Most IT initiatives targeting the digital divide in countries like India are overwhelmingly focused on rural India. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a the entire ICT4D (Information and Communication for Development) community maps the digital divide onto a rural-urban dichotomy. Generally speaking, urban India’s encounter with IT and cyberculture has been taken for granted and is largely middle-upper class and English-centric. Finally, it looks like entrepreneurs are making amends –
The best-known networking sites connect the computer-savvy elite to one another. Babajob, by contrast, connects the Indian elite to the poor at their doorsteps, people who need jobs but lack the connections to find them. Job seekers advertise skills, employers advertise jobs and matches are made through “friend-of-a-friend” networks. For example, if Rajeev and Sanjay are friends, and Sanjay needs a chauffeur, he can surf onto Rajeev’s page, travel onto the page of Rajeev’s chauffeur and then see which of the chauffeur’s friends happen to be looking for similar work.
Sean Blagsvedt, founder of babajob.com, also seems to have paid close attention to the dynamics of social networks in India and figured out ways to incorporate them in ways that would make babajob.com financially viable. And needless to say, VCs can’t wait to get involved.
In India, a businessman looking for a chauffeur might ask his friend, who might ask his chauffeur. Such connections provide a kind of quality control. The friend’s chauffeur, for instance, will not recommend a hoodlum, for fear of losing his own job. To recreate this dynamic online, Babajob pays people to be “connectors” between employer and employee. In the example above, the businessman’s friend and his chauffeur would each earn the equivalent of $2.50 if they connected the businessman with someone he likes.
While I understand that this is an important and timely innovation from the perspective of Web 2.0 business in India, there are at least three significant problems that cannot be overlooked. First, babajob.com will only help if you have a connection or two already. A migrant construction worker, for instance, has little to gain by having a profile on babajob.com. Second, the name itself bothers me – “babajob.” The word “baba” connotes very clear class distinctions and positions this network far away from sites such Linkedin.
Finally and most important, the fact that babajob.com is itself in English makes it abundantly clear that this isn’t so much a social network for the poor as it is a network for elites in cities like Bangalore to find cooks, drivers, peons and so on. Pankuja, for example, doesn’t speak English and is unlikely to log on to babajob.com to check out job postings or begin using the Web for other purposes. At one level, this is little more than a word-of-mouth elite network that now has an online version.