Find your tongue

Social networks in regional languages are connecting Indians

By Mathures Paul
  • Published 29.07.18
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If you are reading this, chances are you will conduct your meetings today in English but the rest of the day will be spent toggling between Bengali and Hindi, depending on the person you meet. When your vocal cords take a break, your language skills trickle down to your fingers, which does all the typing on some social network or the other. 

But consider the bigger picture: Switching between languages while going through the news feed can be jarring and this is an issue the likes of Facebook have found tough to address, even though Mark Zuckerberg’s company has, according to July 2017 figures, more than 240 million audience in India.

Social networking in regional languages has a huge potential and Bangalore-based ShareChat knows it well.

Already downloaded several million times on the Google Play Store, the brainchild of three IIT-Kanpur alumni has investment written all over it — $23 million from India Quotient, SAIF Partner, Lightspeed India, Xiaomi Singapore, Shun Wei Capital and VH Capital.

What makes India’s first vernacular social media platform click in a country dominated by Facebook? The answer is: When in Rome, speak like the Romans, something Farid Ahsan, the company’s co-founder and COO, believes in.

Sharechat: The eureka moment

We (Ankush Sachdeva, Bhanu Pratap Singh and Farid; all IIT-Kanpur alumni) met at a Yahoo Hack U event and ended up working together on 14 projects, 14th being ShareChat. But the story begins when we were working on our 13th project named Opinio, a debating platform. We were researching how to get growth in that platform. We stumbled upon a post on Sachin Tendulkar on one of his Facebook fan pages. The post had received over 50K comments, with people sharing their phone numbers to be a part of the WhatsApp group. This intrigued us and we created 10 WhatsApp groups with 100 members in each and within minutes, the groups were flooded with all kinds of content, including jokes, pictures and videos. But the biggest surprise and an eye-opening moment was that most of them were in vernacular languages.

We are at six million daily active users and around 20 million monthly active users. We introduced Bengali last January and we have seen a steady increase in the users. Currently, there are 1.7 million active users in Bengali.

We have seen some unique trends in the language. A lot of content is around the literature and culture of the state. People love to share and talk about Rabindra Sangeet, they share literary snippets and a lot is talked about local festivities, such as Poila Baisakh, Makar Sankranti and Rabindra Jayanti.

Milestones

Binding us together is our love for making products that solve problems. For us, the guiding philosophy has been ‘break things and rebuild’ since we started coding from our IIT dorms. While Ankush overlooks the product part of the business, like what works on the platform and what doesn’t, Bhanu heads the technology section behind ShareChat. I am the daily operations and investments person. 

In just three years we have had some of the craziest moments that led us to think that yes, we are on the right path. Right from ideation of the app to getting our first million users, launching the first four languages to the first investment… all these have been milestone moments. One of the craziest moments was the launch of UGC on our platform. Initially, we used to seed content for user consumption, but the day we decided to launch user-generated content (UGC) in March 2015, we received it within five minutes and not the three to six months time frame we had thought of. And within 11 days, we stopped seeding content.

Right now we are more focused on user acquisition and engagement. We are investing heavily on enhancing the content consumption experience. The opportunity available for tapping first time Internet users is huge and therefore the focus is to grow in terms of users. We definitely intend to move to a revenue generating model in nine to 12 months.

Privacy issues 

It is not a ‘friends network’; it’s an interest-driven content network where people can follow people who share similar interests and therefore we do not need to store user data. We have kept everything very simple so that our users do not need to worry about data privacy. We have even kept our sign-up procedure basic.

We have been managing 25 genres of content across categories, building a complex machine-learning algorithm. Despite the Internet growing so swiftly, many Indian consumers are not comfortable with ‘search’ options on the Internet. We will also be focusing on expanding our technical and data science team to launch relevant features and enhance user experiences.