Payal Arora

Payal Arora: “If you’re not looking at the Global South, you’re putting your business at high risk”

This brilliant, interesting lady was born in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India with a population of more than 8 million. Payal Arora left Bangalore when she was a teenager and went to the US. She created street art in California, became a high-end art sales manager and studied at the top Universities Columbia and Harvard. When her marriage ended, she said goodbye to the American dream and was ready for a new adventure in Europe. “Eat, pray, love and let’s experience The Netherlands.” And then she became a professor in technology, values, and global media cultures at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

She also co-founded FemLab, that helps organizations make their audience aware of the future of work and global design. She wrote several books and gave a Ted X talk about the future of the Internet. Meet Payal Arora, digital anthropologist and author of ‘The Next Billion Users’.

You are a professor in technology, values, and global media cultures, but you call yourself a digital anthropologist. What does that mean?

Basically, it’s like a fancy term for studying what people do with digital media in their everyday lives. How do they make sense of it? How do they integrate it into their everyday routines? So that’s really the crux of digital anthropology, studying human life.

Your latest book is called ‘The Next Billion Users’, about the behavior of people in Africa, Asia and South-America who were connected to the world, the internet, in the past decade. Mostly through their mobile phones. What really opened my eyes was the fact that in 2030, 85% of the online population will come from a non-Western background. And that influences the whole global community. Why is it important for businesses to realize this?

It’s a bit shocking, but it’s most shocking for people here, in the Western civilization. But it is not so shocking when you are out there, in the Global South, when you’re part of this vast population. It’s interesting because in Africa alone, about 60 percent of the population fits under the youth demographic right now. So, it’s not a coincidence that Facebook is building underground water cables for connectivity because they’re investing in the very infrastructure upon which media content can build on. They’re going to be the intermediaries for an entire continent. It’s not altruistic at all. It’s an interesting market for companies like Facebook.

Do you see other brands and organizations entering those markets too? Apart from the infrastructure that Facebook, or Meta, is rolling out?

Traditionally brands hesitate to go into markets that they’re not familiar with. What’s happened over decades is deeply exoticizing the Global South, especially if you are in the West. They typically believe these markets are so extraordinary different. They think they can’t cross these borders because they don’t have the training and the expertise. But that’s false. People in the Global South have more in common with you than you can imagine. For example, they watch a lot of the things we watch. They want what we want – to be entertained, to socialize online, to have a seamless experience, to connect and find connections. As a digital anthropologist, I go into the field to see how people are using their mobile phones. When I was in the Himalayas in the early 2000s, people were watching the Bold and the Beautiful, a popular television daytime soap opera out there.

A lot of content travels across borders. Brands expect it to be extremely challenging: it’s not my kind of people, not my kind of place, I don’t know anything, it’s too risky. But it’s too risky not to get in this climate. It’s the reverse. If you’re not looking at the Global South, you are putting your businesses at high risk.

Even if your brand is not directly involved in these areas? In these markets?

Even the latest social media reports make the case that the future digital trends will come from the Global South. And that’s because they have most of the youth out there and they are extraordinary creative and curious. They don’t have multi devices like tablets, laptops, and desktops. They immerse mainly in a mobile internet world and far more intensely than the typical young person in the West. While data has become massively cheap and accessible, it is still a scarce commodity given their limited resources and bandwidth. So, there is high momentum to build light content.

And how does that work? How can brands and organizations learn from the way people in the Global South use the internet and their devices? I can imagine it’s a bit like Europe: so many different languages and cultures. It’s not easy to extract homogenous European trends for example.

There’s so much to learn about the ease of use, the intuitiveness of design, the immersive storytelling which can resonate across complex demographics. I talked to different tech companies and several of them say, if I can make it in India, I can make it anywhere. India has 22 official languages, but around 20.000 dialects. You must be a brilliant navigator and come up with innovative ways of outreach – the key being content. There’s a lot to learn because that means you can scale your company. In today’s app world, it’s an economy of scale. You don’t build for the local anymore. Or better yet, you recognize that the local are intrinsically global in their outlook.

India differs from China which is far more homogenous. It has a vast population, but it’s not as diverse as India. India has a caste system, the class system, each state has its own language and politics. And yet you can see there is a kind of Indian content. Indians are very global oriented. And if you can crack that code with people there, you have a lot to learn on how to be versatile. After all, aren’t we talking about resilient business models today? Especially the pandemic reminds us more than ever that we need to come up with resilient business models because you’re not going to survive otherwise.

You’re talking about India, and I understand how this is a great example for businesses, but does this also count for areas like Africa and South America?

