Digital Dreams

Desperate for WhatsApp, tens of thousands of Indians with cheap phones flood a US coder’s website

A serendipitous story featuring JIO phones, Twitter trolling, Facebook surges and an amicable solution.

The most random and amazing things happened at my company Browserling, which provides a cross-browser testing tool for web developers, in the last few weeks. Someone in India discovered that they can use WhatsApp on cheap $20 phones (Jio Phones) via Browserling. These cheap phones can’t run WhatsApp but if you go to Browserling, you can use it via web.whatsapp.com. He made a video explaining this, the video went viral, got re-posted everywhere, and more people started making videos about it, such as this, this and this. I started getting crazy traffic, thousands, then tens of thousands of visitors, and it just kept increasing from India, all trying to use Browserling as a WhatsApp proxy tool. Indian blogs picked it up, started re-posting it, too. Traffic was going insane.

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I couldn’t handle tens of thousands of free sessions and it just kept on increasing. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why was everyone trying to go to WhatsApp inside Browserling? (I didn’t know then there was a viral video.) At first, I thought it was a DDOS attack, which is an attempt to overwhelm an online service with traffic from multiple source, leaving it unavailable. I noticed everyone had this weird user agent that said it was a JIO phone. I thought these attackers were fools: a classic newbie mistake not to randomise the user agent. So I quickly banned this JIO user agent with a “fatal error” message. But instead of a victory, my web servers started getting DDOSed even more, these users were hitting refresh like crazy. I spent half a day identifying the attackers, found that it was all Indian Internet Protocol addresses and blocked half of country at firewall level. All was well. I could go to sleep.

But then suddenly someone messaged me and said why don’t I let him use WhatsApp. Then a hundred users started messaging me. Then thousands. My Facebook was blowing up.

By now, I felt I was under the most sophisticated attack ever on a personal level. I had no clue what was going on. I started blocking all these people but I was getting messages faster than I could block them individually. I was freaking out. I decided to delete my Facebook page for my safety. While I was looking for the delete link, I accidentally noticed a link to YouTube in one of the messages. I opened it – and I instantly got it. This was no attack. I was going viral. But I still didn’t know what to do and kept the “fatal error” message.

Days went by and users started making videos about how to get around the “fatal error”, like this one:

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They started linking to my competitors as an alternative solution. I thought, hah, great, let them crash my rival websites. A few more days went by and and then it suddenly struck me: why am I blocking these users? This is the biggest opportunity ever. I can capture tens of millions of users. Everyone in India who uses this phone.

I had no idea how much these phones cost or how much money Indian users spent on online services. I quickly put a $1/day link for one day of Browserling to see if I could easily monetise it, but no one bought this subscription. Then I decreased the price to $0.50 and still no one was buying. I put a $0.10 cents sessions and still no buyers. I couldn’t provide a free service to all of India, so I decided at least to do something with this traffic.

So instead of banning the entire country via firewall or a “fatal error” message, I created this message and asked users to follow @browserling and tweet messages about it.

And they did. All these users started following Browserling and tweeting about it. But they still couldn’t use Browserling or Whatsapp, it was just a new message in place of “fatal error”. I started getting thousands of new followers and tens of thousands of tweets about Browserling. It looked like this:

Then I got curious. Would these users tweet anything that I asked them? So I decided to troll my competitors a little bit, and asked users to tweet a popular meme Taiwan number one to them. Again it worked. Suddenly Twitter was full with my troll tweets.

That was hilarious. I was rolling on the floor laughing. TAIWAN NUMBER ONE! COMPETITORS NUMBER NINE!

Then something weird happened with these tweets. Some kind of weird spam protection triggered at Twitter and they started blocking tweets about Browserling. No one could tweet with a @browserling mention anymore. So I changed my message to one with just a shout-out to Browserling but without at-handle.

Then instead of just tweeting and trolling, I asked users to start following Browserling on Facebook, so I could reconnect with them and let them know when the software was up and running again. I started getting thousands of new followers.

Turns out Jio Phone users would tweet, follow, like, and do anything I tell them to get access to Browserling.

After having some fun with this, I remembered I had many loyal blog readers from India. I messaged some of them and we talked about this. It turns out users in India cannot easily make online USD purchases with credit or debit cards as it requires a special bank permission. That’s why no one was signing up for a subscription for a $1 or 50c or 10c. Further conversations with my friends revealed that in India, they have their own localised payment system. It’s hard to access from the outside.

So I teamed up with my friends Sunit and Wrishiraj from Assam. They’ve built a Linux distribution for India called SuperX and have a company called Libresoft also based in Assam that can easily accept Indian payments such as UPI, prepaid wallets, and local debit and credit cards that work only inside India.

I got to work and over last two weeks I built a “WhatsApp over Browserling for India in an old browser on a $20 Jio Phone”.

First I launched a simple user registration page. I just threw together the quickest possible signup page. Simple HTML+CSS+jQuery. Does the job, works well and gets things done, just the way I like it. Here’s how it looks on Jio Phones that have 240x320 resolution:

As soon as I launched it, I started getting thousands of new signups.

The software wasn’t ready yet, so I just left a message that asked users to keep tweeting to keep the momentum going.

I worked 20 hours a day for over a week to create a new version of Browserling that can handle hundreds of thousands of users and can run thousands of Chromes in kiosk mode on servers with terabytes of ram. I put it to the test and it worked flawlessly.

But now I was no longer getting any tweets, likes or shares, and I was losing momentum. Everyone was just using it for free. I had to do something to keep it up. After chatting with my friends, I learned people in India love lotteries, so I created a Browserling Lottery.

The lottery had a countdown timer and gave a 50% chance of winning. To speed up the lottery countdown timer and increase chances of winning, users had to tweet about Browserling and follow Browserling.

Everyone loved it and wrote me hundreds of messages that they are winning the lottery and thanked me for making Browserling. The momentum was back. I worked for a couple more days and just launched payments recently.

I’m currently running a multivariate test on various plans and prices to find which ones are the most popular. I randomly display an option to buy a daily plan, a weekly plan, or a monthly plan with a different price.

The price is in rupees. I’m using the local Indian payment processor called Instamojo, which is Stripe for India and integrates together all possible Indian payment methods.

While I was working on an Indian version, the word spread to Cameroon and Nigeria where people also use cheap phones that can’t run Whatsapp or other software. I’m now setting up a few servers for Africa and targeting African countries next. (Update: Browserling for Cameroon is up.)

This is well aligned with Browserling’s vision, which is “run any application on any platform in any browser.” In this case, I’ve a web version of Whatsapp running in a Chrome on Linux, used in a cheap $20 phone’s browser.

I will keep you posted about what happens. Do I take over India? Does this go further and it’s a success in Africa, too? Or does this go nowhere? Find out in the next episode of the blog.

This article first appeared on Peter Krumins’ blog.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.