Mayank Bidawatka of Koo: 5 Things We Can Each Do To Make Social Media And The Internet A Kinder And More Tolerant Place
Give people tools to get rid of toxicity. Reporting content, reporting people, hiding stuff they don’t want to see either because it’s toxic or false.
As a part of our interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Mayank Bidawatka.
Mayank is a serial entrepreneur. He was a part of the foundation team at redBus (World’s largest bus ticketing platform), post which he co-founded The Media Ant, Goodbox and now runs Koo. He’s a graduate from the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Manila. He was a banker at ICICI Bank, one of the largest banks in India, before starting his entrepreneurial journey. He is an angel investor and has invested in over 15 startups.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Aprameya and I have been friends for 7+ years now. We love working at the intersection of impact and scale. We saw a huge shift happen in India when data plans got cheap. Over 500 million people got access to the internet for the first time. Majority of these users were native language speakers. We realized that the internet didn’t have experiences that could cater to them the way it catered to the English-speaking audiences. Human needs are the same everywhere in the world. We knew that a lot of these users will want some experience that’s at the intersection of social, news and communication. And micro-blogs help achieve all these.
We noticed that Twitter was very English-heavy. It had sparse content in native Indian languages. We spoke to many users to figure that what we observed was true. Twitter wasn’t catering to native language users well. It wasn’t a priority for them I guess. But 80% of India and the world speaks a native language other than English.
We wanted to create the most inclusive social platform that could be home to billions of users worldwide. A safe space for everyone irrespective of their identity or beliefs. A public platform that withheld the values of responsible freedom of speech. We created a proto-type in Kannada (one of the native Indian languages) and launched in March 2020. Over a week Koo had more content in Kannada per day on Koo than Twitter. That’s when we realized that our thesis was right.
On receiving great response within a week we launched the app in multiple Indian languages. Koo App applied for the Prime Minister’s Aatmanirbhar app challenge in July 2020. With 8000+ entries, we didn’t hope for much to happen. To our surprise Koo was chosen in the top 3 apps in the country. The Prime Minister made a special mention of Koo in his “Mann ki Baat” talk show (A popular monthly talk show of the Indian Prime minister on the All India Radio). This got into the public eye, and many celebrities, sports stars and senior politicians started joining the platform.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I used to work at India’s largest bank when I started my career. I was once doing an SMS campaign early on during my time at the bank. So I was just learning the ropes. I was anxious, too, running such a large SMS campaign that would go out to about 100 million users. I did everything I could to ensure it was good to go. I was relieved when I triggered it and sat back happily–only to get a call in 15 minutes from the chairman’s office asking if we had triggered some SMS. My palms started sweating. Apparently there was some error in the last row of the file we had uploaded, and one customer got the SMS 10,000+ times. His phone hadn’t stopped ringing. And of all the people, he had gone to school with the chairman! I learnt early on in my career that the devil lies in the details. Of course, now I can laugh at that story but I thought that campaign ended my banking career!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Nothing other than Koo. Koo is my most important project!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like? What did you do to shake off that negative feeling? When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
I’ve noticed that different social platforms have different cultures. The same person on Twitter can be feisty and aggressive and calm and composed on Linkedin. It took me a while to get a sense of this reality. Since we’ve been running Koo, I have interacted a lot with all kinds of users on all kinds of platforms. I’ve also had many experiences with the media. I’ve had people say nasty things either out of concern or just because they are adhering to a platform’s culture. I’ve learnt to deal with such things by just sticking to facts. Of course some of these comments and thoughts can stay with you longer than you’d want them to and can affect you deeply, but I guess we all have our learnings and keep improving everyday. I’ve learnt more by running Koo than any of the other 4 startups I’ve run. When you run a micro-blog it will force you to be the best version of yourself everyday because a micro-blog is a public service that’s built for the people, even though the company is privately held. You need to be ready to serve them unconditionally. Being patient and seeing through all kinds of emotions and not taking negative comments personally is a part of growing up to cater to users in the best way possible. A lot of feedback also pushed us to work hard enough to be where we are today, where we get more love than we expected. We still feel that we have a long way to go and I can think of at least a 100 things that I’d like to do better here. We’ll get there.
I feel that sometimes people can forget that there’s a real person in flesh and blood reading the stuff they write. It’s easy to target someone with harsh words but I’m sure it leaves the reader and the writer worse off than when they started. My vision for Koo is to leave people happier than when they entered. Through genuine connections, friendships and civil conversations.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean? Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?