Yes certainly. Think about Bollywood. That’s a perfect case in point. Bollywood is bigger than Hollywood, and it has exported itself across borders. You could go to Latin America, South America, to Nigeria, and they’d be hearing Bollywood songs. They know who Shah Rukh Khan is, a superstar. Moreover, Africans have their own popular media which is gaining momentum with an influx of investment into the creative media industries. Think Nollywood – the Nigerian Hollywood. So, it’s less about Hollywood. Hollywood’s being decentered and has been decentered for a while. We just don’t see it that way because we’re in Europe. But even now, that’s changing. Netflix has disrupted that traditional media consumption dynamic. But even that disruption happened decades ago. Bollywood was popular in the fifties in Russia.

In your book you’re talking about ‘the leisure divide’, about the fact that leisure is one of the main things people in the Global South are looking for. Can you explain what that means?

When you think about the Global South and the internet, the first thing that comes to mind is the digital divide, which basically means that most people must catch up with the West because the West has got X number of digital devices, data plans, broadband, 3G, 4G, 5G. We’re talking about an escalation of needs. The luxury of yesterday is the need of tomorrow. And so, the digital divide shows this amplified difference between, maybe countries out there who have access to very limited amounts of data and a content deficit while we are saturated with an information glut. So, we are in two different worlds. But the reality is that the average Chinese consumer consumes twice as much content as the average Western user. They’re online twice the amount of time and they are not just a typical user in terms of scale. Just India and China alone account for most users in the world. They are also doing it far more intensely and in far more diverse ways.

And another crazy stat is from a KPMG report that came out recently and showed that the highest audiovisual content is taking place amongst the lowest socioeconomic group. How crazy is that?

Can they afford that? Can they afford consuming all that content?

Data is still very much a luxury. It’s expensive, even though there’s been a lot of innovation from countries like India, which made data extraordinarily cheap. Something like 40 cents a GB vs. seven euros here or fifteen dollars in the US, so it made data accessible to a wider population, that’s how the next billion users came up. But even then, data is still a luxury. The poor are conspicuous consumers, which means that they consume luxury goods.

What is counter intuitive for most people, is that people are willing to give up a meal so they can get a little top up for their mobile plan. They make choices which appear irrational but are rational from their perspective of well-being, dignity, and everyday happiness.

So how can people see this as an emerging market for their brand or their business if they have no money to spend?

It is an emerging market just by the fact that it contains most of the youth. It’s not the future anymore, it is happening already. We are in a data driven economy; this is data which basically is content. But if we treat it as just more data, we will get nowhere. We must see that data is inherently cultural. It is social. It’s a manifestation of people’s ideas and visions and aspirations. An immersive set of being basically. And all this should give us an idea of how to envision future products and services, because in the end, people want to be inspired. People want to have a vision. People want to have enormous amounts of creativity around them. The average person, whether you are in Amsterdam or in India, in some village, are intrinsically curious because that’s human nature, and content is a sort of a beautiful pathway to discovering the world in this way. We need to see the Global South as collaborators and partners in design and development of media content and not merely data points to be extracted.

You say that we should look at that data as a basis for design thinking. How do you do that. What does that mean in terms of content?

For example, on Instagram there’s this whole series of village influencers among which this guy, Neel Ranaut, who is a fashion influencer – a village fashion influencer. He has more followers than top fashion brands. He uses stuff in the village and humor. He uses a lot of creativity with grass and flowers. And he creates a story from one place to another with audiovisual content. It’s extraordinary creative and very immersive. You don’t need to know the language.

Part of the reason why they’re taking the lead is because the future of content is audiovisual. These guys are even better because oftentimes they’re non-literate or semi-literate. So, they’re not going to take to Twitter, because they’re not text oriented. They are naturally leapfrogging into podcasts and audiovisual content. They can navigate the language barrier. No wonder they have pioneered that.

The same thing counts for politically unstable situations. People in politically unstable situations have a tremendous amount of humor which they use as a coping mechanism. Chinese people make a lot of fun using giphs and memes. It’s so creative to make political statements because if they stated in simple text, it would get censored. And that’s happening in many contexts, from the Middle East to Asia. They’ve created a soft language which can be exported across borders.

I love that word: soft language. That’s the new global language if I understand correctly. Can you conclude with what businesses can do right now to learn about the next billion users and get ready for this near future?

Sure. When you are thinking of creating content, think about where the content is going to be viewed. Go simple. Think about the mobile internet, about people with far more basic phones. This is the typical platform. Is it still engaging in that simple environment, device, and platform? Think minimal for maximum effect.

The other is ‘diversity is not complicated’. Diversity is simple because it asks for authentic storytelling, and it will travel because it’s rich in resonance across contexts. You don’t have to gamify already exhausted plotlines, already exhausted templates, which will probably result in people tuning you out.

And the third is in terms of audience, as I said, the local is intrinsically global. Start with the simple fact that people are innately curious. I see that as an asset, that curiosity doesn’t kill the cat, it feeds the cat and cat is king in the content world. That sounds like a corny end, but I think that’s how one should begin.

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