The Economist investigates Indonesia’s passion for social media

The Economist has an excellent article looking at social media usage in Indonesia, focusing primarily on the nation’s use of Twitter, which has been getting a lot of attention lately as I blogged recently.

It opens looking at just how popular social networking in Indonesia is whilst identifying the potential the further growth:
WHAT does the most populous Muslim nation do in its spare time? Increasingly, it swaps gossip online. Indonesia is now the world’s second-largest market for Facebook and the third-largest for Twitter, according to several web research firms. For industry insiders, however, the most exciting statistic is not how many Indonesians use social media, but how many still don’t. Of 230m or so Indonesians, fewer than 20% are connected to the internet.

Foreign firms see untapped potential. Facebook doesn’t even have an office in Indonesia, yet it has grown like crazy, to 30m users. In May last year Yahoo! ventured into this fizzing market by buying Koprol, a location-based social network. Indonesian culture seems particularly receptive to online socialising. People love publicity, don’t fret much about privacy and gleefully follow trends. “Everything is about friends and location,” says Andy Zain, the founder of MobileMonday Indonesia, a networking forum.

Pic: AP.

The article goes some way to explaining the background factors which have helped mobile internet and social media gain considerable traction in the country:
Western firms are only just beginning to grasp the eccentricities of the Indonesian social-media market. Thanks to years of price wars between Indonesia’s three major telecommunications companies, mobile contracts in the country are dirt-cheap. For Indonesians living in North America, it is often cheaper to buy an Indonesian SIM card and roam with it than it is to sign up for a local plan.

Phones are cheap, too: the country is flooded with Chinese handsets costing only $30-40. Indonesia is also one of the largest markets for Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of BlackBerrys. Indonesians typically connect with each other via mobile devices, not personal computers.
The issue of financial infrastructure, or lack thereof, has made Indonesia, and its potentially lucrative business end for firms look into virtual currencies and alternative forms of monetisation.
Facebook and Google make money in North America and Europe from display advertising, but this is much harder in Indonesia. Few locals have credit cards or bank accounts, making it hard for them to click on a link and buy something. For large purchases online, payment is generally made by bank transfer. Social-media firms are investigating whether they can tap the microtransactions market—say, by offering virtual currencies or goods that users can use as barter—though forced partnerships with local telecoms firms threaten the profitability of such schemes.
Mig33, ‘the most significant service you’ve never heard of’ as I recently called it, is cited as a sole success story in the country thus far:
So far, only one firm has cracked the payments nut. Inspired by China’s QQ and Grameen Phone of Bangladesh, Mig33, a firm whose main product is a mobile social-networking application, has set up a virtual economy. Some 4,000 merchants in 150 countries sell “credits” to users, who then can spend them online: sending messages to friends, playing games, or sending virtual gifts. The firm has raised $34m in funding since its inception in 2005. Its founder, Steven Goh, says it will post profits this year. Indonesia is its largest market.
On Indonesians’ preference for virtual personae and combination of real-selfs, the Economist article says:
When hobnobbing in cyberspace, Indonesians are especially likely to use avatars rather than real pictures of themselves, says Mr Goh. “Indonesia is a moderate Muslim country where people are creating new virtual identities completely different [from] their real identities,” he explains. Users with black eyes and black hair, say, may create virtual personae with grey eyes and blond hair.

This is common elsewhere in East Asia and in the Middle East, too. But Indonesia is a special case, reckons Mr Goh: its social networks freely integrate both real and imagined selves. The archipelago could prove a useful test market for tech firms seeking to enter the wide-open and barely understood social-networking markets of the rest of Asia.

Indonesia remains a fascinating example of digital media uptake through mobile. Given the poor wired infrastructure and often prohibitive cost of hardware and wired internet services, mobile is the vehicle which is helping to provide internet access to the mass market.

That said, there is plenty of scope for further development as BlackBerry device ownership remains highest around major cities and urban areas, suggesting that many of those that use mobile also have access to the fixed-line web too. The battle to move mobile internet usage to the provinces and up-country residents is one that may develop further this year.

It is no coincidence that location-based services like Foursquare (primarily) and (also) Koprol and Gowalla are popular in the country, as Facebook and Twitter have shown that Indonesia is as good a match as anyone for social networking addicts. This is illustrated by the fact it is the world’s biggest Twitter addict.