Yes I have. There are times when people have said false stuff about us. It can get frustrating to read such stuff that’s not true. Even more so because they are coloring the opinions of others who may trust what they are saying and pass the same judgment on us. There are times in the past when I have reacted sharply to such comments.
It’s easy to fall prey to temporary emotions that you shouldn’t give in to in the first place but I guess we are all a work in progress. I am low on ego and usually know when I’ve done something wrong and don’t waste time correcting myself. I’ve realized that it doesn’t take much to be nice and when you do that, it disarms the aggressor immediately and they are more open to your point of view.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
Real-life encounters definitely feel worse. What makes an attack different online is that a few million people, who have zero context of the situation, may read that exchange and make judgements without knowing the facts. I think that if the same people were face to face, they may not have behaved offline the way they did online.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
I think that this can have fairly harmful effects. At a milder level they could feel attacked, may withdraw from the platform, stop speaking their mind, and at a worst case start having self doubts. I think that people need to realize that such comments reflect more on the person making them than the receiver. That should hopefully make them feel less worse.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands or even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
Online, trolls believe that others are watching and want to project an image of themselves. They feel like they are on stage and this is the quickest way to create a perception that can take much longer offline. Most people don’t have access to a stage and an audience offline. And that’s the biggest proposition of online platforms — you’re offered both a stage and an audience right off the bat.
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
In our older design, in the comment screen we had written “Be respectful.” It was our way of giving users a mild nudge to remind them about how they should interact. This didn’t fit in our new design but I plan to put that back soon. I think people learn more from what they see than what we tell them to do. It’s true for us. We all mold ourselves to what we see everyday. For example, on Koo, you’ll see that this isn’t a toxic place. People talk to each other respectfully. They make friends here. It’s by design. We’ve never celebrated mean behavior. We’ve given the community enough tools to discourage the visibility of such stuff. Take a look at this Koo and the comments below it to get a sense of what the culture at Koo is like: https://www.kooapp.com/koo/tculpan/708cfa77-f983-4095-a428-c210e611c878
Things that I would do:
- When you post or comment as the owner or as a platform handle, be respectful, humble and honest. People will know what’s expected from them too.
- Make community guidelines visible.
- Give people tools to get rid of toxicity. Reporting content, reporting people, hiding stuff they don’t want to see either because it’s toxic or false.
- Nudge users when they are typing something that may be nasty.
- Take soft (visibility) and hard action against repeat offenders who spoil the culture of the community.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
I don’t think that should be encouraged. There needs to be a good balance between freedom of speech and responsible freedom of speech. Freedom of speech in absolute terms can affect society in more ways than one and can be harmful when not done responsibly. It’s important to protect those with a view that doesn’t fall in the majority as long as their facts are based on truths. It’s okay to be emotive while expressing speech because that’s human. What shouldn’t be allowed is false information and hatred. The judgment on what’s allowed and what’s not needs to be defined clearly so that nobody feels targeted. A platform needs to be fair or unfair to everyone. It’s important to have the same yardstick for everyone.
Whether this service was owned privately or publicly, my stance wouldn’t change. I think that a micro-blog is a public service and the platform needs to serve the people the same way public servants do.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
The same changes that I stated above in one of my previous responses, as recommendations to make a space more civil.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In a world where you can choose to be anything you want, be kind.
I’ve grown over the years. I’ve had divorced parents and have had to shoulder responsibilities since I was 15. I’ve worked through college. I’ve had more unfortunate experiences than the average person. But my wife and her family have been a blessing to me. It made me see what a happy family looks like and what kindness and love can do. I choose that now more than ever in any circumstance.
This quote that I stated above is my wife’s WhatsApp status. It has had a more positive impact on me than I would have imagined. It’s made me a better person.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I think that would be Sundar Pichai.
He’s someone I look up to. He handles one of the largest, most complex organizations of our times and is doing an absolutely stupendous job at it, while being as humble as someone could. He’s from a humble background and no matter what he achieves, I don’t think the memories of his humble past will leave him. Which is how it should be. Success can spoil and make you an unkind person. And it’s easy to fall prey to such an attitude but I don’t see an aorta of that in him. I’ve never idolized anybody but Sundar is one of the leaders I admire the most. I have many questions for him whose answers, I’m sure, can help me become a much better person.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Mayank Bidawatka of Koo: 5 Things We Can Each Do To Make Social Media And The Internet A Kinder And… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.