Facebook has been paying attention to an underexplored opportunity in India for expansion of its user base.  As amidst the pandemic and economic recession it took a 9.99% stake in Jio platforms. 

Recently, Facebook launched ‘Avatars’ the cartoon like miniatures that its users can make of themselves, by adding features including headgears and facial features. Though it is yet to be launched in India, this service is now available to users in US and UK.
As a user based in the UK, Facebook prompted me to “Create Your Own Avatar” and the advert that accompanied it had a few avatars including an image of an “Asian” looking woman wearing the hijab. As an ethnic Indian, a Hindu woman, the advert did little, if that, to convince me that this service had any suitable “Avatars” for me, even though the advert must have appeared as a result of “targeted marketing” campaign on my Facebook timeline.
Livid, I took to commonly used social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram and of course Facebook, sharing my displeasure and unhappiness about this “cultural misappropriation”.
I am a saree wearing, bindi adorning British Indian, who finds it rather frustrating that a social media giant with a prominent user base of my ethnic and social profile, has no “Avatar” to visually represent me. Of course a closer scan of any other social media platform would not give any different results and one gets further shocking revelations about how conveniently an entire social profile has been excluded.
Disappointingly, this is not the first time something like this has happened and it is not limited to social media giants only. “Diversity and Inclusion” is a motto most organisations flaunt with pride. Pick up any of their adverts or ‘ campaigns on “BAME representation” or “Pluralism and Diversity”, and you will see a white face, a black face (finally!), definitely a woman wearing a hijab, but nobody wearing a saree/salwar-kameez and bindi.
As a first generation immigrant to the UK, I was pleased to hear about the “I am an Immigrant” poster campaign run by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), that entailed expensive posters, billboards and visuals all across London city. I waited patiently for an image that I could relate with so I could proudly take a “selfie” with it and flaunt it. Sadly, even today, I am still waiting.
India, a country of 1.3 billionhas the second largest online market, with an estimated 560 million active internet users by 2021. With a government enabled national campaign on Digital India, convenience of data and internet access, the number of active social media users in India touched 330 million in 2019 and are expected to reach 448 million by 2023. Increased access to data and internet has enrolled new social media users online with Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and now TikTok, revolutionising communication, making the social profile of end users of social media platforms highly diverse. On an average, for every 1,000 males, it is 924 females. As per statista, in 2016, 30% of all internet users were females and by 2020 this was projected to change to 40%.
As the world battles an extraordinary disease, since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, a housebound average person has little else to do but to rely on social media platforms and tools to remain entertained and connected to friends and family. Currently estimated at 574 million, the number of monthly active internet users has grown 24% over that of 2019, indicating an overall penetration of 41% in the last year.
Any set of statistics and numbers one may refer to, social media and digital markets in India are only poised to grow manifold, creating a huge opportunity for any of the platforms to penetrate further into the far reaches of the country’s 1.3 billion plus strong diverse population.
Facebook certainly has been paying close attention to this yet underexplored opportunity in India for expansion of its user base. This is perhaps why, amidst all the chaos of the pandemic and economic recession, the social media giant took a 9.99% stake in Jio platforms, the tech subsidiary of Reliance Industries, giving itself almost a gateway into the country’s currently offline population!
As a large employer and community of such multi-cultural users and developers, with offices around the globe, I wondered what Facebook’s Diversity & Inclusion policy statement indicated and I quote their recently published 2019 report verbatim:
“Our design choices are important, too. Designing for inclusivity leads to better decisions and better products.”
It refers to its employees in charge of certain product development services and go on to give kudos to them, thus: “These people, their work, and our work as a company, are making a difference. Facebook Resource Groups are building community and supporting professional development while programs like Managing Bias, Managing Inclusion, Be the Ally Circles, Managing a Respectful Workplace, and Efficacy Training build everyone’s skills.”
Reassuring as it sounds on paper, I then scramble hard through the products and diversity representation therein, I am left but to wonder and reiterate some of my twitterati community’s anguish. As a responsible and objective user of this service, every clue leads me to conclude that there are a few factors that these social media giants have inadvertently overlooked, therefore: It excludes one of the largest online user community in its representation; Misrepresents cultural and social diversity; and Stereotypes all “Asian” women as Hijab wearing.
One has watched and laughed at the many popular shows and videos made by leading ethnic Indian social media celebrities, like The Brown Bar and Goodness Gracious Me, that makes fun of stereotypical situations, that any average Indian faces including comments on appearance and cultural aspects.  The image of a saree clad woman is not just that of a Hindu woman contrary to what public belief might be. This six-yard garment is worn by women around the globe from various religious persuasions, ethnic backgrounds and have been flaunted by many Hollywood celebrities, leading lights from around the world. Remember the white glamorous saree Pamela Anderson wore to a prominent Indian reality show, Bigg Boss, Nicole Scherzinger and Naomi Campbell in black designer sarees, Paris Hilton, Liz Hurley, Madonna, Michelle Obama, Her Royal Highness Princess Kate Middleton, British Former Prime Minister Theresa May, Oprah Winfrey and several others in many traditional Indian ensembles including sarees. There is even an Indian barbie doll wearing a saree!
As an ethnic Indian, I have been taught that every challenge is really an opportunity for positive change. So I again took to social media with an appeal asking my online community to create images, icons and Avatars indicating to Facebook that #ThisIsMyAvatar.
In less than 24 hours, my plea found some takers and to my pleasant surprise my social media pages have been flooded with images of Saree, Dhoti and Turban wearing Avatar samples.
As I write, it has been just over 60 hours since my first tweet and the response has been encouraging from the online user community. For a large socio-ethnically diverse community, the campaign has now shaped into a Social Action Campaign wherein some of us have reached out to Facebook as well as to Government of India’s Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) requesting them to run a joint Nation-wide campaign to create a repository of diverse images for the social media platform to adopt, which has been acknowledged by the Director General of ICCR on Twitter. Though we are yet to receive even the slightest acknowledgement from Facebook, which in due course I am sure will happen.
We truly hope that Facebook as also other social media developers pay attention!End Note: The campaign #ThisIsMyAvatar continues to be promoted on social media and I urge online community to participate in it extensively to ensure a truly inclusive, more representative imagery of online community appears on our timelines and applications.
Lakshmi Kaul is a British Indian living in London.
Twitter: @KaulLakshmi 

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