Monday, September 14, 2009

Did you get the message?

An essentially Indian venture is using SMS to push the limits of social networking

FaceBook and Twitter are growing steadily in India, adding thousands of new users everyday. Some called it a social networking revolution that will change the way we make friends, sustain old friendships and expand our social spheres. But, as these essentially American phenomena capture the imagination and time of Internet users, micro-blogging is making giant strides in the Indian mobile space with a unique concept called SMS GupShup. In fact, the idea has become so successful since its launch a couple of years ago that it already has around 22 million registered users in India—compare that to the six million Twitter accounts worldwide.
Beerud Sheth, the IIT -MIT graduate who co-founded SMS GupShup with Rakesh Mathur, thinks India is so obsessed with the Internet that it often tends to overlook the realities. “Our ecosystem is different from the US or Europe. Internet penetration here is still limited. On the other hand, mobile phones are everywhere and reach even our rural areas. Everybody has access to SMS,” explains Sheth, CEO of SMS GupShup, the world largest and fastest growing mobile communication platform.
Sheth says social networking tends to lose their relevance in India where most users log in to check status messages once or twice a day. “Social content has a five-minute shelf life. In developed countries, people get real time updates on the mobile phones. It doesn’t work like that in India,” he explains.
But that is exactly how his SMS GupShup works. Every time you post a message to a group, it pops up on the mobile phones of everyone listed. You can also send similar messages to a friend list, all at the cost of a single SMS.
In fact, the group messaging service generates so much content that it now accounts for nearly five per cent of India’s SMS traffic, around 400 million text messages a month.
“While the most popular bloggers in India won’t claim to have more than a few thousand followers, a handful of micro-bloggers who use the SMS GupShup platform have over one lakh followers. So every time they send a message, it goes out to all these users, making them very powerful people,” laughs Sheth.
It is this power of connectivity that Sheth think puts his concept above the others. And people are taking notice. While some national parties used the platform to gauge the mood of the electorate before the general elections earlier this year, many corporates use the service to engage customers.
Users have been discovering some social applications too. The Mumbaikar group, for instance, keep its 2,000-odd members posted about what’s happening on the ground in Maximum City. “People even post messages about a new pothole or uncleared garbage,” says Sheth, adding that civic authorities in the city have started screening the content to see where they can be of help.
Hundreds of new groups, covering anything from cooking to gay rights, are created every hour either through mobile phones or directly on the SMS GupShup website. Many use it to stay in constant touch with their peer groups, while others use it to target a specific audience.
“Since you have to voluntarily become a member of a specific group to start getting updates, there is no spam or unsolicited content,” explains Sheth, adding that while the platform is free for individual users, companies pay for advertising. “The ads appear as a footnote at the bottom of messages and are most often related to the content in the group,” he says.
And it is not just text messages. A lot of users are hooked to the SMS games on offers; some others use it to check words in the dictionary and read RSS feeds, while others are regular with the contests. “Third party applications can be hosted through the website, though not many have used it so far,” says Sheth, who recently tied up with Facebook to use the service for updates.
Sheth now plans to take the service beyond India “to similar ecosystems” where mobile phones still have more reach and power compared to the Internet. With nearly 3.5 billion mobile phones around the globe, maybe we are on the verge of the real social networking revolution.

To join a community, users have to SMS: JOIN
To create a community, SMS: CREATE To invite friends to the community, SMS: INVITE Users can also use the web or WAP (mobile web) to create or join communities.
All SMSes have to be send on 567678, the GupShup short code