The Evolving Language/s of the Indian Internet

22 official languages, over 6,000 dialects, one country – that’s India for you. Only a handful of nations in this planet can boast of such diversity. This diversity is going to become the touchstone for those serving Indian internet users. 

Why the Vernacular is Vital to Any effort aimed at the Next Half Billion 22 official languages, over 6,000 dialects, one country – that’s India for you. Only a handful of nations in this planet can boast of such diversity. This diversity is going to become the touchstone for companies and organizations aimed at serving the Indian internet users in the next few years. Internet is no longer a luxury enjoyed by metro cities and urban centres. Small town and rural India is fast coming up on the grid; India is set to add 200 million new internet users in the next five years, 90% of whom do not speak English. Power of the Vernacular—The story of Sharechat Remember the 2018 viral phenomena called ‘Jimikki Kimmel’? An amateur video of college students dancing to the hit Malayalam song went viral and became top trending in YouTube India. It became so big that US comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked about their similar-sounding names on his Twitter handle. The trend, however, started from the Malayalam corner of Sharechat, and then spread to other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  Sharechat is a social media app that allow users to share photos, videos, and chat with each other in several Indian vernacular languages. Including Hindi, Bhojpuri, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Gujarati. Starting in 2015, Sharechat is now the fastest growing regional language app in India and have just received a huge investment from Twitter. Its success lies in effectively capturing the aspirations and demands of the growing user base in India, powered by cheap data rates and affordable smartphones. And these demands are different from the previous half billion of Indian netizens. Sharechat CEO and co-founder Ankush Sachdeva told IVM Podcasts last year, “A lot of copy-pasting has failed in India. And that’s the learning you have here. It is just better that you go to your user base and ask them what they want.” So, what do the next half billion of Indian netizens want?  Removing the gatekeeper India’s tryst with internet started predictably in the metro cities, urban-upper to middle class youth being the first flush of users. They were mostly fluent in English, and could engage easily with Western web content. The multinationals designed their products for India keeping this group in mind – the profligacy of food delivery, cab sharing, and home search apps testify to this. But somewhere between 2016 and 2018, the user demographic begun changing. Data rates became super-cheap all along the spectrum due to Reliance Jio’s disruptive pricing. Advances in Smartphone technologies meant even the cheapest phones had sophisticated features. And the vast majority of Indians who do not speak English had the world wide web at the tip of their fingers. English was acting as a gatekeeper. So they made there own rules. Creative uses of existing platforms – Whatsapp, a chatting/communication app, is primarily used to share videos, images, posts, news links etc. Often sections are lifted or translated from other sources and then forwarded on Whatsapp. A significant chunk of lower to middle class Indians receive their daily fix of news on Whatsapp. Videos are the de-facto mode of media consumption. The new demographic are more comfortable with hearing English than rather reading or writing, and the visual offer helpful cues. Voice search trumps text-based search. All of this points to a lack of relevant web content in languages that are actually spoken and used by these users. To reach the Next Half Billion, this lacunae has to be filled. The future is Vernacular Young India is increasingly individualistic, aspirational, and wants to express itself. Yet there is a serious paucity of accurate information and knowledge sharing modes on regional language media and web content. Tech majors like Google are waking up to it, so are state governments. Any initiative that aims to reach the Next Half Billion of India’s internet users cannot ignore its myriad languages any more.

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