Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging service, that allows users to send multimedia messages and make voice and video calls.
It was founded by Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013 – founders of Russian social media platform VK (the largest in its domestic market). Initially headquartered in St Petersburg, the Telegram team has repeatedly changed jurisdiction to evade problematic regulations. The operation is currently headquartered in Dubai, after stints in London (where it is legally registered), Berlin, and Singapore.
Telegram was created with a view to challenging the primacy of WhatsApp. It differs from the latter in allowing users to access accounts from multiple devices. Its makers also claim that its multi-data centre infrastructure and encryption makes it more secure than its Facebook-owned rival.
Users are able to have ‘secret chats’, which see messages stored on devices as opposed to the cloud. Messages can also be set to self-destruct – akin to Snapchat.
It has, however, drawn criticism from security experts, who point to the lack of default end-to-end encryption, and its proprietary encryption protocol. One-time login passwords conveyed by SMS have been intercepted by hackers in Iran, Russia, Brazil, and Germany (by the police in the last case).
Nonetheless, when users are looking for a secure service, Telegram seems to be where they defect. We saw this in 2013 when surveillance fears were raised around Kakao Talk in South Korea, and again in 2019 during the Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government. Belarus is the latest hotspot where Telegram has proven essential in 2020.
Telegram uses an open API, and welcomes developers to create their own Telegram apps. Samsung took advantage of this, launching Socializer Messenger in 2015.
Developers are also invited to create bots and users can create sticker sets. As well as sending messages, users can subscribe to ‘channels’, which allow creators to send messages to subscribers.
Telegram does not sell ads – stating that the access to personal data gained by advertisers would go against its ethos. Funding thus far comes privately from Pavel Durov. It has stated that it would turn to user donations or a freemium model to raise revenue if necessary. In its own words, “Making profits will never be an end-goal for Telegram.”
In March 2018, Telegram privately launched cryptocurrency Gram to selected investors. Intended to be a cryptocurrency for the people, it hit the rocks when US SEC declared it was
Telegram operates in relatively secrecy, and emphasises its commitment to freedom from market pressures as well as from any nationally-imposed constraints. The flow of information is therefore relatively limited. So, what do we know? Read on to see the Telegram stats to which we have recourse.
Table of Contents
|HQ||London, UK (legal); Dubai, UAE (operational)|
|People||Nikolai Durov (cofounder), Pavel Durov (cofounder, CEO)|
Key Telegram User Statistics
|Telegram MAU, millions|
|Daily messages sent on Telegram|
Other Key Telegram Statistics
- In April 2020, Telegram reported 1.5 million new users daily (Telegram)
- Telegram was in the top-10 most downloaded apps globally in Q2 and Q3 2020, with around 80 million downloads in both (Sensor Tower)
- Telegram the most-downloaded social media app in 20 countries (Telegram)
- Telegram is targeting 1 billion users by 2022 (Monfex)
- 365 million lifetime downloads of Telegram, as of August 2019 (Sensor Tower)
- 500 million Android downloads of Telegram, as of May 2020 (9to5google.com)
- An estimated 50 million Telegram users in Iran, with estimated penetration of 56%, before 2018 ban (BBC)
- A data breach in March 2020 showed 42 million Iranian users of third-party version of Telegram (Comparitech)
- Estimated 18 million Telegram users in Uzbekistan (Khikmatilla Ubaydullaev)
- Short WhatsApp bans in Brazil in 2015 (48 hours) and 2016 (72 hours) sent 5.7 million and 7 million new users to Telegram respectively (Quartz)
- July 2019 saw a 323% year-on-year increase in first-time Telegram installs in Hong Kong, during pro-democracy protests; the first week of August saw 41,000 new users (100% up on the first week of June 2019) (Sensor Tower)
- 15 billion Telegram messages were being sent daily in February 2016 – the last time Telegram made this stat public (Telegram)
The last official Telegram user stats we have date back to April 2020, when it was reported the app had reached 400 million MAU. This followed reports that it had reached 300 million in October 2019 and 200 million MAU in March 2018. We will have to wait until the next milestone is hit before we receive anything more up-to-date…
Judging by the curve we see below, however, it may be a shorter wait before it is reached, with accelerating growth registered since 2016.
Telegram MAUs, millions
Telegram anticipates some very ambitious milestones being hit over the next few years. The headline grabbing stat is the 1 billion users it is targeting by 2022.
This figure makes Telegram the 16th most used social app in the world. In terms of messenger apps, it would rank fifth after WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and QQ.
Telegram MAU vs. other messenger apps, October 2020
Source: Hootsuite/We Are Social
Telegram user growth
Telegram reported in April 2020 that it was logging 1.5 million new users daily. It added that it was the most-downloaded social app in 20 markets globally.
