What drives Indonesia’s massive growth in social media use, especially Facebook? Indonesia has driven Facebook’s growth rates in the region and is one of Facebook’s top markets worldwide. This isn’t necessarily only a function of Indonesia’s size: Internet penetration as a whole remains relatively low and broadband speeds are still comparatively slow. Despite this, Indonesians have been amongst the fastest adopters of Facebook in the world and the fastest in South East Asia. Whilst a small part of the overall Facebook growth story, Indonesia’s spectacular growth rate of 645% in 2008 beat India, Malaysia, China and Singapore, put the country at the very forefront of Facebook’s expansion into the region. The question is why. Some commentators suggest the rise of Facebook in Indonesia is due to its early introduction of more accessible mobile media platforms in a country where the fastest growing user base accesses the net by phone. However, most users in Indonesia still access the net from internet cafes – so this alone cannot explain such rapid growth.
Sociocultural factors emphasising network building could be an interesting factor. Indonesia has been at the forefront of social networking in South-East Asia since the mid-2000s. Some anthropologists argue Indonesian society exhibits cultural traits emphasising extensive network building and de-emphasising deep interpersonal relationships in small numbers. Facebook allows users to friend others they may only ‘know’ in the most abstract way, or even strangers, whereas Friendster restricted users to only friending people within four degrees of separation. Does this have anything to do with Facebook’s rise – at least over Friendster? Scholars suggest these network building practices are uniquely Indonesian – distinguished from other so-called collectivist societies by an emphasis on building networks with limited intimacy. Other cultures – such as South Korea’s – emphasise strong but less extensive networks. Indonesia also has the third highest number of Twitter users in the world, and Indonesians reportedly retweet more than they tweet. Does this say something about cultural proclivities for shallower but wider network building? Or is it just due to Indonesia’s Blackberry obsession? It is worth reiterating that it is probably not due to Indonesia’s size or comparative Internet access – indeed, despite Indonesia’s reputation as a social media hub and its increasingly vibrant startup culture, Google recently opened its first regional office in Malaysia, reportedly because of concerns about Indonesia’s digital infrastructure.
Interestingly, Facebook has yet to claim top spot in South Korea or Japan, where locally generated social networking sites dominate. Although Facebook is rising quickly in these markets, we can speculate that in these highly net-literate societies local cultural features influence user preferences for social networking sites. In Japan, for example, top locally generated sites allow users to anonymously interact with strangers online. Cyworld dominates in South Korea – it has a hometown advantage, having been introduced in 1999, before Facebook’s arrival in 2004. But some commentators suggest that South Korean’s preference for Cyworld is due to local aesthetic tastes and its privacy-heavy format, which prioritises the formation of closed groups, where Facebook favours a more open format.
Regardless of their accuracy, these musings may be relevant to IR theories of public diplomacy, given they suggest that digital diplomacy ought to be conducted with reference to local social networking preferences. They may also be relevant to scholars who debate the transnational impact of the Internet – implying that local cultural considerations influence Internet use.
More interestingly, Indonesia’s Facebook fascination may also have an impact on local politics, although this is understudied. Quite how – or whether – it interacts with the rules of political debate, political information sharing and calls to political action is as yet unknown. But surely the intense connectedness of a particular demographic – Indonesian Internet users are young, relatively educated, and proactively connected – must have some impact. What little research there is only raises more questions. If we admit the relativistic nature of Indonesian consumption of social media, it is not necessarily wise to transfer assumptions from other contexts.
For example, some scholars have found interesting links suggesting a high level of trust in internet-based news in some Sunni societies where state control of media is high. How does this work in a society such as Indonesia, where the press is now relatively free, after many years of suppression? Interestingly, some studies of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia have suggested that although the internet plays a strong role in reinforcing jihadi narratives, it is not enough to sway individual opinion—ie trust may exist, but is not enough to induce political action (although see recent events reported here).
Ultimately, and given the temptation to fetishise the impact of social media, are we assuming too much about the political impact of Indonesian values around connectedness and their expression in social media? As always, the simple fact of digital connection does not necessarily imply political action. Comments pointing readers to useful analyses of Indonesian’s media consumption habits, including the nature of Indonesian political debate online, are most welcome!