Young people across India are fighting to get online and be heard. Held back by patchy infrastructure and limited access to wifi, it's a problem the Indian Government is still reluctant to acknowledge.
This is what Rahul Advani a PhD student at King’s India Institute discovered during his time in Pune, a mid-sized city not far from Mumbai. Focusing on the use of social media by people aged 18-24, Rahul's resulting photo essay rung true with the team here at BuffaloGrid so we caught up with him over coffee to find out more about India's digital divide.
What sparked your interest on the topic of India’s connectivity?
I’d read a lot of research about India's new middle class, claiming people were consuming like never before, sitting in coffee shops on laptops and using WiFi.
This wasn’t the case at all. Most of the middle-class youth I spoke to in Pune never visited the coffee shops and many of them had never used a laptop.
What first struck you when you landed in Pune and started speaking to the youth there?
How much they knew about their phones. If they wanted to go quickly through messages, WhatsApp was better. But, if they were worried about information going missing, they’d use Facebook Messenger. It’s something we wouldn’t even consider.
By leapfrogging several steps of how this technology developed, the amount of knowledge they have about their phone is incredible.
What kind of trends did you observe in the way the internet is being used?
Take the selfie as a single example. They were so important for many of the young people I met. It was a way to present themselves in a way that they couldn't do offline.
There was a very distinct kind of selfie they’d create, especially among the lower middle class, typically they'd blur out the colour and put emphasis on themselves. They'll often wear dark glasses and add a lot of effects as a way of showing that they know how to use technology.
To Indians from more upper-middle-class backgrounds, they look down on this as it’s seen as cheap. I noticed they often use these differences to distinguish themselves from other class backgrounds.
Why did you choose to focus on Pune and the urban side of India?
India's rapid urbanisation and the growing migration of rural populations to its cities provided a really interesting context to explore what the internet meant for young people.
I also wanted to dispel some of the myths that urban India has fantastic internet connectivity because, in reality, it's a lot more complicated than that. Pune is considered one of the tech cities of India but I felt the connection was pretty dreadful most of the time.
There's still so far to go in terms of infrastructure. I know that India's newest Mobile Network Operator, Reliance Jio launched last year and is slowly changing things.
In what ways is Jio changing how the youth use the internet in India?
Before Jio, a lot of the Indian youth talked about how cautious they were about using their phones and they would even say things like “oh, certain apps like Facebook I don't use so much because I know it takes a lot of data”
How much they can afford is something that really plays into how they use social media. They're always looking for the cheapest ways to get connected.
One of the reasons for this is that opportunities for them to connect to Wifi are almost nonexistent. The only places that offer Wifi are ironically the places they can't go to.
Every Starbucks or Café Coffee Day coffee shop has Wifi, but when I asked why the youth of Pune didn't visit these shops they'd tell me "It's not for people like us".
The fact is that, very few people actually have the money or even the confidence to go to those kinds of spaces. It all comes down to class background.
What do you think it will take for that to tackle the accessibility issue?
The Indian government talks a lot about smart cities but, from what I've seen, they can't even provide basic infrastructure. So I don't know how the smart city is going to work because, the government is trying to skip over a big step, which is to get the city in basic working order.
If they can pull the Smart City off, then maybe that's part of how they're going to improve Wifi connectivity, but once again it could very well be the case that by creating a city for a particular kind of Indian.
So it’s really foundational infrastructure issues like electricity that need to be sorted first?
In your Phd, you talk about how the Internet is helping highlight offline inequality, such as how male-dominated city spaces can be. Do you think that it also has the potential to help level the playing field?
It has the potential to and, in some ways it certainly is in terms of allowing everyone to access knowledge and entertainment. I feel that there’s a lot more opportunities for inequality to be challenged, but often the way young people use the internet has the opposite effect. That's human behaviour, I suppose.
It’s why I think it's down to the companies involved in this space to really push platforms in ways that help increase equality and diversity.
So from your research what kind of social media practices did you observe as very typical to India?
Everything is different. The selfie was just one example. In my PhD I talk about the disparity between online and offline communication.
When I watched how the youth of India socialised offline, they'd always insult each other, tease each other and it's their way of building intimacy.
What's interesting is when you look at their Facebook pages or Instagram, none of that appears. I would ask them "If this is how you make friends offline. Why aren't you doing that on the Internet?" and that's where it gets very interesting.
They told me the reason they never make fun of friends on Facebook is because if another friend sees their message and doesn't know them that well, they'll think that it’s a serious insult. They pay a lot of attention to what everyone else in facebook is watching. They see it very much as a public space.
What other trends are the youth of India adopting online that don’t happen as much elsewhere?
You know Facebook encourages users to wish others Happy Birthday? Well young people in India do this, but not in the way that Facebook intends. They ignore the instructions to post on that user's wall and instead they'll create a whole post on their own page with a picture of them and their friend and a long message explaining their relationship.
The reason is because when you post something on another person's wall, it's less likely to reach the newsfeed as opposed to a status update. They know this and it’s all to do with the fact that they want everyone on facebook to see that I'm wishing this person Happy Birthday.
It's all to do with this very traditional kind of Indian practice of praising people. This is something that is very much offline, but it's not really in the realm of friendship that this happens, it's more to do with praising a superior or a political figure.
Have you seen any other cultural traditions get transplanted online?
Well, a lot of their anxieties about the internet are to do with fears that they have offline. If you look at a lot of Indian mythology, stories of friendship are always haunted by the threat of deceit. That's something that really they are worried about.
Weirdly they aren't at all worried about Facebook taking their data or privacy issues. That never came up.
Do you feel like these two examples could be to do with ownership? The idea of claiming your friends and defending your online space?
Because they don't own that many things in real life, the internet and their social profiles are things that hold a lot of power for them so whatever they do post online, it's seen as a big deal.
How did the way the way young people in India differ from other places in the world?
So many offline modes of sociality are being carried online. In Russia and China, young people go on the Internet for entirely different reasons. They won't use their real names or their real identities. Yet they see what they do on the internet as more honest and open than reality.
In India this is the opposite. It's not like people were creating fake names or anything like that. They were very much using their real identities, but it was the opposite in terms of reflecting reality. They saw that what was being done online was nowhere near as honest as real life.
England is interesting in the fact that that people kind of use Facebook as a way of staying connected but without getting too involved in other people’s lives. A lot of academic literature says this is a very English style of socialising, a nice balance of getting close but not too close.
Again this is a contrast to India where kids brag about how many facebook friends they made in an evening. It's a sign of social status that just doesn't exist in many other places.
Special thanks to Rahul Advani for taking the time to be interviewed for this piece.
All photography featured here is by Ron Bezbaruah and is taken from Rahul's original photo essay here.