The social media opportunity in India (1)

My investor and business clients are increasingly interested in investing in India. While many of the conversations are about the less glamorous sectors, the chatter about social media is unavoidable.

A quick Google search on the ‘social media opportunity in India’ brings up over 0.5 million articles, in English alone. This suggests a considerable degree of interest in the topic. This interest is evident in conversations with some investors in London too. Understanding the opportunity however needs more than interest. It needs clear analysis.

Although things are changing for the better and the more efficient, setting up a business in India remains quite challenging for most. Two sets of problems come up instantly – corruption and infrastructure.

The former’s many facets need no explanation. In Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index report, India has an unflattering 85th position. The legendary ‘Mr Fix-It’, admitted by many executives as being essential to success in India, has recently had his own cover story in a recent issue of Wired magazine, titled The Godfather of Bangalore.

Infrastructure in India is a multi-headed Ladon ‘guarding’ the golden apples of the Indian market. Investors admit to their first-time-in-India shock rather candidly but truly getting over bumpy roads, snarly traffic, unreliable telephony infrastructure and rolling power cuts (although I find it hard to imagine The Taj ever has one) takes a thicker skin and a very deep commitment to cracking the Indian market.

(c) Encyclopedia Mythica at
(c) Encyclopedia Mythica at

Social media businesses bypass both these bottlenecks with relative ease. An internet-based social media business can be set up with minimal permissions. If the business can find a reliable bandwidth and storage provider, of which there is no paucity in India now, we are in business. Prima facie, the social media scene in India does seem to offer an attractive investment proposition.

In the next post, I shall write about some of the most popular social media businesses in India and what investment opportunities may be around.

Art or Science?

Is management an art or a science? This is the direction in which the conversation in the comments section of an earlier post on Recession-proofing Your Career veered. The answer, just as with other questions in life, is not clear cut, nor all-pleasing at all times.

But to me, the question should be different. Are art and science really so different, so different as to be used as antonyms of some sort? I do not think so. The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest medical research charity, also seems to consider art inspired by science a cause worthy of some £5.5M since 2002.

The beauty of science and mathematics, in my mind, is better than, if not at least akin to the best of art. As some of you may know from my past writings, I am no philistine, a term which is a shame to use as a derogation, when the early history of Philistines shows them to be quite a cultured people. But I digress.

My attention was recently drawn, by a friend and fellow PhD student on a train ride from Cambridge to London, to a beautiful example of art converging with science and the merged entity being thrown in the midst of the community’s quotidian life.

Alongside the train track runs a cycle track and footpath. And on that footpath have been laid some 10,000 colour stripes. These stripes represent the genetic code for a vital human gene: the BRCA2, which was sequenced at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. BRCA2 (pronounced “Bracker Two”) is, as some of you may know, is a human gene, alterations or mutations in which may be involved in some cases of breast and ovarian cancer.

Here is a picture of the said pattern of BRCA2 made of coloured stripes, that I took from the moving train.


(c) Picture taken by me, on Nokia N95, February 2008: The BRCA2 gene map on the cycle path from Shelford to Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge

Art or science? What do you think?

Me? I think there is no separation between the two. Science is the art of explanation; art is the science of making more than the literal sense of the explanation in a broader, richer, more complex context.

Other genetics-related readings on this blog:

The genetic research gold rush


Look, we have made the Leap!

Happy New (Leap) Year, Readers and Blog-friends! May your quotidian life be as you desire it to be. What are your plans for that extra day we have this year?

And Happy Birthday to the modern world’s most influential 25-year old – TCP/ IP.

A full switchover to this open-architecture protocol, which enables the internet as we know it, was completed on January 1, 1983. All that we take for granted now – surfing, searching, blogging, e-commerce on the internet, of course – would not have come to pass without this important landmark. The world owes a lot to engineers! Of course, I would say it, would I not?

Second outing: About Digital Origins and Identities

I have never been of one place, any place. Even before I left India to live in Europe, I was never of one culture, one language. My experiences in Europe amusingly showed me that sometimes I am also not of one colour. I like it that way. Needless to say, my reactions to many things – which are proposed as black-or-white, 1-or-0, this-or-that – are tempered by this ability to see variations, shades of grey and other hues, across boundaries. This post about digital origins and identities was written originally in July 2007. It gets a second outing now that I am part of a bigger blogging community where these questions will resonate and I hope, generate a discussion.

Professor John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center, delivered the keynote address on “The Internet and University” at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society’s Internet & Society Conference titled “University — Knowledge Beyond Authority: What Is the Role of University in Cyberspace?” The core theme of his speech was that students coming into universities today are “digital natives” and fundamentally different in their use of technology than the “digital immigrants” who teach them.

Natives and immigrants – a great analogy which you must keep in mind as you review the general gist of his speech, which I had to cull from various sources since the whole speech is still not available on-line in entirely. Is this proof of the ‘digital immigrant’ status of the larger Harvard community?

The gist is as follows:
There are differences between being born digital versus learning to be digital. The four major attributes of natives are that they have digital identities, they multi-task, they use digital media (both tools such as cameras as well as ‘channels’ such as flickr and youtube), and they have gone from being consumers to creators, thus creating a sort of “Semiotic Democracy”.

There are challenges posed by this new media including the digital divide, ethics and transparency. The question whether teachers, as digital immigrants should be reborn? How will pedagogical methods change?