2020 has seen users turning to Telegram in large volumes. It features in the top-10 most-downloaded apps globally in both Q2 and Q3 (ninth, specifically), in Sensor Tower data. In the former it logged nearly 80 million downloads, and in the latter a little over 80 million. This suggests there is a real appetite among a solid contingent users for an alternative to Facebook’s ubiquitous offerings.
It has been particularly popular in Europe, ranking seventh for downloads in Q2 2020 with around 19 million downloads, and fourth in Q3 with around 17 million.
This growth is eye-catching, though we might note that Telegram proved popular from the off. It reached 100,000 users by late October 2013, having launched in August of that year on iOS and October on Android.
By March 2014, the app hit 35 million MAU, 15 million of whom were DAU, climbing to 50 million by the end of that year. This would double by February 2016 – with eye-catching growth occurring between September 2015 and then.
We were up to 180 million Telegram users by the end of 2017, with the next 20 million taking us to 200 million as of March 2018.
Telegram’s purported commitment to protecting user data means that Telegram demographic data is in relatively short supply.
What we do know is that in a handful of markets, Telegram is the most popular messaging app. Namely: Ethiopia, Iran, and Uzbekistan. Notwithstanding the hacking seen in Iran, in the case of the latter two countries here at least, we might assume that the privacy promised by Telegram would recommend it to users wary of surveillance.
In which markets is Telegram most popular?
Source: Hootsuite/We Are Social
As of 2016, it was estimated that there were 20 million Telegram users in Iran. The BBC reported that this may have been as high at 50 million as of April 2018. At this point, the app was banned in the country – though it can still be accessed through VPNs. A number of domestic client apps are available, though Telegram has warned that these are unsafe.
Wired reported that for many Iranians, Telegram is the entire internet – being the only place where unfiltered access was possible. Iranian internet users, it might be noted, are accustomed to VPNs. In 2017 Telegram CEO Pavel Durov announced that he was handing out bitcoin grants to individuals and organisations that ran VPNs.
A year on, state-controlled media reported that people were returning to Telegram, in a move that seems to suggest a degree of begrudging acceptance. Telegram penetration in Iran is estimated at around 56%. This is down from 60% pre-ban, but well up from 47% in its immediate wake.
A data breach in March 2020 revealed a huge 42 million Iranians were using a ‘forked’ third-party of Telegram. The fact that this was revealed in a breach shows the risks involved in using such apps. The fact that this represents over 50% of the population shows just how attached to the app they are.
We have also seen surges in popularity in other markets at times when users sought an alternative to mainstream messengers. For instance, 2014 in South Korea, after the government announced a crackdown on speech deemed to be insulting to the president or ‘rumour mongering’. This saw active monitoring of Kakao Talk – the country’s leading messenger app – by prosecutors hungry to make convictions.
Naturally, this saw a vast migration of users to Telegram – around 1.5 million new users from South Korea signed up in a seven-day period.
In Brazil periodic short bans of WhatsApp have seen users flock to Telegram in search on an alternative messaging service. A 48-hour ban in 2015 saw so many Brazilian users sign up in such a short space to time that Telegram had a backlog of security codes to send out. In all, 5.7 million new Telegram users signed up in a single day.
A 72-hour ban the next year sent 7 million Brazilians to Telegram in a single day. This ban was due to the implementation of full end-to-end encryption making it impossible for WhatsApp to comply with a court order to make chats available to prosecutors.
Though it should be noted that at this point Brazilian Telegram penetration of 18% (monthly usage) still did not compete with WhatsApp’s 96% or Facebook Messenger’s 82% – or even the humble SMS message, at 78%.
Were Telegram asked to comply with a similar investigation, it would have the same issue when it came to Secret Chats. Technically, normal chats would be accessible. Telegram is adamant, however, that not a single byte of user data has been given to any third party – including governments.
Telegram is also blocked in the Durovs’ native Russia for failing to comply with the demands of the judiciary for conversations.
Hong Kong has been a recent hotbed of Telegram usage. The civil unrest that began in July 2019 saw a 323% year-on-year increase in first-time Telegram installs in that month. In all, the app added an estimated 110,000 new users in Hong Kong, according to Sensor Tower Telegram stats. This is despite the fact that Telegram is officially banned in China, thus necessitating VPNs.
In the first week of August 2019, Telegram added 41,000 new users in Hong Kong – up 100% on the first week on June 2019.
