Good morning! It's a long weekend here in the US, and I've also just completed a project at work, so it comes at a great time tbh. Between work and my pup, Maya, I haven't really had much time for anything else. Puppies are exhausting!! Of course, real life continues at full speed, with a busy week's worth of news. Particularly awful was the news yesterday that Disha Ravi, a 21 year-old climate activist, was arrested by the Delhi Police in a case related to a social media “toolkit” that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of India’s protesting farmers. The arrest speaks volumes about the state of paranoia the government is in. The notion of this "toolkit" and how this information is spread is also the topic of our column this week.
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Can Koo take flight?
For those who haven't been following chatter in India re: Twitter, perhaps it is best to start with a quick summary. Since Twitter banned Donald Trump from the platform there have been a number of prominent Indian commentators who have raised questions about the app's ability to decide who gets to speak and who doesn't. It has too much power they have argued. It can't, and shouldn't be allowed to, foist its woke world view on others.
Remember that the Trump decision came when the farmers protests had already been going on in India for a while. So the double edged argument was that a company headquartered in the US shouldn't decide what is acceptable speech in India. However, the woke anti-Trump bias in the US, translated to a woke pro-farmer, anti-India bias in India. Twitter became for some the medium through which left-wing reactionaries (including high-profile foreigners like Greta Thurnberg, Rihanna and Meena Harris) could spread disinformation about India. Rather than arguing for "free speech" then, the argument became one about blocking / banning accounts on Twitter. After all, if Twitter thought Donald Trump was dangerous and de-platformed him, why should they be unwilling to do so for accounts the Indian government was pro-actively telling them to block due to security concerns?
From the NYT: "The Indian government, citing its laws against subversion or threats to public order, demanded that Twitter delete or hide more than 1,100 accounts that it says have encouraged violence or spread misinformation. Twitter has complied with some of India’s orders. But Twitter has refused to remove accounts of journalists, activists and others that the company says are appropriately exercising their right to criticize the government." To be fair, Twitter opened itself up to this kind of confrontation with the Indian government (and other governments across the globe). I don't think there are any easy answers here, and do think Twitter and the government might end up in court. What the outcome will be, if they do, is really anyone's guess.
One beneficiary of this tussle has been social media app, Koo. Koo is a multi-language social media app, very similar to Twitter. The Morning Context had a good piece about them here. Since the fight with Twitter began, a number of government ministers, and supporters have made a move to Koo and been very vocal in their support for the app, giving it good momentum. Can Koo take on Twitter and become the atmanirbhar alternative to Twitter?
The Morning Context argues that dismissing Koo, simply as a Twitter clone might be doing it a disservice. The company was co-founded by Aprameya Radhakrishna, who had previously founded TaxiForSure (which successfully exited to Ola). Since then, Radhakrishna has been focused on building for non-English users, and founded Vokal (a Quora-like platform). Radhakrishna is a seasoned entrepreneur, and Koo isn't his first foray in the space. Koo has also been strategic about its positioning. In August last year, following the government's ban on Chinese apps and focus on building for an atmanirbhar India, Koo won the Atmanirbhar Bharat app ward. And it has brought on board important influencers -- Republic TV and Mohandas Pai, who has also invested in the company, for example.
But despite the recent hype, whether Koo can build a sustainable social media platform remains to be seen. Anmol and I were talking about this, and were discussing how building a community is more important than simply building a platform. It's to be seen whether Koo can bring a wider array of users - beyond Government supporters - on board. Though, if Koo succeeds just by positioning itself well amongst this group of supporters, that will be quite something as well. Of course, the big question mark is whether a fall-out with Twitter might lead the government to banning the app, a la Tik-Tok. In which case, Koo will likely be the most immediate beneficiary. Having said that, it’s one thing for India to ban Chinese apps, given the hostilities between the two countries, quite another for India to try and pick a fight with the USA, especially given the new administration.
🗞️ News of the week
VerSe Innovation, the parent firm of news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, said it has raised over $100M as part of a Series H financing round from Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners.
Phable, a three-year-old health tech startup that serves patients with chronic illnesses in India, has raised $12 million in a new financing round. Manipal Hospitals led the Series A and existing investor New Jersey-headquartered SOSV also participated in the round.
The Sequoia Surge EdTech company Doubtnut has raised a $25M Series B from SIG Global, Sequoia Capital, WaterBridge Ventures and ON Mauritius. Doubtnut was in the news a bunch last year in a proposed acquisition by BYJUs, while they were also acquiring WhiteHat Jr., but the deal did not go through.
In more edtech news, Game-based learning company SplashLearn has raised a $18M Series C from Owl Ventures (also invested in both BYJUs and WhiteHat Jr) and existing investor Accel. The company teaches math (K-5) and reading (K-2) to children in a format that's more engaging to children and adaptable to each child's individual learning pace.
📰 What we've read and listened to this week
📚 Book of the week: Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber by Susan Fowler.
I read Fowler's book a couple of years ago, but it now releasing in paperback too, which makes it an apt book of the week. Fowler is, of course, known for her role in kickstarting what was Uber's year from hell, and what became the Me Too movement. The book is about much more than that, and Fowler's story is really quite incredible.