Not Competing or Asking People to Quit Twitter: Koo App Co-Founder

On regulation, Koo App co-founder Mayank Bidawatka said it is important for social media platforms to be law abiding

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Koo App co-founder Mayank Bidawatka speaks on competing with Twitter, benefiting from Twitter-govt row, social media regulations and growing without foreign investment.
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Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan

Not many would have heard of the Koo App in 2020 but an enormous spike in downloads in February 2021 suggests the app has been rapidly gaining popularity in India. Amidst the row between the government and Twitter over content moderation policies, the shuddh desi Koo App saw millions of downloads.

Its new users include Union Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Kangana Ranaut and a host of senior leaders from the BJP and other parties.

The app, which has over 40 lakh downloads, allows its users to post text, voice messages, photos, videos and has six Indian languages.

The Quint spoke with the app’s co-founder Mayank Bidawatka to understand how the app differs from Twitter, whether Indian startups can survive without Chinese investment, the government’s social media regulations and how the app benefitted from Twitter’s tussle with the government.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

In what ways has Koo app benefitted from the government’s recent tussle with Twitter?

“I don't look at Twitter as a competitor,” Mayank said at the outset, explaining how their core target audience, priorities are different.

The app’s uptick is significant and comes at a time when the Centre has been at loggerheads with Twitter over blocking of accounts and content related to the farmers’ protests.

He acknowledged that the app has benefitted from Twitter’s spat with the government but says they have a long journey ahead.

“Yes, we have benefitted from the event that happened between the government and Twitter,” Mayank said adding that “in the long run the 1.5 million users added will be a little blip in our journey and not a defining moment in our journey.

Having benefitted from something like this, we’re looking at targeting 500 million users over the next few years.
Mayank Bidawatka

Is it possible for Indian startups to survive and grow without Chinese investments since the most successful startups do have foreign investment?

Earlier in February, Koo app founders had admitted that it has a Chinese investor that is on its way out.

Clarifying on the Chinese investment, Co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna had said, “Shunwei-our Chinese investor had invested in the earlier brand Vokal. We have pivoted our business and focussed on Koo, they are on their way out. They are being bought out by other people. We are a truly an atmanirbhar Bharat app.”

“Simple answer to your question is yes we can survive without funds we get from foreign entities no matter which country that is,” Mayank told The Quint.

Speaking of the Centre’s push for an ‘aatmanirbhar’ India, he said “I think what's come in from the government now is a very clear intent that I want to move towards self-reliance.”

“India is deep pocketed in terms of funds. We’ll see that coming out from larger Indian investors as and when they see Indian entrepreneurs proving successful business models from small startups.”
Mayank Bidawatka

How do you view the government’s move to regulate social media platforms given concerns about excessive regulation leading to a chilling of free speech and privacy?

Announcing drastic changes in the new rules for social media companies and a code of ethics for OTT streaming platforms as well as digital news media, Union Ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar on Thursday, 25 February said they “are empowering the ordinary users of social media”.

The 30-page document, titled ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’, places a host of obligations on online platforms and provides for a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media, which confers blocking powers to an inter-ministerial committee.

Bidawatka highlighted three aspects of social media regulations, that he said are important to keep in mind.

First, according to him, most people on social media do not want toxicity, something that’s spread by a small percentage of users. Stating that regulation is meant to focus on being respectful, he said, “We've built in features where if you're trying to comment on someone's Koo it says "please be respectful"”.

Second, “Identification is going to be a very important pillar of social media in the world” he said, adding that anonymity online leads people to be toxic.

Third, he stressed on the important of abiding by the laws of the land and understanding the legal nuances of a jurisdiction.

It’s not so much about working with the government as it is about understanding the Constitution, understanding the legal frameworks. To ensure there is peace and harmony we’re going to abide by the law for sure.
Mayank Bidawatka

Do you envisage celebrities and other users leaving Twitter and coming onto Koo App someday?

“I think Twitter is one of the best products ever created that democratised voice,” Mayank said, explaining it has never been Koo’s strategy to ask people to leave the platform and migrate to Koo.

“Our message has never been about asking users to leave Twitter and join us,” he said.

“What we say is there is a large part of the country that has not been able to participate in microblogging and open expression. There is a much larger India outside of what exists on Twitter maybe. Please come to Koo because there is an audience that you will not find on other microblogging platforms. Go deeper in India through Koo.”
Mayank Bidawtka

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