Indonesia’s social networking love affair

Indonesia’s prolific usage of Twitter has gained considerable amounts of media attention this week. 

First up, CNN has a video story dedicated to the country’s prolific use of social networking and its influence on Indonesian society. Excerpts below are taken from the accompanying written piece.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest user of Facebook and has been dubbed the most Twitter-addicted nation on the planet by online research firm comScore. The country beat every other nation in the percentage of online Twitter users. That is never more apparent than when there’s a big news story that peeks the country’s interest.

For example, when America’s First Lady Michelle Obama shook hands with Indonesia’s conservative Muslim information minister whose beliefs forbid him touching women who are not relatives, it was one of Twitter’s trending topics and created a punch line for comedian Stephen Colbert thousands of miles away on U.S. television.

A noteworthy example of the power of social networking within Indonesia is cited:

Last year the government slapped hospital patient Prita Mulyasari with a 204 million rupiah (about $21,000) defamation lawsuit for e-mailing a complaint to her friends about her care in a government hospital. 

In response Indonesia’s social networkers turned into outraged fundraisers and with the help of traditional media raised the money to pay what was seen as an unjust debt.

“In the end we got about 800-million rupiah ($90,000), [more than] four times the amount that we supposed to collect,” [high-profile Indonesian blogger Enda] Nasution said. “The court finally released her and stated that she’s not guilty.”

While there is no new material in the CNN piece – I blogged about the comScore research when it was released back in August – that CNN would cover the article shows that Indonesia’s social media prowess, both in user numbers and impact on society, is beginning to be noticed outside of technology watchers in the region.

Further proof of this raised profile can be found with a Guardian article from Bangkok-based Ben Doherty.

The article highlights social media’s impact on society with the example of a government minister who was photographed driving in a bus lane by a member of the public, with the image going viral across social networks in the country.

A couple of interesting paragraphs from the piece:

Twitter suits Indonesia for a number of reasons. For a start, mobile phones are cheap. There is already a strong sense of community. And English is widely spoken, particularly on the nation’s most populous and tech-savvy island, Java. Even for those who prefer to tweet in their native tongue, Bahasa Indonesia and other regional languages use an internet-friendly Roman script. But Indonesia is diverse and varied: while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may be a steady, if not prolific, tweeter, millions of people living on islands distant from the capital’s digital epicentre have never even used a computer.

Where it is popular, Twitter is driven by celebrity and a growing love of new technologies. “Indonesians like to be with others, and above all, they like trends,” Arifin Putra, an Indonesian actor active on Twitter, told the Jakarta Post. “If someone says this is the next cool thing to do, then everybody is going to follow.”

Both the Guardian and CNN pieces are similar to this Reuters piece written back in May, a lot of developments have taken place since then so it is a shame that neither piece picked up more recent developments, which are available in vast quantities given that social networking is so prominent in the country. For example:

– Koprol, an Indonesia mobile social network that was bought buy Yahoo back in May, grew from 75,000 users in to one million in the less than six months, which is an exceptional speed given the time it took other ‘fast growing’ global social networks like Twitter (2 years) and Foursquare (1 year) to reach that mark.

– Then there is the growing argument, supported by Koprol’s success, of a local backlash with Indonesians preferred social networks focused on the country and not simply relying on global social media.

Either way, it is good to see Indonesia’s internet influence and use of social media gaining further recognition in western media.

Speaking of global recognition for Indonesia, Twitter has included the country as one of the new additions for its expanded local trends service. Launched back in February, the service highlights local trends on the service for more than 20 countries; of which three are Asia – Indonesia, Singapore and India.

It is no coincidence that all three of the countries include a sizeable percentage of English language/roman alphabet tweets. High use of local language characters is likely the chief reason Japan and possibly Korea and Thailand are not yet included in the local trend service.

Next, an excellent overview of just why mobile internet – and consequently social networks – are so popular in Indonesia was provided by an interview article from e27. The interview is part two of a series with mig33, see my initial post on the service – ‘the biggest social network you’ve never heard of’ – here.

From the article, on the subject of mobile in India and Indonesia:

“The reality is that the average income of people in India is like US $70 a month, it’s heavily skewed. In places like Indonesia the average income is about US $110 per month.  The reality is that US $80 to buy a phone is one and half month salary.  To buy a laptop might be 8 months salary.

If you look at the time and rate of economic growth, it might be 5 – 10 years before buying a computer becomes like a simple thing because it’s only one month’s salary. Just because people’s disposable income takes that long to come to that level, where buying a computer is a trivial thing. And this once again is the reason why you see the growth of Chinese handsets in places like Indonesia, there’s like 50 million of these devices sold. It’s got an opera browser, TV and FM radio.”

The article covers far wider topics, and is definitely worth a read, but this extract is highlighting as it succinctly explains a scenario that resonates across Southeast Asia – particularly outside of urban area and excluding Singapore – and is one major reason that mobile is touted as the primary internet access point for the region, and many developing markets worldwide too.

The idea that mobile is providing a service (the internet) that might ordinary not be available – either in vast quantities/on demand or at all – to people suggests that the growth of mobile internet adoption is a positive development, however Debnath Guharoy, Roy Morgan Research – writing in the Jakarta Post – believes there is a negative side:

The low level of internet use has been a worrying sign for years in this country, Asia’s fourth-largest economy [Indonesia]. Right through 2009, it looked like Indonesia was going to leap-frog past the conventional internet connection and the personal computer, right through to the web via the mobile phone. The problem with that, and I can’t prove it, is that reading as a habit would die an almost certain death. And if a country isn’t reading, it isn’t becoming more clever. That’s what I think, I hope you agree.

While the article does develop an interesting discussion, my response to the comment above is that for most people laptop/PC internet is the preferred connection, mobile is more affordable and convenient. There is also the fact that internet activity varies across mobile or fixed platforms; social networks like Twitter work well on mobile, while page intensive browsing clearly is less suited to a small screen.

As for reading on a mobile, mobile apps and services are really just beginning. Mobile internet usage is so strong, particularly in developing regions when compared to fixed line, that it seems logic newspapers, magazines, websites and other information-rich web properties will develop mobile access points, or mobile friendly sites, which allow users to collect information to read or use in a more accessible manner.

The assumption that increased mobile internet will prevent Indonesia “becoming more clever” is a little absurd as, for those with no internet at all, even a little information (if you can call mobile internet) is more than nothing at all…while it seems clear that both mobile devices, content providers and third parties (e.g. applications) will develop in time to ensure the mobile internet experience is not overly bound by the physical restrictions of a mobile device/browser.