A decade after the Internet, Nepal is still struggling to make a creative dent in cyberspace. There are 16 Internet Service Providers for the rather small Nepali market of 100,000 Internet users. Being online still isn't big business for anyone, except a handful of travel-and trade-related sites who can make the odd buck from online registration for their services.
If you look at Nepali websites catering to domestic and international users, it isn't hard to see why. Of course, given the size and particular ramifications of Nepal and its economy, it's highly unlikely we'll have any real transition to a New Economy anytime soon, or see local firms listing on NASDAQ unless someone here goes online with a brilliant new application or service. But even given the conditions we have, Nepali sites could be a little more imaginative. They could look better, read better and work better.
Basically, verbiage about the endless possibilities of the Internet and a border-less world aside, Nepali sites fall into one of two categories-portals and entertainment sites, and professional sites for organisations. There are few that create an interactive, aesthetic experience while also providing a service. The entertainment sites and portals usually have a few illegal mp3s, a must-have Java chat applet, lots of links that don't work, a free webmail service and sometimes even a matchmaking service. The corporate and non-profit sites offer or simply advertise their services. Most visitors to entertainment sites are from the Valley and their favourite pastime seems to be tapping away at their keyboards, producing inane exclamations and flirting in chat space. A chat room veteran explained that the hottest topics are "sex and India bashing".
Nepali users from overseas usually log on to news sites like nepalnews and kantipuronline. Many users of entertainment sites like hamro.com, explorenepal.com and nepalsearch.com are Nepalis who see the more technically advanced international services like Yahoo! Messenger as community spaces that force you to efface your cultural identity. Interestingly, though, once casual chatters becomes regulars and start making friends they form groups in global services like MSN and Yahoo Messenger and bid goodbye to Nepali chat sites. Webmaster accept that this is a regular occurence and, in some ways, inevitable.
Hamro.com (formerly econepal.com) is one chat site that's managed 'stickiness' pretty well in these competitive times. ('Stickiness' refers to the ability of a site to draw repeat users who eventually form a loyal community around it.)
Hamro.com was Nepal's first Java-powered chat site. It was launched about a year ago and soon had over 40,000 registered users-this is clearly Nepal's most popular chat site. Although hamro.com is virtually synonymous with online chatting for Nepalis, the webmasters are trying to do something out of the ordinary. State radio's radionepal.fm already web-casts Nepali music 24 hours on the site. Their matchmaking service sets up dates and has around 1000 members. The webmasters are even throwing a party for their loyal chat-service users. "Hamro.com is not just a chat site," says Sakar Bhusal who at 19 is perhaps Nepal's most successful and youngest webmaster. "We are planning to go much further ahead with a whole range of different features, like study abroad guidance specifically designed for Nepali students," says the young geek. Hamro.com is thriving only because it provided the first Java-based chat applet and constantly upgraded it to the present voice chat. The other sites have simple chat programs that anybody can download from the many free software providers. In Nepal, like in many wired societies, first-mover advantage, user-friendliness and technical finesse often make the perennial critical arguments about bandwidth and appropriate Net-technology for developing countries irrelevant in the context of community building.
But in general, the rise and fall of Nepali sites is a tale of failure to be innovative. Surf Nepal-specific portals and all you'll find is the same information repeated ad nauseum. One good thing about this mass of guidebook information on Nepal is that it serves the tourism industry well and is perhaps more effective than Nepal Tourism Board's marketing tactics (or lack thereof). There's plenty for prospective first-time visitors to Nepal. Almost every Nepali portal has sections on places to visit, culture, festivals, hotel and lodge information. Tourism industry professionals like trekking agencies and hotels also have sites. The basic facts are everywhere but, sadly, no single site has been creative enough to go beyond the obvious in terms of information, images or analyses. Yes, mountains are beautiful, and you're bound to have loads of fun on a white-water rafting trip, but what else? Rupesh Pradhan, Director of Yomari Inc., designers of Nepal's most comprehensive search engine nepalhomepage. com, says, "Making a web page is a relatively simple task today, anyone can do it. As soon as people get a printer, they think of even making a book. But for good content you need study, knowledge and most of all resources." Nepalhomepage.com looks like it's come out of the initial phase. Catering to over 180,000 visitors from 40 different countries every week, nepalhomepage.com is one the main search engines for information on Nepal. They have the usual stuff like travel tips, exchange rates, the weather and a chat feature, but they also own databases of Nepali missions abroad, addresses of ministries, trading houses, and travel and trekking agencies. The most famous feature of the site now is their discussion forums-there are as many as three hundred postings on a single subject sometimes.
In the news category, nepalnews.com already has a cult following domestically and abroad. Many Nepali newspapers upload their content to the nepalnews domain. The site is constantly updated and has a relatively easy-to-read design, but the real winner here is the content. News. All stripes, as much as you can read.
Even if most Nepali sites lack variety and content, there are also some really good ones, which serve their professional purpose, and are also fun to surf. Spinybabbler.org, the website of Spiny Babbler, a decade-old group that organises activities related to arts and literature in Kathmandu is one of the best. Spinybabbler.org has five online art galleries with two exhibitions every month, and also showcases works by Nepal's young English language poets. Content is no problem for Spiny Babbler, which has an established infrastructure in place. "Our physical presence here in Kathmandu enables us to build up the content we want," says Pallav Ranjan, founder of the group.
Arvind Rajbhandari, a long time Net enthusiast and currently a hardware technician at Worldlink, one of the biggest ISPs here, thinks Nepal's Net Age is only beginning and that there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. "We're still learning how to integrate the Net into our daily lives and the hurdles that Nepal's Internet businesses have to overcome have a domino effect. There's a whole range of them-from ISP's with the necessary bandwidth, to Nepal Telecommunication Corporation using only telephone lines-the slowest delivery medium-for connectivity, to the government's indifference to formulating proper IT policy," he says. "But all the same we are certainly making progress slowly." The govt in fact just announced an IT policy last week. (See Biz Briefs for details.)
There are problems, but it's to oearly to tell whether these are teething troubles, or more serious hurdles in establishing a greater-and more imaginative-Nepali presence online. One thing is certain, though, even if boom time never hits Nepal, it won't hurt to be more creative on the Net.