First-time Telegram installs in Hong Kong, January 2019 – July 2019
Source: Sensor Tower
The app played a key role in the organisation of the protests. At the end of August 2019, Telegram announced that it was making a move to allow users to cloak their phone numbers. This would make it harder for authorities to identify participants in group chats by searching for phone numbers, amidst fears of infiltration. Telegram groups can hold up to 200,000 users.
Telegram’s move came after warnings from developers on a potential flaw in the app that would allow law enforcement/intelligence services to track down individuals involved in pro-democracy protests.
In 2020, Telegram has played a central role in the protests in Belarus against president Alexander Lukashenko (sometimes called Europe’s last dictator). We might note similarities to the role WhatsApp played in the Arab Spring, as well as Hong Kong.
The popularity of Telegram in Ethiopia (earmarked as a key future mobile growth market) has been ascribed to the smaller size (around the half the file size of WhatsApp) and more efficient data usage of Telegram as compared to key rivals. Telegram also offers Ethiopian businesses a low-cost way to market products and services.
As in Ethiopia, there has been no crackdown in Uzbekistan, where there have been gradual efforts to liberalise after the death of longstanding president Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov in 2016. Russian efforts to block the app caused fear that Uzbekistan would follow suit – these fears proved to be unfounded.
Telegram is used in Uzbekistan by government ministers (up to the president – with 250,000 followers), by the police to issue traffic fines, and by hungry users to order pizzas, according to Central Asia News.
Telegram is the second-most downloaded iOS app in Uzbekistan, after Instagram. It also holds the number-two spot on Android, behind Share. Uzbek-language Telegram channels are outnumbered only by Persian ones. We might note that many Uzbeks can also speak Russian.
Khikmatilla Ubaydullaev writes on Medium that 18 million Uzbeks use Telegram, giving a demographic breakdown of users (though no definitive source is clear). Broadly speaking, usage is concentrated among 18-34-year-olds, with slightly more male than female users.
Telegram Usage Statistics
In March 2014, Telegram reported that 8 billion messages had been received over the previous 30-day period. As of September 2015, 12 billion Telegram messages were reportedly being sent daily. By February 2016, Telegram reported that this had increased to 15 billion.
Telegram consistently rolls out upgrades to the platform. These are compiled in the app’s rolling history blog post, which rounds up updates and upgrades on a month-by-month basis. In summer 2019 updates ranged from animated stickers, to improved security features (enabling deletion of historical messages, the aforementioned ability to cloak your number), to various design and usage features.
In autumn 2020, we saw the addition of a comment feature in channels, search filters (for instance, to be able to search by keyword and date), and the aforementioned Batman mode.
Telegram users are able to transfer files up to 1.5GB in size.
Telegram Channel Statistics
Telegram channels are one-way messaging groups – in which a broadcaster can send out messages to followers. There is no limit on the number of followers for any given channel.
These channels are not interactive. Users can, however, install bots in order to enable additional functionality. This includes adding feedback bots, creating polls, and charging subscription fees to join a private channel.
As on YouTube, many of the top Telegram channels by subscribers cater for the Indian and Indian diaspora markets. These channels seem to have taken the place of torrents when it comes to accessing pirated content in India.
At the time of writing, the HINDI HD MOVIES Telegram channel counted 6.3 million subscribers – a nearly 100% increase over the trailing year. It’s quite possible that at least a portion of this audience resides in Iran also.
Over this year, the word ‘Mirzapur’ has become appended to the name. This refers to a hugely popular thriller shown on Amazon. Indeed, it’s so popular that a channel called Mirzapur Season 2 Prime Series logs 2 million subscribers and is the seventh-most subscribed Telegram channel overall.
The popularity of these pirate content channels has reduced the diversity of the list, which previously also featured Uzbek, Russian and Persian-language channels.
Only three channels in the top-10 are not dedicated to Bollywood films. Telegram’s official news channel (@Telegram) is the most popular of these, with 4.8 million. Proxy server MTProto features highly, with 2.8 million subscribers – useful for those looking to gain access to content blocked in their own country (as Telegram itself is in China, including Hong Kong, and Iran).
Finally, we see Nexta live. This is the live channel of the eponymous Belorussian news channel, used to spread information during anti-government protests. It has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the Belorussian government – surely a sign of its value to pro-democracy protestors.
Top Telegram channels by subscribers, October 2020, millions
Data source: Telegram Analytics
If we look at total post reach (that is the view count for all posts over an unspecified period determined by Telegram Analytics), HINDI HD Movies retains its top spot with total reach of 28.4 million.
