it is its coding. We are living at a time where we are spoiled for choices, be it the device or its operating system. The irony being the device - Phones, tabs and web apps have an English keyboard. There still exists a great unfilled space in technological advancements to fill this gap of the written word between potential and current usage, both to create it and for the machine to understand slangs, regional and traditional or everyday vernacular jargon and the colloquial context.

Hand’s which does the job - Acquiring and finding the current talent is another foremost challenge. Talent which can think, write, copy edit and quality check control in vernacular languages is expensive. Not to forget as the saying goes in the human resources - if you throw peanuts, you will get monkeys.

Syncing voice, video control and command, this is where illiteracy and command over the language, mother tongue influence and regional tough influence has a major role to play. Presence of any of these makes all coding and content set up, ease of navigation thrown out of the window.

These apps are earning large revenue via unfiltered vulgar, sexual and unregulated content. This may not be considered a challenge if it is indeed the revenue model. However, let’s not forget the moral and civic responsibility technology has over society. All the more in this case it’s a technology which has even bi-passed the fourth pillar of democracy. Several of the Chinese apps which have gained millions of users in India are not following the standard practices, which could amount to litigation- thereby terming it ‘not social or anti-social' or ‘a danger to the society.’ A ruling from the Apex court backing a Public Interest Litigation may tumble decades of hard work for the App creator and the Founder, also shaking up and hollowing the start-up ecosystem.

Another challenge is the impact these vernacular apps could have. The penetration of these apps is deep and to be specific it’s rural India, and so is the impact. With things going wrong, the impact would be huge. Villages of India which is the micro market of India lives and thrives on extremes of emotions, rituals, traditions, customs and now the overwhelming welcome and accessibility to internet penetration. Backing it up are the numbers - Rising at a compound annual growth rate of 18% which would achieve 536 million users by 2021 (Google) - this year itself.

India has always been a land of emerging sector trends. By-passing a stage this would be moving to the laptop by-passing the desktop or moving to the servicing sector by-passing the manufacturing sector. Not to forget the 58% unemployment rate of India. One reason for the same is the loss of the manufacturing stage which generates the maximum number of employment.

Similarly this is the same for language app development too. The journey from English to Hindi and then to regional language was shorter in mobile than in the desktop and laptop internet phase. On mobile the journey has been comparatively shorter; however the technology challenges are greater. Digital language standards need to be in place. There is no dearth of content creators and consumers in regional languages. Tools to improve content are a hiccup, like spell-checker, plagiarism tracker which is basic for the English user; this is indeed an ongoing challenge.

Correct identification and target audience is another barrier. Identifying the audience, one way would be breaking down the  ‘Operating Systems’ of India, Android 69.53%, Windows 22.57% and iOS 2.21%. Advertisers and publishers need to identify the specific target groups. It is only after the correct sync and match of the target group, ad and publishing campaigns and social campaigns can be led and executed.

Social media abuse, content moderation, abuse, fake news, misinformation campaigns’, hoaxes, hatred against a community, character shaming etc is part and parcel of the vernacular space. With its reach and speed, it is indeed an open ended sword. Or should we say a platform which has been used in a way exactly it has been designed? It is here that the developers and the founders of such Apps come into picture, where they need to think as to how the platform cannot be misused and abused. The laser focus aim of becoming the de-facto should also be mingled with civic sense.

Trending the challenge list is also the ‘Terms and conditions’ presented in the vernacular app – the existing irony is that it doesn’t provide the terms and conditions in the language the people choose to use the network. The soul of the business is – the ability to socialise, create and find content in their native language. The users’ sign up not understanding what its limitations and its usage guidelines are. Why this is so crucial is because it is a user generated-upload platform.

The marketing and the advertising sector is having a hard time comprehending the take-a-ways of this app. Advertisers shy away – The earlier content models harvested premium audiences that made it easier to sell the harvested attention to the advertisers. But here the case is different; these vernacular social media apps are aggregating the less affluent, non-English speaking audiences. Monetisation will certainly happen; the risk is advertisers will shy away from backing these platforms, as they see these platforms currently for the wallet-thin.

Featuring in the list is also product development. Developing products for multiple Indian languages is not easy, as most major languages belong to the Dravidian and Aryan language families, which are complex to translate to. Customising and training technology involves putting in massive amounts of high-quality data to execute translations. For accurate translations, the system demands millions of parallel sentences in each language pair, in all permutations and combinations. Which involves time, research, patience, resources, surveillance, monitoring and live testing, all of these expensive and very skilled areas.

Despite the challenges, the good news is that vernacular users are currently 75% of the internet user base (GroupM and Cisco). India being a mobile first country, availability of content in regional languages, mix of utilities, smart phones to be bigger and better, these trends are here to stay.

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