On May 7, 2008, YouTube announced the launch of another “localized” version – YouTube India. What’s the difference? According to press releases and reports, YouTube India is different in that it will: (a) feature a localized home page, and (b) discover and highlight videos popular and relevant in the Indian context. As Sakina Arsiwala, international manager of YouTube, put it, “this site contains all the videos found on YouTube’s global site, except we’ve applied an “Indian lens” to the content, meaning that the video charts you see reflect what Indians are watching now, the featured videos are programmed to cater to an Indian audience, and we’ve signed up dozens of local partners who are proud to distribute their content through YouTube.”
Further, given the popularity of YouTube’s global (read American) site – YouTube has 5 million unique users in India, and has added 200,000 news users every month from India last year – there is no doubt that other India-specific sites such as iShare, meravideo, videodubba, etc. will face stiff competition over the coming months. Given its cachet, YouTube has already managed to strike deals with a number of prominent film and television production companies in India and ensured that YouTube.co.in will be the site where sought-after content will be available.
At first glance, this seems rather familiar and in fact, brings to mind an earlier moment of “localization” – the mid-1990s when television channels like MTV and Channel [V] went about fashioning Indian avatars in order to make their content/programming more relevant to audiences and advertisers within India (Def Leppard and Guns ‘n Roses could not, at the end of the day, help MTV attract youth across the country). While this is a useful parallel to draw, there are some important differences to note. I would argue that the launch of YouTube India highlights two major struggles in the Indian digital bazaar and, more importantly, signals a shift in the way we think about localization and national communities.
1. YouTube.co.in: A “Trans-national community”
The idea of a “national community,” as we know, has always been central to the workings of film and television industries around the world. In the Indian context, the Bombay film industry has always positioned itself as speaking to and for a national community and so have several major television networks. Even today, emerging networks such as NDTV seek to position themselves as catering to a national community (albeit one that includes diasporic audiences – see this). We also know that this has always been a difficult task for film and television industries. Given that the Internet allows us to transgress local and national boundaries with even greater ease, how do we go about drawing national boundaries around YouTube or, more broadly, online communities that cohere around an astonishing range of videos? This is the problem that India-specific sites continue to struggle with. Sites like meravideo.com, aapkavideo.com, and videodubba.com defined themselves as national (and nationalist, in some cases) alternatives, in opposition to a global YouTube.
YouTube, however, has managed to position YouTube-India as a site where Indian audiences get to participate in the ongoing production of a global online video community and not just in a narrowly defined national space. In fact, when you visit youtube.co.in, there is nothing on the front page that suggests that the site is a “local” or “regional” version of a more global YouTube.
2. Making money in the bazaar
The second major problem that new media companies in India (and other comparable markets like Brazil) continue to struggle with is monetization. Internet use and broadband penetration remains low compared to other parts of the world and as a consequence, Internet advertising has not emerged as a key component of business models for new media initiatives (in 2007-08, Internet advertising in India was estimated at Rs. 225 crores/Rs. 2.25 billion). Here, the fact that YouTube’s India strategy is part of Google India’s larger ambitions represents a major advantage over competitors.
Instead of focusing on a short-term goal of generating advertising revenues, Google India executives have decided to perform the role of consultants who will, over the next 5-10 years, work closely with advertising and marketing agencies and advise media professionals on how online advertising can become a major element of their media planning. As Shailesh Rao, managing director of Google India, explained, the company has already set up five “verticals” (financial services, local and classifieds, travel, media & entertainment, and technology & health communication) with experts who will “educate, train and guide businesses to leverage the most out of online advertising.” It is this evangelizing mission that may, in the long run, prove to be the most important dimension of YouTube’s localization.