These stats were gathered in late October 2020. At this point, Nexta ranked second with 25.2 million, with the protests in Belarus ongoing. Also in the top-10 is another Belarusian news network, the Russian-language Tut.by
Elsewhere, we see Uzbek news channels in Kun.uz and Daryo.uz; various Persian accounts ranging from fitness in Exercise Three, to football in Persepolis fans, to entertainment in Gizmiz; and Malaysia’s National Security Council’s official page, Majlis Keselamatan Negara (Rasmi), which disseminates COVID-19 related news.
A single Indian movie chanel, Telugu Movies features, in 10th place.
Top Telegram channels by total post reach, October 2020, millions
Data source: Telegram Analytics
Finally, let’s look at the highest average post reach. Here, we see Telegram’s official channel Telegram News is well out in front, registering 2.6 million views on average for its posts. Clearly, official posts from Telegram are high impact – if less frequent.
It’s a familiar story elsewhere, with Indian movies and series dominating the top-10, led by HD Print Movies and Scam 1992 SonyLiv TV (named for a series). Once again, Nexta features among these channels, with average post reach of 0.86 million.
Top Telegram channels by average post reach, October 2020, millions
Data source: Telegram Analytics
Top-rated Telegram channels include pop-psychology (All psychology), anime fan channels (One Punch Man), shopping (AliExpress), football (Real Madrid), and more football (Goal Sport).
Telegram has always emphasised its security credentials as a key selling point. That does not mean, however, that issues have not been identified.
For instance, we mentioned above the ability to search for people based on phone numbers, before an optional feature was introduced to cloak numbers. This proved problematic during the civil unrest that occurred in 2019 in Hong Kong. Protesters used Telegram groups to organise their movements, despite the app technically being banned since 2015.
Participating in these groups, however, left them vulnerable to being identified by the police and intelligence agencies, who could trawl numbers in the group. These could then be matched with the person in question, putting them in real danger of persecution. Optional number cloaking (total or to contacts not already in users’ phone books) aims to address this.
This was not the only time Telegram security flaws were exploited by unscrupulous elements. In 2016, Iranian hackers managed to identify the phone numbers of 15 million Iranian users and compromise over a dozen accounts. These included various activists and other prominent users – including Saudi royals, NATO officials, and Iranian nuclear scientists.
This was achieved by hacking the SMS verification codes sent out by Telegram to users. This can be a particular challenge in nations where telecoms companies are in the pockets of authoritarian regimes. The Iranian government denies links with hackers. Telegram offers additional levels of password protection which can help users avoid falling prey to such hacks.
In Russia in 2016, opposition/anti-corruption activists announced their intention to sue telecoms company MTS, after claims that it had helped hackers access their Telegram accounts. This similarly saw exploitation of the SMS verification route. MTS denied that they colluded with the hackers.
Pavel Durov stated that he suspected state involvement with the hack. One of the hacking victims was later abducted and subjected to a mock execution by men claiming to be part of the security services, to give some scale to what is at stake.
In Germany, the police were reported to have used proprietary software to hack the Telegram accounts of suspected terrorists. This was used for at least two years, as of linked 2016 report. German lawmakers expressed uncertainty over the legality of these methods (it might be noted that in 2017, German police legally gained the right to hack devices of those suspected of serious crimes). It was reported in 2017 that the CIA had also worked out how to circumvent messenger app encryption.
Telegram has been dubbed by security experts as “the app of choice” for terrorist organisations. The UC Berkeley Human Rights Center warns that Telegram’s privacy functions make it vulnerable to the dissemination of misinformation. This risk is particularly pronounced in markets like India, where messenger app-spread misinformation has cost some their lives. Indeed, the HRC identified multiple examples of foul play designed to stir up discord on the platform.
In June 2019, Pavel Durov stated that Telegram had experienced a “state actor-sized” cyber-attack, with China the most likely culprit (in a bid to identify those involved in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong).
Vulnerabilities in both WhatsApp and Telegram were discovered by Symantec. Researchers there found that files sent through both messenger platforms could be manipulated using malware – creating the risk of mi. They proved this by editing pictures sent through the platform
In September 2019, Juniper Threat Labs security researchers reported that off-the-shelf malware known as Masad Clipper and Stealer was being sold online for $85, through Telegram. This malware allows hackers to gain access to users’ personal details and cryptocurrency wallets. Telegram was being used as a ‘command and control’ channel for the malware.
Telegram Revenue Statistics (+ ICO)
Telegram does not generate revenue as it stands, with a purported commitment to keeping the company free of the influence of money. As of September 2019, funding is 100% privately generated by Pavel Durov.
Telegram was involved in a long bid to launch its own cryptocurrency – very much in line with its purported commitment to operating outside the margins of vested interests. Its ICO in 2018 was reported to be one of the biggest in history, raising $1.7 billion from qualified investors. The nascent currency was, however, ultimately shut down by US regulators.
