Going social in India: The rise of Web 2.0 in the developing world

May 18, 2010: 10:23 AM ET

HCL CEO Vineet Nayar says social media can come in many different forms. Photo: HCL Technologies.

What does social networking mean in developing economies, where laptops are harder to find and phones are often for texting, not browsing?

Over lunch this week, I put that question to Vineet Nayar. Besides being CEO of India-based outsourcing giant HCL Technologies, Nayar is an avid observer of the Internet's effect on global business and culture. His answer was thought provoking: We think too narrowly if we look only at services like Facebook and Twitter when we think social. Any technology that allows people to quickly collaborate is a potential social platform.

To illustrate his point, Nayar related a story of social media in action: Along the border of India and Pakistan, where Bollywood music is popular, one man climbs a tower and calls out the title of a song he wants to hear. A man on the other side hears the request, and uses his cell phone to call it in to his radio station. The station broadcasts the song, and the signal touches both countries.

In that case, the social technology is a standard cell phone – a device that's changing communication in India perhaps more profoundly than the Internet browser. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, there were just shy of 9 million broadband subscribers there in March. Meanwhile, 20 million new cell phone subscribers signed on in April, bringing the total above 584 million – roughly half the population. Of course, this doesn't mean that literally half of India's population owns a phone – some people have more than one, skewing the numbers – but it's still a staggering stat.

Nayar's point wasn't that the PC is irrelevant in India – far from it. The use of Internet-connected PCs is growing rapidly there, particularly in urban areas where one in eight people is already online, and about half of them use social networking sites. High-end smartphones are growing, too; Nayar's company once helped Nokia (NOK) become the dominant phone brand, and he said he's recently begun working with Apple (AAPL) on marketing the iPhone.

As the numbers suggest, it's not just well-to-do urban areas fueling the trend. It's common, Nayar said, to find cell phones in remote villages that don't have electric service. Fishermen once had to take their chances with local brokers and hope their catch would sell at a decent price; now they can check bids over SMS before heading to the most profitable market.

Nayar's observations were food for thought. It might not sound flashy, and it certainly isn't backed by a billion-dollar website, but maybe the fisherman's SMS network is every bit as social – and important – as anything Silicon Valley is cooking up.

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