India’s Poor are on the Grid, and They Don’t Like to be Bored
What do you think a farmer from one of India’s many underprivileged villages would do if he is provided with internet? Check grain prices, or weather patterns? Look for ways to expand their business? The odds are that he would do none of these.
He is much likelier to open up YouTube for some movie songs or religious bhajans, maybe say ‘hello’ to a fellow farmer from a neighbouring village over Whatsapp. The bottom of the pyramid in India is coming up on the world wide web fast, majority of them first generation mobile users, due to cheap data rates and easy availability of sophisticated phones. The usage patterns that have already started to emerge are unexpected, to say the least. Even now, conversations around bringing the internet to the poor world revolves around a pragmatic and development-centric rhetoric. Yet now that the economically backward are beginning to use internet widely, their initial engagement trigger seems to be similar to that of the developed world: a need for entertainment. This unexpected and disruptive trend holds important lessons for anyone trying to work with digital education in India today. The ‘Timepass’ Conundrum Digital study aids and tablets are a familiar sight in the schools of the developed world, and in some pricey private ones of the developing world as well. Yet smartphones in the hands of kids are rarely employed in the proverbial search for knowledge. Its the games that rules the roost. This is exactly the case with India’s poor, first-generation internet users. A recent The Economist article quotes one such user, a young teacher from Rajasthan’s Madhopur village who uses her smartphone to chat up on Facebook and Whatsapp, and watch videos on YouTube and TikTok. She also looks up coursework from time to time, but in her words, “[the internet] is a way to do timepass”, using the Indian English word for ‘killing time’. Killing time, or leisure, therefore, is the primary object of internet use in the developing world, just as it is in the developed world. Any attempt at digital education for the poor will have to think seriously about mixing entertainment with function. Video is king India surpasses the global average in its preference for video content, particularly among the first generation users. Video has proved far more accessible a medium than text to this group of users. There are a couple fo reasons for this. First, audio-visual representations are invariably more attention grabbing. Secondly, with growing cosmopolitanism, the Indian youth is exposed to several languages including English and Hindi. They understand those languages, but may not be able to read them. This is where video content has been able to make the greatest penetration. Journalist Snigdha Poonam recently noted that when she referred to a book she had written to interviewees in small towns and villages, they opened YouTube to search for its name instead of the Google search engine. Reading English is not an easy prospect for India’s next half billion. Making them listen and see may work more effectively. Conclusion The demographic of India’s internet users are changing, and with it old ideas about internet penetration strategies are being turned to dust. Innovators, educators, and aid workers must take note and change with the tide.