Bloomberg reports that the currency may have appreciated by 200% the year following its ICO. This is before being made available to the public. Investors paid $1.33 in the second ICO round in March 2018. South Korea’s Gram Asia was selling rights to their Grams for $4 apiece in July 2019.
Gram would have been traded through the Telegram Open Network blockchain. This would, in time, have seen the Telegram app diversify to incorporate a range of different functions, including the trading of Grams.
Pavel Durov targeted faster transaction speeds than Bitcoin or Ethereum. Reportedly his goal was to compete with the limes of Visa and Mastercard, as well as Facebook’s Libra.
It is predicted that Telegram’s cryptocurrency would have been worth $4 billion in revenue for Telegram by 2022.
Telegram stated that its goal was to create an everyday, mass market cryptocurrency – as opposed to current popular coins, which have become the preserve of the exclusive world of investment banking. Telegram predicted that 80% of its userbase – a hoped for 1 billion by 2022 – will use the cryptocurrency.
It was also predicted that by this point ARPU would stand at $5 , largely courtesy of Gram.
Crypto broker Monfex predicted that Telegram’s costs would increase to $220 million by 2021, as the user base increased to 675 million on the route to 1 billion (a target Monfex believes will be met).
Telegram users + estimated costs, 2014 – 2022
Based on the projection of 80% of Telegram users using Grams, with ARPU of $5, Monfex therefore predicted that Telegram would enjoy profits of $3.72 billion. This was based on $4 billion of revenue in 2022, and costs of $280 million.
The projected year of breaking even would have been 2020 by this estimation, if this had gone to plan. These forecasts, we hardly need to add, were very optimistic.
Telegram revenue and profits, 2018 – 2022 (ICO-contingent)
The hitting of these figures in this timescale – or any timescale – however, hit a considerable obstacle. In October 2019, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (the SEC) reported that the initial $1.7 billion sale was unlawful (US investors contributed $425 million of the $1.7 billion pre-sale of Grams). The reasoning behind the decision was that Telegram had “failed to register their offers and sales of Grams, which are securities”.
In order to sell such securities, Telegram would be obliged to provide investors with certain information around its business operations, risk factors, and management. Telegram responded that Grams were not securities.
The issuance of Grams to investors was delayed from the end of October 2019 to a newly-proposed date of the end of April 2020 as a consequence. Finally, Telegram was fined $18.5 million, and forced to return $1.2 billion raised in the ICO in June 2020.
Pavel Durov had already announced that the Telegram cryptocurrency project would be abandoned due to this legal challenge.
Telegram has very much positioned itself as an independent alternative to the Facebook-dominated global messaging landscape.
And what does that independence offer users? The chief selling point of Telegram has always been the purported higher level of security/privacy offered by the platform in contrast to the likes of WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Indeed, Telegram CEO Pavel Durev has gone so far as to say that WhatsApp will never be safe.
While questions have certainly been raised around WhatsApp’s security, it’s fair to say that Telegram does not have a spotless record either.
That said, moves to prevent police getting hold of protesters’ details in Hong Kong, and the funding of VPNs does show – at the very least – a genuine commitment to protecting users, even if the execution has not always been perfect. And up until this point, there’s little reason to doubt Telegram’s assertion that it is unconcerned with profits.
In a very small selection of markets, we have seen it take hold as the primary method of communication as a consequence of the above. And – as in Hong Kong and Belarus– it seems the app to which oppressed groups turn to in times of crisis. High download volumes in 2020 suggest that its appeal is growing wider as well. Facebook still looks untouchable, but certainly, there is an appetite for an alternative.
The ICO looked like an interesting step, and perhaps a portent of things to come. Telegram stated a desire to create a cryptocurrency for the people – one that will finally bring crypto into the everyday world, rather than the rarefied world of investment banking. At the time of writing, however, it remains very much in the realm of the latter. The SEC restraining order, however, put paid to this idea for now.
Current trends point towards a wider diversification of messenger apps. Perhaps in time an alternative to Gram will crown Telegram’s efforts to offer an independent platform, on which users can conduct more and more of their daily lives free of surveillance from corporations and governments alike.
Gram would have made Telegram a revenue generating business. Perhaps this would have been necessary for the app to expand, but there is always the danger that money could corrupt. Particularly if the ownership of the app ever changed.
Telegram’s cause seems to be a noble one, even if there have been flaws in its execution. How well it sticks to its guns and achieves it goals over years to come will tell us a lot not just about Telegram itself, but the possibility of a truly free online landscape.