Social Media Enabling Asia

The Huffington Post recently posted a blog by Thomas Crampton highlighting some of the differences between social media use in Asian countries vs. the United States. Much of it driven by broadband deployment in technically advanced countries like South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong (yes, I know…), much of it a burning desire by young people in developing countries who want to expand their social and intellectual evolution.

Indonesia is now the second largest user of Facebook in the world. Poor broadband access (generally), low disposable income to buy personal computers, and moral guidelines pressuring young people to follow religious values. How is it possible they could develop that fast?

Growth rates in broadband and mobile access are astounding, with statistics such as Vietnam’s mobile Internet users growing 846% in 2009, 84.3% of Japanese online to the Internet with a mobile phone, and 48.6% of Hong Kong mobile users connecting with a smart phone.

Oh, and mobile phones in Asia are inexpensive. Really, really inexpensive. Almost anybody can afford a mobile phone, and many do – occasionally at the expense of clothing, food, and shelter. In fact, I was able to buy a prepaid phone with around 250 minutes in Jakarta for less than US$20, with messaging, simple data access, and other net-enabled applications.

So the mobile phone represents a means of communication, added to a basic social status issue, and a door to emotional and intellectual exploration and freedom.

What is different in Asia than in the US?

Well, a couple of things for certain. When you start with nearly zero social and technical penetration, and you have the benefit of receiving a relatively mature technology, then it is easy to statistically go from zero to nine hundred miles an hour.

Also, consider the average young person in a country like Indonesia or Vietnam. You go to the occasional movie, you have an opportunity to watch foreign television shows, and you realize it is a very, very big world. Lots of diversity you would not be exposed to without the benefit of technology. Even more, you understand there are real people living in that huge world who are not simple digital renditions of a movie producer’s fantasy.

The Internet helps bring a young person in Jakarta, Samarinda, Semarang, Banda Aceh, or Merauke to Paris, Cape Town, or Burbank. Facebook puts a name and face to distant lands, cultures, and people. And when that young person goes home to their dormitory, house, or relocation home they have a glimmer, even if it is a faint glimmer, of hope that life could be better than it is today.

And Internet access, with social networking provides an additional escape. Whether it be joining a virtual gaming community, or chatting with persons on a different continent, you are able to escape your surroundings for a brief moment. That moment may be in an Internet café (WarNets in Indonesia), it may be in a home, or it may be at school.

Of course, not everybody in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, or Laos are poor or underprivileged.

Social Freedom

Asian culture is different than western culture. In many countries it is not easy to be open with relationships, activities, or personal preferences. While American kids certainly find their escape in gaming and social networking, it is even more of an outlet for many young people in Asia.

If you live in a strict religious environment – as many in Asia do, which restricts your ability to freely express yourself in the local “real” community, being able to develop new ideas, discover new ideas outside the control of your “thought leaders,” is an attraction. Facebook and other social networking sites offer a global conduit of hundreds of millions of other people who may also desire to share experiences and ideas.

And the Future

In the past, Americans enjoyed a fair level of economic and social security based on high levels of education, and the desire to increase their status and quality of life. We looked at developing countries with little interest, and in fact many Americans still cannot find more than a dozen countries on a world map.

Young people in developing countries such as those in Asia, who are included in those astonishing statistics of locations rapidly embracing technology and social networking, are hungry. Hungry not only for knowledge, but also hungry to improve their quality of life, with an added hook of national identity and pride.

The intellectual skills gained through accessing Internet and diffusing global communications into their life will give those persons in developing countries the same intellectual tools American enjoy, putting them on a level intellectual playing field. With the additional ability to participate in eLearning, those intellectual tools become more important – particularly when compared to the dwindling education levels and achievements in America’s education system.

Social networking sites may help draw young people to the Internet, but once there the skills learned far outweigh the social value Facebook or other sites provide. With the largest countries in the world representing the fastest growing component of the internet (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand), within another generation or two those young people may intellectually match or exceed the capabilities of their age group counterparts in the United States and Europe.

This is all good, as educated people generally are much more likely to quickly recover from disasters, are less likely to become involved in extremist movements, and are more likely to break down political, cultural, and secular barriers that have polarized nations in the past.

It is scary to Americans, as we will need to prepare ourselves to accept the rest of the world as our intellectual and economic equals. It is inevitable.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

3 Responses to Social Media Enabling Asia

  1. One thing that you many fail to see, is that a vast amount of those social networking consumers e.g. Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are in fact not using smartphones but regular Nokia S40 phones or similar models (Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG) Sure there are the usual suspects like RIM, APPLE, Android among the high class but the larger population still use low-end handsets.

    Probably one of the reasons Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam tops the Opera Mini user list and that social communities like Buzzcity (WAP version) is so popular.
    Although mobile phone are cheap in Asia, smartphones are still the price of a laptop, not to forget the price to have a landline telephone/internet setup (if possible) Digital diversity remains a large issue in several Asian countries.

    From our experience we found that almost ¼ of our mobile users (Thailand, Laos) never have tried or only once tried a computer but instead surf the internet via their mobile phone. This does leave the service provider with some issues in terms of navigation and designing the web/mobile community for that large consumer group.

    Many Asians see their mobile phone as an extension of their personality and a very handy one – because culture often stand in the way of direct contact with another person, be it, one from the opposite sex, “high class” or elderly person. But with a mobile phone it seems like that part of the culture is gone. With a mobile phone the users can be more direct.

    • johnsavageau says:

      Yes, I agree with all you address in the note. Of particular interest to me is your last paragraph, which is the escape I believe is much more important in many Asian locations than in the US.

      Although I am not ethnically Asian, I have lived most of my life in Asia and I share your observations.

  2. Nice post and Allan, your commenter, has hit on one of the most interesting trends: “Dumb” phones being used as smart. One of the more interesting companies in this zone is Voxiva which uses simple mobile phones to connect healthcare workers in developing countries. They recently launched a service in the US as well. All based on SMS, but linking in with the power of the Internet.

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