Before it could really fly, the yellow bird was dead. Government officials gave it initial flight, and while it did gain some early traction in 2021, Koo – India’s answer to X (formerly Twitter) – has shut downhighlighting the existential challenges a company has to overcome in building a successful social networking platform.

For a country that prides itself for being, in many ways, the software capital of the world, a successful global social networking platform has somehow eluded India forever. Koo was the first who hoped it could change that, but it faced some fundamental issues.

The lobby game

It takes a lot of capital to build a social media platform in a world which is already dominated by such offerings by deep-pocketed big tech platforms from the US. Hiring the right talent, maintaining online systems, and putting together a team of content moderators are some of the obvious cost centers for a social networking platform. Then there are costs of following regulations in various jurisdictions, which again requires a team of lawyers, and policy professionals who could work with various lobby groups to influence regulations. For a small company, that is often a cost they simply cannot afford in the building stage, and it is fair to believe that VCs wouldn’t want to bankroll these operations either.

Those who closely follow tech regulations in India would vouch for the intricate web of lobbying that goes behind the scenes to ensure that companies and governments agree to trade-offs that they are both okay with. India is no different. So called industry bodies, which more often than not are nothing more than big-tech mouthpieces, require consistent engagement from companies, apart from membership money. If one can’t afford that, it is likely that their viewpoint may never reach the government. Beyond the big lobby groups, a number of boutique consultancy firms have also mushroomed in India – that world works by publishing reports which further a narrative which is sympathetic to big tech companies, because more often than not they are the ones funding such research work. If they haven’t funded it, it is likely that a consultancy firm wants to get their attention, and funding by aligning the research work they put out.

It is easy to get lost in this world, which is largely dominated by the likes of Meta and Google who splurge millions of dollars in lobbying. This is a big factor of having adequate money.

Festive offer

In their announcement about Koo shutting down, the app’s co-founders alluded to the issue of this capital problem.

“We were just months away from beating Twitter in India in 2022 and could have doubled down on that short term goal with capital behind us,” they said. “A prolonged funding winter which hit us at our peak hurt our plans at the time and we had to tone down on our growth trajectory. We needed 5 to 6 years of aggressive, long term and patient capital to make this dream a reality.”

A conservative mosh pit

It is also ostensibly argued that making a social media platform is not much of a tech challenge anymore, as it might have been a decade ago. There are enough platforms to take inspiration from – as Koo liberally did from Twitter. The real challenge is to offer users an alternative that may fulfill a need which isn’t already being met by another, more thriving platform.

“We explored partnerships with multiple larger internet companies, conglomerates and media houses but these talks did not yield the outcome we wanted. Most of them didn’t want to deal with user generated content and the wild nature of a social media company,” the co-founders said in their post.

For Koo, it thought that its focus on local language content could be that differentiator. “We saw a big gap between the languages ​​the world speaks and the fact that most social products, especially X/Twitter in India are English dominant. In a world where 80% of the population speaks a language other than English, this is a strong need,” the co-founders said.

At the height of its sour relationship with X, several government officials tried propping up Koo as an alternative. There was some initial traction too. “Koo used to have a 10% like ratio, almost 7-10x the ratio Twitter had – making Koo a more favorable platform for creators. At our peak we were at about 2.1 million daily active users and ~10 million monthly active users, 9000+ VIPs, that included some of the most eminent personalities from various fields,” co-founders said.

But, that was not sustainable. Social media is a game of scale. They’re not just competing with other apps, but also with essential bodily needs like sleep. They will only work if users actively choose to log in, and engage with – and outrage over – content that is served to them. In fact, for a large portion of X users, it became a point that because Koo was promoted by those from the ruling party, they would never use it – in that sense, the government endorsement may have actually backfired.

The endorsement itself was a half-baked attempt. At no point did any government official ever commit to Koo exclusively. Take Truth Social as an example – even as it becomes a mosh pit of questionable conservative commentators, its main pull is that it is the major gateway into the mind of former US Donald Trump, who no longer posts on platforms like X or Facebook. For those who follow him religiously and buy into the ideology that comes with that, Truth Social is a must have app.

In Koo’s case, it did not have the benefit of such exclusivity. X remains a polarizing platform, with prominent voices from across political ideologies. There was little incentive to post or engage with content on Koo, because the same can be done on X, and would fetch much greater engagement and outrage.

Koo’s focus on creating a platform catering to local languages ​​was commendable, and could perhaps work at some point in the future. Not just yet, though.