What happens when you call countries poor
The fracas over Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel calling India a poor country caused its rating to plummet.
Earlier this week in India, Twitter took on SnapChat. No, we are not talking takeovers here. The American publication Variety published a news item, saying that in a 2015 meeting, the then employee of Snap Inc Anthony Pompliano offered strategies to expand the user base of the app. His suggestions, according to Pompliano, were cut short by CEO Evan Spiegel, who allegedly remarked, "This app is only for rich people. I don't want to expand into poor countries like Spain and India." The words, allegedly mouthed by Spiegel, may just go down as the two singularly most damaging sentences in the history of social media upheavals. As soon as the Variety report came out with the report, a virtual bloodbath began on social media platforms in India. The hashtag #boycottsnapchat began trending, following which several users in India uninstalled the app (Snapdeal, which many users mistook for Snapchat, suffered the collateral damage), and its customer rating plummeted from four stars to one. If this wasn't enough, many Twitter handles began to troll Spiegel's fiancée Miranda Kerr, offering 'sympathies' for marrying a man woefully unaware of India. SnapChat's dismissal of Pompliano's statement as words of a "disgruntled former employee" did little to salvage the situation. Being Evan Spiegel was anything but easy this week.
Social media hysteria has a way of creating a narrative of its own. Most outraged users have read Spiegel's alleged comments as being racist, and an evidence of his 'ignorance about the country'. While we may never know what Evan Spiegel actually thinks about India, dig a little - just a little - deeper into the two sentences, and a whole new perspective comes forward.
THE MEDIUMSocial media has largely been an urban phenomenon. Ask anyone why they are on social media and the answers abound - to stay connected with people from across the globe (also, the colleague sitting next to you), to keep yourself abreast when it comes to news, and the largely unspoken reason is to craft a social image for oneself, among several others. SnapChat has, arguably, found its most useful purpose in the latter. The app documents aspects of your daily life in small video clips with funky icons serving as embellishments. In short, the perception is that it is an app for the affluent, a claim UAE-based digital expert Aasim Shaikh does not agree with completely. "SnapChat is designed for the abundant, and not just the affluent. It is built for a world that lives in hyper communication and is suitable for markets with an established social media culture, like the UAE. That is not to say that people do not use it in emerging markets due to economic reasons. The singular reason is differences in social culture. India has one of the highest mobile viewership for live sports and entertainment. The million dollar question is whether SnapChat fits into their mode of social entertainment." Fair enough!
THE NUMBERSStatistics often make for great quotes, but putting them in perspective gives numbers a whole new meaning. According to the global statistics website Statista, India has approximately 250.8 million social media users as of 2017, a number that is expected to reach 283 million next year. Given that the global figures, according to Statista, are pegged around 2.51 billion, this may not be a bad number. But here's the catch. Osama Manzar, the founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation, who has been working with rural communities in India, offers a much needed reality check. "There are two reasons why we are reacting so strongly: a) it's political, and b) it is also hitting below the belt. Because the size of our population is huge, even the 10 or 20 per cent people who are Internet-connected make for a high social media consumer base. For instance, suppose Facebook claims that it has 142 million users in India, just calculate what percentage of population would that constitute? 14 per cent? 15 per cent? SnapChat, at the end of the day, is an audio-visual medium, and the data connectivity in India has not penetrated deeply enough."
Prod him about the social media hysteria that Spiegel's alleged comment has generated and he is quick to point out, "Who are the people raising their voice? They are Internet-connected, and hence not 'poor' in a conventional sense. Frankly, I am not surprised that people are reacting because those who are doing so are not poor and don't want to be called so." For rural India, he says, social media is largely aspirational. "We have over 200 locations in which we have digital community resource centres. They want to explore social media rather than contribute to it."
THE PURPOSEThe popularity of a social media platform depends on the purpose it serves. For instance, in the UAE, Instagram has a large consumer base. In China, WeChat is, arguably, a more popular medium for voice messaging. In India, Facebook and WhatsApp have been game changers with the former becoming an important vehicle for news dissemination. Sandeep Amar, the CEO of Indian Express Digital, says that the growth of social media in smaller towns has been phenomenal, with the vernacular doing exceedingly well when it comes to accessing social media for news. "Lately, we have observed that people in smaller cities spend more time on social media. Three years ago, we observed a trend where some phones were available in the market for under $100. A lot of people in smaller cities would go to shops with specific demands for phones on which they could download Facebook and WhatsApp. It's not about the rich or the poor, it's about the purpose it serves. SnapChat has done its own share of good work; they launched video selfies with special effects. But it's more popular among the youth. See, you cannot force technology on people; they need to accept it organically."
It's been a week since the controversy took over internet. During this time, and even now, the outrage against what is thus far only an 'alleged' comment, has intensified. Is Evan Spiegel's app meant only for the rich? As social media ponders over this, there is another question it must ask itself - should nuance be sacrificed at the altar of 140 characters?
Anamika is an 'intellectual fashionista' who aspires to be Sheldon Cooper