WhatsApp and Transnational Lower-End Trading Networks

Posted by Maitrayee Deka at Jun 30, 2015 07:05 AM |
This post by Maitrayee Deka is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. Maitrayee is a postdoctoral research fellow with the EU FP7 project, P2P value in the Department of Sociology, University of Milan, Italy. Her broader research interests are New Media, Economic Sociology and Gender and Sexuality. This is the first of Maitrayee's two posts on WhatsApp and networks of commerce and sociality among lower-end traders in Delhi.


One of the first things that stood out in the Delhi traders’ anonymous bearings was their love for smartphones. In the two mass electronic markets in the city, Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar, the traders of video games carried varieties of smartphones of different sizes and colours. From iPhones to Samsung Galaxies, the traders vied for the latest gadget available in the market. As a researcher, within a year, I moved from getting an accidental peek into their smartphone screens to a phase when the traders felt comfortable sharing their personal messages with me.

I spend considerable time in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar in Delhi between September 2012 and September 2013. I interviewed different traders and had day-to-day conversations with the people coming to their shops. Tracking several events in the shops, I knew the relative time that the traders spent on various activities. I saw on most days the traders divided their time between interacting with consumers and browsing through their smartphones. The traders spent maximum time of their virtual existence by being on WhatsApp. A large part of the goods to local electronic markets in Delhi were coming from China. And increasingly, WhatsApp was becoming an important communication channel managing transnational trade related exchanges.


Entry into the WhatsApp World

When I started visiting Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar at the end of 2012, I had not installed WhatsApp on my phone. The traders in the different markets were curious to know what was keeping me away from it. They came to a point when they could not anymore see me outside of WhatsApp. I, on the other hand had reservations of being part of a medium that meant continuous contact with the world. When finally I got past my initial doubts, there arose another problem. I could not download WhatsApp on my phone without the server asking for a rental fee of 250 Indian Rupees. After a few days, on being asked the same question again in Palika Bazaar, I told the traders about my problem. Lalit, a trader in Palika Bazaar retorted, ‘That is not possible! We did not pay to install WhatsApp on our phones’. He asked me to pass him my phone. Lalit cracked the security code by getting on to the Palika Bazaar Wi-Fi network and installed WhatsApp on my phone.

It was interesting to see that the traders did not always use legal channels to buy their smartphones and get an Internet connection. Many of the conversations about their smartphones were about where the traders bought their stolen iPhone. There were discussions about how much money different traders paid to get their hands on a used iPhone. They compared the feature and quality of each other’s smartphone. Sometimes even I was asked if I wanted a new cell phone for a good price and if I wanted to sell my old phone. The fascination for smartphones that in the first instance seemed like a fad for a shiny branded product, showed its own complex side. The importance of keeping an expensive phone had its conspicuous side and that explained the fascination of traders for iPhones. However, that was not all. The conspicuous side of the trader was not visible in other dimensions of their being, for instance the clothes they wore. The traders on most days were happy to buy second-hand and knock off goods from the street vendors outside Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar. The inclination of the traders to carry expensive phones and willingness to try different measure to possess them showed that smartphones were important to the traders.

I tried to understand the inclination of the traders towards their smartphones. One way by which I thought their smartphone usage could become intelligible to me was by locating it in their everyday world. What the traders did on most days and exploring where and how smartphones configured amongst other activities could make its usages noticeable. I observed one of the things that the traders hated in both the markets was to have free time in their hands. The time for chatter meant that they were not doing business. And the possibility of not making enough money made them anxious. The traders were trying to curtail the amount of time they spent on insignificant activities including the need to talk to me. Most of the times, they only entertained me when they did not have consumers in their shops. It was then interesting for me to see the traders’ fascination for their smartphones. The usage of the Internet also ideally carried levels of non-productivity that on other instances made the traders very anxious. It meant that they were not making direct monetary transactions with consumers. Having seen the traders obsessed about making sales, I was unable to place their choice of being on their smartphones in their free time. Soon, this dilemma was cleared. Being on the smartphone did not mean the traders were making social calls. Most of the times when the traders were on their smartphones, they were texting each other on WhatsApp. Eventually, I found out that most of the exchanges on WhatsApp were trade related. The traders not using WhatsApp for pleasure indicated that their activity on the Internet reflected how they are offline. The traders were preoccupied with the prospect of making profit and they did not want to waste any opportunity coming their way. This was the driving force and the source of innovation in the markets. The traders’ smartphone usage also followed the instinct of minimising wastage and find business opportunities in everything they did. The result was to make dominant in the markets another usage of WhatsApp other than its use for social communication: transnational real time trade exchanges.


