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How This Startup Wants To Redefine Social Networking With Its Ecosystems Approach

SUMMARY

Operational since October 2023, the Mumbai-based social networking platform aims to foster purposeful conversations and unbiased information

Founder Piyush Kulshreshtha is onboarding schools and colleges to build a pan-India education ecosystem and enable interactions between experts and students on the platform

In spite of being a new entrant, the platform claims 1.67 Lakh app downloads in one month

Where would social media go next? Will it unlock more disruptive innovations or go round in circles like fashion, bringing back old formats in red hot garb? Among social media startups, repeats and replications with some incremental value additions are not uncommon, but the outcomes are far from satisfactory. If Dispo enthralled Insta fans before the pandemic, the hype is gone, and Lapse from the same genre is taking over (both are photo-sharing platforms with a tweak). If text messaging was discarded as uncool after WhatsApp and Snapchat, think again. Text message company Community (founded by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary) is making big strides again, thanks to the business value of the older format. 

True to the see-saw ride their counterparts experience worldwide, a handful of Indian social media startups also had a chequered performance when they emulated their wildly popular global peers. As their growth momentum faltered after a while, the field has been left wide open for novel initiatives like Khul Ke. The new kid on the block is looking beyond user-created content and targeting core ecosystems, including education, healthcare and the law, to generate value.

Made-in-India social media platforms had their moment in the sun after the Indian government banned more than 200 Chinese apps and websites from 2020 onwards following geopolitical tensions. As around 150 Mn monthly active users from India were forced to stop using Chinese-owned short video-sharing app TikTok, the likes of Moj, Josh and Roposo gained significant traction as they used local languages and tried to capture the country’s diverse cultural nuances. 

The landscape got bigger as vernacular social networks like ShareChat (run by the unicorn owner Mohalla Tech, which is also operating Moj), Koo (India’s answer to X) and Trell (short video-driven social commerce app) played the India card well.

But by 2023, the made-in-India sheen nearly wore off and funding winter hit most social media apps. Inadequate cash flow and a stringent focus on profitability resulted in various cost-cutting measures such as mass layoffs. Even key stakeholders (read cofounders) exited from leading startups like ShareChat and Chingari. 

So, when a new social platform hits the market at the fag end of the calendar year (Oct. 2, to be precise) amid the chaos of dwindling downloads and shrinking engagement, one is bound to wonder how different it is from existing players. 

For the record, Mumbai-based Khul Ke (which means ‘speak freely’ in Hindi) was set up by serial entrepreneur Piyush Kulshreshtha in 2021 but spent nearly two years in the ‘test zone’ to do its homework before tapping into people’s power to generate a positive impact across its target ecosystems. Simply put, the social networking platform enables informed discussions among experts and users, deals with misinformation and eliminates fake news to ensure the quality of its content.  

Currently available in English, Hindi and Tamil, Khul Ke’s app and website offer a host of cutting-edge communication tools to keep conversations flowing. Its key features include Roundtable, which enables live-streaming online discussions and accommodates several participants; Khul Ke Meetup, an online meeting application similar to Google Meet, and Yapp, a private messaging feature akin to Facebook Messenger. Users can also share text, images, audio, upload documents, run polls and share short video content.

Although it has been operational for a little over a month, Khul Ke’s founder claimed that the startup has secured funding in a Series A funding round. However, the details regarding the funding amount and participating investors were not disclosed by him. 

How This Startup Wants To Redefine Social Networking With Its Ecosystems Approach

Why Khul Ke Wants To Build Large-Scale Ecosystems For ‘Social’ Success  

Ask the founder what inherent value is generated by free social media resources and he gets sceptical. “Although half the global population is on social networks, the industry seems to have made minimal positive and productive contributions to society,” said Piyush Kulshreshtha. 

The reason? The algorithms running these platforms tend to create echo chambers and constantly circulate content that aligns with a user’s perspective. This limits our exposure to different viewpoints, reinforces our beliefs and often leads to confirmation bias and the spread of misinformation.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. According to the World Health Organization, an infodemic, or overabundance of information (both accurate and inaccurate), triggered misinformation ranging from downplaying the severity of the health crisis to promoting conspiracy theories that said vaccines could modify human DNA.

More alarmingly, a 2023 Reuters Institute survey found that 30% of respondents relied on social media as their primary news source. 

Khul Ke has adopted a holistic, ecosystem-oriented strategy to contain misinformation and benefit its users. The platform connects domain specialists with individuals across its target sectors (education, healthcare and law) to foster meaningful interactions and promote information-gathering from credible sources instead of browsing through random data that may not be reliable. Khul Ke’s content team is responsible for curating topics and inviting speakers and experts. 

Kulshreshtha mentioned an education sector use case to detail the potential benefits of an ecosystem/expert-centric approach. Think of a scenario where an engineering student wants to present a project to a startup incubator. However, it is often difficult to find specific information about a suitable facility or helpful connections on social media platforms, given its humongous data volume. Again, incorrect or misleading information will further waste one’s time and effort. 

