Think Twitter’s the biggest microblogging service? Take a look at SMS GupShup

This is an contributor column by Anand Rajaraman, a co-founder of Kosmix, and founding partner of Cambrian Ventures. Cambrian Ventures in an investor in Webaroo, the company behind SMS GupShup, which he writes about below. He explores the technology and business of search, social media, and advertising on his blog Datawocky.

I’m a big fan of Twitter. I’ve been using the service only for a short time, and that’s been enough to make me an addict. Yet amazing though Twitter’s growth is, it pales in comparison to the adoption rate for another microblogging service: India’s SMS GupShup. Twitter has over 1 million users, by TechCrunch’s estimates (Twitter declined to give out absolute numbers). SMS GupShup has amassed over 7 million in the shorter time since its launch. Earlier this week on my blog, I explained how SMS GupShup has managed to scale to higher usage without missing a beat thanks to the way they’ve architected the service. But the bigger question is, why is SMS GupShup bigger and growing faster?

Think about the biggest stories we’ve heard about Twitter in the past couple of months:

Notice a pattern here? Many of these stories happened in developing (third world) countries, not in the US. (There have been interesting US stories too, of course, like twittering California wildfires.) This leads me to my hypothesis: Microblogging is a nice-to-have in developed economies, like the US. It’s a must-have in developing economies like India, China, and Egypt.

In essence, microblogging is semi-synchronous publish-subscribe messaging. It’s publish-subscribe because it decouples senders and their reader(s), who can choose which senders to follow at any point in time. It is semi-synchronous because readers can choose either to follow it synchronously (via various desktop tools, or their mobiles), or read it later. In the Western world, the penetration of PCs is almost universal, so we have other PC-dependent messaging options such as blogging (asynchronous publish-subscribe); email (asynchronous point-to-point); instant messaging (synchronous point-to-point). Yes, none of them offers quite what Twitter does, but the majority of people in the majority of situations can make do with the conventional options.

Contrast this with the situation in third-world nations: PC penetration is incredibly low, but mobile penetration is incredibly high. For example, India has about 40 million PCs but 10 times as many cell phones. This makes short text messages sent via SMS the main written communication mechanism. Blogging, email, and IM are just not options, so microblogging becomes the main form of publishing, communication, and self-expression.

The rapid growth of SMS GupShup certainly testifies to the latent need for the service in India. The company’s employees created the first set of groups and invited their friends, who were young and tech-savvy. Usage took off rapidly from there. The first set of groups centered on humor (including some quintessentially Indian joke varieties that don’t translate well into English), technology, horoscopes, weather, and health. The service is very popular among college students, stockbrokers, clubs, and some large employers with distributed teams. User numbers have skyrocketed from just over 1 million in January to 7 million in June. Today over 10 million messages are sent every day over SMS GupShup. The largest group is the Sikh Network, whose members include 140,000 followers of the Sikh religion. Each day the coordinator of the group posts a quotation from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.

I’ll close with a vignette that illustrates the magnitude of the need. One day the GupShup spam control team noticed several messages that looked like gobbledygook to them. So they sent these suspected spammers account termination notices. They didn’t expect the response: messages not just from those senders but from many others, pleading with them not to terminate the accounts. It turns out the messages were in a language called Hmar, only spoken by some 65,000 tribal people living in the hilly regions of India’s northeast. There are now several Hmar groups on SMS GupShup; the tribal group sees this as a major communication channel. Being too small to attract mainstream media, the group also sees SMS GupShup as their main form of media and a way to save their language and culture from extinction as they assimilate into the Indian mainstream.

VB’s research team is studying mobile user acquisition: Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.