Interesting so far. I was most interested in the ‘identity’ aspect of this speech, and think that the analogy fails when referring to immigrants being ‘reborn’. I word it differently and add another layer of distinction by extending the immigrant analogy.

Looking around me in the real world – or should we call that the analogue world now – I identify two kinds of immigrants.

Some immigrants remain loyal to their country of birth, defining their identity by their origin and origin alone; they support their country-of-birth’s cricket team; they make 1, sometimes more, pilgrimages a year to their country of birth, referring to it as ‘home’ notwithstanding that they pay mortgage in their adopted country; they socialise largely with people from their country of origin, making some, not many relationships and friendships with ‘natives’.

Others naturalise and go ‘native’. They understand that ‘home’ is where you pay mortgage, where you shower and change for work every morning and not a place where you visit 1 or 2 times a year to spend time with your parents and siblings. They learn to be ashamed at the cricket team of their adopted country being beaten by 3rd rate teams from elsewhere, as well as be ashamed when their country of birth loses to a new European team! They can look at both countries dispassionately but not detachedly; they remain closely involved with both countries personally and professionally. They build quasi-families and deep friendships with the ‘natives’, as well as retaining the close ties with other migrants from their country of origin. While they foster a complex, kaleidoscopic identity, they remain aware of their distance from both the countries, their difference from the citizens of both and forge their own path ahead.

In the digital world, this latter group of people, the ‘naturalised digital citizen‘ is somewhere between the ‘digital native’ and the ‘digital immigrant’. These naturalised digital citizens are fully paid up members of social networks from LinkedIn to Facebook connected to their teachers in some cases, fully paid up contributors to the blogosphere as writers and readers, Twittering on friends’ mobiles, bookmarking on and checking their Technorati ratings and ego-surfing to see how they control their online image, Googling on Google Scholar and quietly drafting a note to the product manager from a researcher’s point of view on how to improve the product. They also have real friends whom they know by face and with whom they have impromptu lunches and cinema visits; they write and publish in printed magazines too; they also sit in – and enjoy the tranquil surroundings of – the British Library thumbing through papers for their research, enjoying the limitations set by the fact that the Library staff will only bring out copies of the papers you want and request in advance and not whole journals. They shop online for books and packaged foods, while still buying their greens in the ‘real world’. For their favourite brands, they may use a 3-D model on the web to buy their next trousers, but when they want to buy something different, they go into a shop and try it out. They email and read feeds, but also write letters and read hardback books, sometimes reviewing them on Amazon. Everything short of – sometimes not – a fully paid up citizenship in the Second Life.

This is not being reborn, as Professor Palfrey puts it. This is ‘adaptation‘ on a smaller time scale than Darwinian adaptation may require. This is not a struggle for survival, but survival of the fittest.

I wonder what Professor Palfrey would think of this distinction. May be I should ask him… Meanwhile tell me what YOU think.

Second outing: Redux: the global warming "band" wagon

In a dilemma over to-print or not-to-print, a friend of mine in California and I were discussing our respective green karma. She is of the view that having grown up in India, and having lived there for a long while, I have saved enough water and paper not to worry about printing occasional materials for my writing.

She said that the US was the largest consumer of paper with an average American consuming 730lb of paper, and I found confirmation here.

She added: “Humans kill trees so they can wipe their bums. How would humans feel if we were killed so trees could wipe their leaves?” Pause for thought, eh?

She then suggested that this earlier post from April 2007, deserved a second outing. So here it is:

Warning: Contains some scatological references; please do not read if offended easily by mention of or reference to bodily functions.

More from Sheryl Crow, whose bio-diesel tour bus was mentioned in an earlier post, on saving the planet:

* Ration loo-roll to one square except on pesky occasions when 2 or 3 may be needed;

* Instead of paper napkins, use a cloth dining sleeve;

Interesting as these ideas are, I think they stem from deeply-ingrained cultural practices too difficult to change. The mantra for being green goes “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Sheryl Crow’s ideas are based on ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’.

What about alternative ways?

It may surprise her to know that even in countries where there is a paucity of water, people use water, not loo roll (you could call the bidet a kind of western equivalent).

Further, I agree that paper napkins are a waste, but there is no consensus on the ‘green’ economics of paper versus cloth napkins. Much energy is consumed in washing and then (presumably) ironing cloth napkins, whereas paper napkins could be made from recycled paper and degrade easily without further use of washing up liquid, water or energy. An easier solution? Let’s all learn some table manners, use our hands to dust off loose flour and bits etc, and wash our hands after eating. Having grown up in a developing country, I can tell you with confidence that it takes about 30ml of water to wash one’s hands without soap, and about 100ml with soap.

While we are on the subject of eating, I must mention that many a time, I have been asked why Indians eat with their hands. Well, I explain, it is more sensible to trust the hygiene of one’s own hands than to trust cutlery that has travelled many a mouth. Further it saves washing up, but this ‘explanation’ I have admittedly made up. Instead of promoting the cultural shift needed to start eating with one’s hands, I would again mention innovation in edible cutlery about which my friend Shantanu wrote last year, and which I found in a neighbourhood vegetarian/ vegan store right here in the UK shortly thereafter. No cutlery, no washing-up, no detergent used, no water needed.

Too radical for Ms Crow?