“To address these issues, we foster a conducive environment and enable interactions between incubators and students through sessions, open mic events and similar initiatives,” the founder said. “Cultivating an empowering atmosphere will inspire students to showcase their talent confidently and this will help them land better opportunities.”

Although Khul Ke is headquartered in Mumbai, the team has started onboarding schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh by leveraging their personal networks. The platform has registered around 20 schools in Chennai around 12K college students from Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and Khurja in Uttar Pradesh. Next, it will invite mentors and educators and host interactive educational sessions on the platform.

Eventually, Kulshreshtha aims to build a pan-India educational ecosystem to bring schools, colleges and university faculty members and students on a single platform. “We are already receiving a positive response as institutions understand and approve our value proposition,” he added. 

The startup is still finalising its revenue model, but the founder anticipates earnings from advertisements and user subscriptions (the platform will turn freemium in the long run).

More On The To-Do List: Curbing Fake News, Promoting Quality Content

Despite its targeted ecosystem strategy and focus on relevant content, Khul Ke has enthusiastically welcomed what is known as the lifeblood of social media – user-generated content. Kulshreshtha emphasises that the startup will stick to freedom of speech and expression and does not intend to monitor public posts unless they violate user guidelines. 

“At times, user content may not be what we would like to see. But we will work patiently on these issues to ensure that users on this platform generate quality content,” he said.

To weed out content that violates broad social media guidelines, including fake news and disinformation, hate speech and material promoting bullying, violence or illegal activities, the platform has established a robust framework with five distinct labels: Verified, verifiable, unverified, unverifiable and fake. While fake news is immediately removed, Khul Ke’s fact-checking team refrains from deleting other content pieces. Instead, it contacts users whose content breaches guidelines and requests them to take it down. The platform uses an open source code for content fetching and category detection. While the system doesn’t give a direct score for fake news, it gives a headway to the team that ultimately weeds out fake news. 

Khul Ke also completed its geo-tagging project in November to set up hyperlocal content-sharing similar to Public, a social network for local information. When the feature goes live, it will provide users with more relevant content that directly impacts their daily lives. The platform is also building a report-and-feedback mechanism for posts and Roundtables to access user requests and responses without delay.

Additionally, it will broaden its ecosystem approach by including more domains such as government policies, business, sports, movies and entertainment in the coming months and enter 12 more states in the next four to six months.  

“We anticipate 60-80 hours of long videos, 125 hours of short videos and nearly 50% user-generated content daily in the next six to eight months,” said Kulshreshtha.

Can Homegrown Platforms Reimagine Social Media? 

Social media has reshaped our culture and communication, giving birth to the much-touted attention economy and making people prone to vulnerabilities and manipulations. But there is another side to this social coin. The fact that many are now trying to disengage from it (much like the early cord-cutters) to claim back their privacy and personal time underscores that mass social media is ripe for redemption.

The only glitch: People have conflicted relationships with social media, and the fear of missing out on all that’s happening and important keeps them detachedly attached without abandoning it altogether. 

It may sound like a catch-22 situation, but social media/behavioural science experts have already recognised a way out. It is all about ‘changing’ the current format into a streamlined, value-generating, user-friendly experience that can gradually eliminate exploitative and manipulative elements and establish a positive impact. Of course, technology plays a key role here, as owning the servers gives tech giants full-fledged access to user data and activities. In contrast, the likes of Mastodon (popularly known as a Twitter alternative) leveraging decentralised servers can free users from overwhelming control of social networks.              

Although Khul Ke is not using new tech capabilities like Mastodon or IndieWeb to usher in much-needed changes, its distinctive focus on leveraging ecosystems for use case-driven value creation could transform the traditional social media landscape. Over time, it may resemble Reddit and become a valuable source of trustworthy information but with additional capabilities spanning audio, video and interactive features.

“Existing technologies are well-established, and social media giants excel in that space. We are not in direct competition with them. Instead, our priority lies in content quality and authenticity, as that will be the ultimate measure of our success,” explained Kulshreshtha.   

This also makes sound business sense. 

According to Mordor Intelligence, the social networking market size is expected to grow from $69.54 Bn in 2023 to $153.06 Bn by 2028, growing at a CAGR of 17.09%. Moreover, India remains one of the largest social media markets, although only a little over 41% of its population is on social media

Given this data, it is pretty clear that the ‘social’ business is not going away anytime soon. But the walled-garden networks are bound to change in terms of technology, interface, usage and value generation. That is what new-age social networks across the globe are trying to achieve. 

Will Indian platforms like Khul Ke or its global peers, with their novel USP, find the product-market fit? Will they generate the stickiness that fuelled the success of global giants like Facebook, X (Twitter) or Instagram? 

It is still too early to predict how social media will change and whether newbies can adapt and grow in sync. Meanwhile, creating a true sense of community, especially among young people and across major ecosystems, providing access to unbiased data and ushering in the proverbial appeal of freethinking will help them pave the path to success.

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