WhatsApp and Trading

Especially in the year’s post 2010, the mass markets of video games in Delhi were in a strange predicament. The heyday of these markets as the sole channels of distribution and acquisition of video games was over. Increasingly, these markets that sold paraphernalia of gaming devices were challenged by the onslaught of online gaming market and gaming franchises in Delhi. In such a situation, many of the traders were trying to find alternative ways to boost up their sales. One of the ways in which these markets were trying to sustain themselves in the face of immense competition was to find niche market of electronic products. The traders in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar extended their trading links to China in an effort to get diverse as well as cheap electronic products. The Chinese lower end markets particularly in the Guangdong province became an important supply node of different qualities of video games to the mass markets in Delhi. For each PlayStation Portables in Lajpat Rai Market and Palika Bazaar, there were a number of cheap varieties of ‘Made in China’ handheld games.

All the multiple links with the Chinese lower-end economy that sustained the day-to-day functioning of the Delhi markets depended on continuous communication between the Indian and Chinese traders. This was where WhatsApp took control of the trading scene. Traders used it regularly to communicate with the Chinese traders. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, WhatsApp messages were the only way to initiate business transactions with the Chinese traders. The lack of face-to-face interaction presupposed that trading details were resolved on WhatsApp. There were a large number of to and fro exchanges of messages. As the traders felt comfortable showing me glimpses of their WhatsApp messages, I saw that on a single day hundreds of messages were exchanged even before the real transaction of placing an order and payment details were discussed. Many of the messages were exchanges of images of different varieties of a game that the Indian traders might be interested in. Image after image arrived of video games with their prospective prices. Most of these exchanges were in English. However, at times there were also messages in Cantonese that the traders translated online.

WhatsApp therefore, developed as a space where the traders got past their geographical and linguistic gap to successfully communicate and complete business transactions. WhatsApp facilitated messages enabled the markets to get new innovative products into the local market as well as track the complete transaction process.

For individual traders, WhatsApp was the lifeline of their present trade networks. Before the arrival of ‘instant messaging app for smartphone’, most of the links that the traders had with the transnational markets were through individual importers that travelled to Hong Kong, Bangkok and other places in Asia to get games manufactured in Japan and the West. During those days, a trader had to depend on the importers to bring him exclusive products that could be profitable in the local markets. The traders pointed out that the problem with this arrangement was that traders were almost entirely dependent on the importer not only to smuggle new products into the country but also for information. Often the traders knew of new products only with the information they acquired from the importers.

Things changed drastically with the advent of instant messaging especially WhatsApp. Now the traders were only a message away from connecting to their collaborators in China. An individual trader had the possibility to bring new innovative products without relying on others for information and trade negotiations. This increased the possibility for him to have a period of privileged profit before the product got widely popularised in the market. The constant exchanges of samples of video games and accessories were a step towards that. Often the traders kept up with continuous communication with the Chinese traders, as they did not want to miss an opportunity to be the first one to track the next big trend in the market. If the traders felt that they had picked up a product that had the potential of becoming a popular product, they were not hesitant to place huge orders. The traders said that they trusted the work ethics of the Chinese people. However, what also helped the traders to appreciate the Chinese work ethics was their constant tracking of transaction on Whatsapp. Bharat, a trader in Lajpat Rai Market had placed a large order for adaptors of gaming consoles in July 2013. Once when I was visiting his shop, he was messaging with a trader in China to sort out the delay that was occurring in the delivery process. Bharat said to me still texting on WhatsApp, ‘I don’t worry about the Chinese; they are very sincere and trustworthy’.

WhatsApp is synonymous with transnational trading alliances in the lower-end markets in Delhi. It has seamlessly merged into the trading environment to the extent that the traders do not consciously reflect on the role it plays in pushing their individual trade forward. It seemed traders lived two parallel lives: one with the local market goers in Delhi and another with the Chinese traders on their smart phones. The individual trader-to-trader exchanges between two countries are unprecedented in history. And with time, the trade networks are becoming denser and wider.


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