One of the more amazing side-effects of having videos on TED.com is that you receive invitations to speak all around the world. For the last two years, the intrepid organizers of the APOGEE conference at the Birla Institute of Tecnology and Science (BITS), one of the premier technical universities in India, had invited me to visit their obscure corner of Rajasthan and speak at their signature annual event. I had been warned that I would probably have a lot of difficulty traveling alone as a white woman in Rajasthan, and so I had to decline their requests until I could line up a male chaperone. Luckily for me, he materialized last Fall at a conference at MIT – BITS Pilani’s sister university, as it were – and we planned our great Indian adventure together.
When I alerted the BITS Pilani crew to my traveling companion’s bio (John Beck had been the Director of Photography for all of NASA’s Mars missions for the last 18 years), they invited him to speak at the conference as well.
I have long been an admirer of Indian textiles, the incredible classical music and dance, and like most city dwellers, I fight with my friends about who has the best Indian take-out. But I had heard many grisly tales about the filth, the misogyny, the appalling poverty, and the deeply ingrained institutional corruption.
But the overriding reason that I decided to make the journey was because I could not turn down the chance to witness the incredible change that is afoot in India. I was thrilled when the organizers asked me to speak about the social impact of social media in India, a topic that I’ve been following closely for some time.
Even though the Internet penetration rate is extremely low in India, the 17% of Indians online already account for the third largest Internet population in the world. They will move up to number two next year, powered in part by a 91% increase in smart phone ownership by 2016.
And just in case you didn’t know, Indians are really, really social. Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn are flourishing in India, where 25% of all time online is spent on social networks.
Last year, LinkedIn celebrated luring 20 million Indians to their service, making Indians the second largest member base. Google+ has attracted a much higher share of online Indians than it has in the States (78% vs. 44%). I was greeted with loud applause when I displayed data from GlobalWebIndex demonstrating that online Indians are far more likely than online Americans to own and use social media accounts on all the major social media platforms.
Who knows what new platforms will be arriving over the next couple of years, but whatever they are, they will see an increasing share of Indians using them. And traditional media – film, TV, publishing – both in India and all around the world, will never be the same.
There’s no question that social media will play a huge role in reshaping the global media landscape as audience members continue to flex their social media muscles, talking back to traditional media and exerting unprecedented influence over the media they consume, share, remix, and create from scratch themselves.
As followers of this blog probably know, I’ve long been monitoring the role of women in this social media revolution. Globally, women outnumber men on social media platforms, and they spend a lot more time there, connecting with like-minded consumers, citizens, fans and activists.
In India, the percentage of women online has been depressingly low: in 2010, they only accounted for 22% of Indian web surfers. But, as of December 2013, we saw a 77% increase to 39%.
And while the digital divide among rich and poor in India may take entirely too long to bridge, I have no doubt that the digital gender divide will disappear shortly. One reason is that there is a lot of easy money on the line. Savvy global corporations know where their bread is buttered: they want more women online because, worldwide, women have a tremendous amount of purchasing power, usually holding responsibility for the majority of household purchases. In the US, for instance, women make 85% of household purchases and 4 out of 5 of them use the Internet to make purchasing decisions. This is probably why we see initiatives like Helping Women Get Online, a partnership between Google, Intel, Hindustan Unilever and Axis Bank launched late last year to speed up the process.
We have lots of stereotypes about who’s tech savvy and who isn’t, and when it comes to Indians, I’d bet that when you visualize an “early adopter,” you probably think of a young male, not a middle-aged female. But, according to ComScore, the heaviest users of the Internet in India are 35-44 year old females.
Once Indian women have access, like women around the rest of the world, they are ravenous users of social media and all kinds of other social technologies on their phones.
According to Nielsen, 43% of the websites that women visit on their smartphones are social websites. For Indian men, it’s about 1/3 (32%). And Indian women spend almost twice as much time per day using apps on their smartphones compared to men. One Indian friend of mine in Los Angeles pulled out her cell phone and showed me how avidly all of her friends back in India are using WhatsApp. Using the broadcast list feature, her friends are having vibrant Facebook-style conversations studded with videos and images that they can cheaply share with one another on a platform that circumvents hefty international texting fees.
WhatsApp is proving to be the killer app for huge diasporic communities like Indians, and (surprise, surprise) Indian women are driving that growth. There are currently 20 million Indian users of the service and women use the WhatsApp Messenger three times more often than men.
Why is this important? Social media offers the unprecedented possibility of amplifying voices that were simply not heard in the past. (Happily, I got a warm round of applause for this sentiment from my mostly male audience.) Women, who have not had the opportunity to shape their own image in the media, will now play a huge role in dismantling and reinvigorating a media culture that will more accurately reflect people’s real desires, interests and fears. As powerful traditional media companies in the US, India and all around world increasingly turn their attention to social media to tap into the zeitgeist, they will increasing hear the voices of women who dominate those social media conversations.
Of course I look forward to the day when Indians won’t need to use social media channels in order to secure justice for rape victims, or to shame corrupt politicians out of office. But even Twitter haters (and, boy, there are a lot of you out there) should find some place in your heart for any new technology that makes it possible for ordinary citizens (albeit those fortunate enough to have an Internet connection) to test their voices, engage in public debate and find like-minded souls in this big ol’ networked world.