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Facebook and the ABCD of Indian social network

Facebook looks to astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity to hook new users, eyes major surge

business Updated: Jan 13, 2016 13:07 IST
Chief product officer, Facebook, Chris Cox in coversation with HT, in New Delhi.
Chief product officer, Facebook, Chris Cox in coversation with HT, in New Delhi.(Saumya Khandelwal/ HT photo)

Facebook is playing the ABCD card — of astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity — to penetrate deeper into India, though the system of naming people in some parts of the country is not the social network’s friend.

Of its billion users the world over, less than a sixth are in India. But of its next billion users, Facebook expects a third to come from the country. And it is leaving no stone unturned to get them.

Some of those stones are peculiar to India, such as a large number of mobile phones – a billion – but less than a third of them smart phones, leaving the rest to make do with what is called 2G technology, which provides for much slower speeds of internet.

Facebook engineers at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California have started using 2G on one day of the week, in the hope that empathy will lead to better product design. “We started 2G Tuesdays, when hundreds of engineers switch to 2G so that they can have better empathy for people here in Delhi,” Chris Cox, Facebook’s head of products, told HT on Tuesday. His first business trip of the year is to New Delhi. Of course, to be a mobile phone user in Delhi these days is to have your call drop, and your phone lose network every once in a while.

In conversation with Chris Cox: Facebook’s Product Officer

“We are putting a lot of energy into sending researchers here to build tools. There is a lot of language support — 12 official regional languages. We are doing a lot of research on the ground. In India we have the ABCD – astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity. That’s what is there in my news feed,” said Cox.

It was here in India that the rapid adoption of mobile phones made Facebook think of mobile first and design its services and products accordingly. That was five years ago. Since then, its focus has only sharpened.

“In 2015 our Android experience got 50% faster and 50% thinner. This morning there were a billion Indians in India who had a mobile phone, and many of those people will be using the internet for the first time. It’s a lot of challenge for a company -- building for what maybe their first experience.”

Chief product officer, Facebook, Chris Cox in coversation with HT, in New Delhi. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT photo)

The challenge begins at registration. It does not help that some Indians write their given names first and some last. “We may be using the last name, and they would be using the family name. Those are the details, and we don’t get them right.”

Facebook Lite, the thinner, easier to load version, which consumes less data, is built specifically for India. “It is based on the smaller version of the app, for people who are on lower device classes. So it’s just opening us up in markets where FB was not present.”