Of chai, change and winning ideas
From youth-driven journalism to online chat shows to Internet music bands, young people are coming up with innovative startups powered by social media, says Shuma Raha
Net effect: Sagarika Deb
What if political parties based their manifestos on what people really want rather than on a set of perceived catch-all promises? What if they consulted a citizens' wish list before they came up with their manifestos this election season?
Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA), an online platform that gives voice to the youth, is trying to make that happen. In partnership with the United Nations Population Fund, YKA has launched a campaign called 'unManifesto', inviting readers to send their ideas for a better India. "We are trying to build the largest crowdsourced manifesto in the country," says Anshul Tewari, 23, YKA's founder and chief editor.
That's not all. YKA has got politicians such as Baijayant 'Jay' Panda of the Biju Janata Dal, Meenakshi Natarajan of the Congress, Anurag Thakur of the BJP and others on board to take this people's manifesto to their respective parties. As an initiative to evolve a participatory democracy, 'unManifesto' clearly checks all the right boxes.
YKA is not about worthy campaigns alone. It's an online journal that enables its readers to voice their opinions on politics, society, education and culture. And powered by shares on Facebook and Twitter — it gets nearly 4 million hits every month and has 45,000 followers on Facebook — it has become the go-to site for India's urban, opinionated and increasingly frustrated-with-the system young people.
YKA is just one example of the way young people in India are forging innovative startups in the field of infotainment, riding on the Internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and so on. There's Chai With Lakshmi (take that, Koffee with Karan!), an online chat show uploaded on YouTube that's now over 100 webisodes old and has had more than 2.65 million views. There's Wild Blossoms Project, the world's first Internet Girl Band whose members have never met each other and yet collaborate to produce music. There's GoUNESCO (gounesco.com), a portal that encourages people to travel to UNESCO World Heritage sites and so steps up awareness of culture and heritage; or ComputerSeekho.com, a virtual school that teaches you all about computers — in Hindi.
Each is an out-of-the-box venture, and in its own way, each wants to drive change and redefine the idea of the possible through the optimal use of social networking sites. "It's the proliferation of social media platforms that's enabling these people to reach out to the relevant audience in a more efficient way," says Aditya Gupta, co-founder of Social Samosa, an enterprise that analyses social media trends and how businesses can use them.
Tewari was all of 18 when he started YKA. "I realised that there was a disconnect between what I was reading in the mainstream media and my perception of news, and that young people wanted to have a say in the state of society and politics," says Tewari, who won the award in the social media category at the Manthan Awards for digital inclusion for development held by Digital Empowerment Foundation, an NGO, in Delhi recently.
Originally begun as a personal blog, YKA's growing popularity convinced Tewari that he needed to let others join the conversation. In 2009, while studying journalism at Maharaja Agrasen College in Delhi, he opened up the portal so that readers could write in with their views on diverse subjects.
For a time, it was just Tewari and a friend who handled all the editorial work. It was a hard slog — "I used to work 18 hours a day, go without sleep..." he says. But the hits grew and so did the contributions. Tewari was soon running a free online writing internship programme to train potential contributors. It was a "by the youth, of the youth, for the youth" idea whose time had come.
Today, YKA is a smart website with catchy headlines that'll make even a seasoned journo click on them. The articles are mostly short, current affairs-led opinion pieces — from the Supreme Court judgment on homosexuality to the success of the Aam Aadmi Party. "Our objective is two-fold — first, to make the youth think about what's happening and second, to engage with that," he says.
If Tewari is trying to galvanise the youth into becoming active participants in our democracy, Lakshmi Rebecca, an attractive 30-something Bangalore-based model-turned-filmmaker, is telling inspiring stories about people who are shaping India in a positive way. Her online chat show, Chai with Lakshmi, features guests such as a transgender who became a sex worker, underwent sex reassignment surgery and is now an LGBT activist, or a Chennai taxi driver who raced to win third place at MotoGP in Monza, Italy, in 2012.
"Shot in high definition format, the 15-minute chat shows are uploaded on YouTube once every fortnight," says Lakshmi, who chose the online model because the "entry barriers in television are very high". Besides, it also allows her to do her shows exactly the way she wants, unfettered by the dictates of a television channel.
Entry barriers in the traditional space also spurred Sagarika Deb, 22, to form the world's first Internet girl band in 2010. There are three vocalists in the band — Deb, Lovelyn Onojah from the Philippines and Mandy Bussel from the UK — and in all, 25 musicians from across the world. "I trawled the Net for months to recruit all of them," says Deb, who has released two albums on the Internet so far. "I have more than 33,000 'likes' on my Facebook page," she says proudly.
Deb, who is based in Delhi, admits that it's tough making music with a band that connects only in the virtual world. But she says, "At least I have shown that even if you come from a middle-class family with little resources, you can follow your dreams and become a singer. The Internet gives you that power."
Experts feel it's no accident that the youth are spearheading these innovative social media-driven ventures. Says Madanmohan Rao, author and consultant in knowledge management and new media, "Young people are digital natives, they are more connected, mobilised, more open to new ideas. Social media-driven startups fit their lifestyle and it's little wonder that most of them are being driven by the youth." Agrees Gupta, "It's an ecosystem that suits young people."
However, no matter how exciting the project, survival is the key. "The ones that are developing bi-directional revenue models — supported by both subscribers/visitors as well as advertisers — are the ones that will survive," says Rao.
Unfortunately, it's here that many of these enterprises falter. Take GoUNESCO, for example. It makes travelling to world heritage sites fun through contests. But founder Ajay Reddy, 30, admits that he is still a long way off from making his portal pay. Right now, he is hoping to rope in tourism ministries of different countries to sponsor the travel "challenges" on the site.
Lakshmi sustains her chat show mainly through revenues earned from the ad films and corporate films made by her production house, Red Bangle. She is also trying to get advertisers to sponsor offline, ticketed, Chai With Lakshmi events. Deb too admits that her Internet girl band hasn't brought in much revenue although she says the albums are available on online music stores such as iTunes and Amazon MP3. "But it's got me exposure," she says, "And I get calls to perform on stage these days."
Indeed, of these, Youth ki Awaaz is the only one that's managed to become self-sustaining. It has tied up with several non-profits that run their campaigns on the website — which of course provides them a ready audience of lakhs of young people. "We are now fully scalable," says a confident Tewari.
Clearly, in the heady, enabling world of the Internet and social media, some will sink and some will swim. But for many young Indians it's become an exciting way to realise their aspirations for personal and social good.