Indonesia: why Facebook?

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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!

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14 Responses to Indonesia: why Facebook?

  1. Interesting article! For me as Indonesian it’s just simple reason. Indonesia consists of 17.000 islands, and we still don’t have any good and cheap public transport to connect each island. when people go to other city/island.. they move for a longer term(too expensive to travel around).. so Internet is one easy and cheap way (no matter how slow it is but still, – that’s why people don’t use skype because it’s too damn slow) to communicate… and facebook (and twitter) connects people!! And yes we are family-community centered society. I use internet since 1994 – I used to work with post office and Post Office with its Wasantara Net Project succeeded in connecting almost all big cities/islands in Indonesia… Thanks to Post Office and its Wasantara Net! :)

    • sarah logan says:

      Your point about distance and migration in Indonesia an interesting one, Freddy. I’d be really keen to hear more about Wasantara Net – what was the story? Whose idea was it?? Thanks!

      • Freddy says:

        Wasantara Net was an Indonesian government project which initiated to connect all the islands in Indonesia through internet. The government assigned the Indonesian Postal Company (Post Office) to do the job, as Post Office had the wide spread office branches network already. It was started on 1997. I remembered even Bill Gates came and gave a special speech to us.

  2. Harryadin Mahardika says:

    One recent development that I spotted as an insider (Indonesian) is the tendency of early facebook adopters are now migrating to twitter. It makes the happening of facebook in Indonesia diminish, as they who are migrating to twitter are mostly opinion leaders (including celebrities, political/public figures, sports stars). As a results, trendhunters (consist of younger segment age 12-18) start to follow their idols step to migrate to twitter. This left facebook only with two segments: (1) mature segment (age 35 or more), who use facebook in a very different way compared to younger segment that previously “owned” facebook timeline; and (2) technology laggards who started to feel convenient with facebook after a long period of learning and trial. I will bet that facebook won’t release data regarding this declining of traffic in Indonesia anytime soon. It will be more interesting to see how Twitter release their report regarding it traffics in Indonesia.

    • sarah logan says:

      Thanks Harryadin – you are right about the explosion in twitter use. I think what we are seeing is the switching of growth rates between twitter and facebook, not neccessarily a decline in facebook user rates. The ‘trendhunter’ aspect is an important one – what is your impression of Google+ use in Indonesia?

      • Harryadin Mahardika says:

        Adoption (and disadoption) of social networking site in Indonesia is mainly determined by peer endorsement. Hence, if Google+ can get adequate critical mass, it may have a bright future in Indonesia. Android can be a good entry point for Google+, as Android’s popularity among younger segments increase quite significantly. How to make Google+ as a killer app is another question. I myself has adopted Google+ while ago, but nothing much happen there yet.

  3. Very well written article. I am surprised that India with its enormous population is behind Indonesia.

  4. Ashlee says:

    As someone that worked in Indonesia in a social media related field for a couple of years near the beginning of its exponential Facebook and Twitter usage growth, none of this surprises me. But “why Indonesia?” is an interesting question.

    I think growing mobile use is a big part of it… even in remote regions of the country, young people are hooked to smartphones, whether they be Blackberrys or Chinese-made cheapies that share similar functionalities.

    However, I think Indonesia’s history plays a part of it too. After a long period of suppression under the New Order regime, the media in Indonesia is unabashedly “free”… sometimes too free, violating the kinds of conduct rules Western media organisations might abide by. Social media could be another extension of reveling in this relatively new freedom of expression and communication.

    Another theory could be that these channels have provided a way for youth to voice their views and hold discussions, when they still have limited representation in the mainstream media.

    Also, development indicators shouldn’t be overlooked. Indonesia has relatively high levels of literacy (significantly higher percentage-wise than India)… these factors could open internet access/tech literacy up to more people.

    Another social/cultural factor could be that it seems privacy is not highly valued in Indonesian society (or at least Western notions of privacy)… hence perhaps users from Indonesia feel more comfortable divulging their life on social media networks…. that’s how it seems with some of my friends there at least.

    Social networks in Indonesia have been used in the past few years to build nationalism following the Jakarta hotel bombings (see the #indonesiaunite hashtag movement), to rally support following natural disasters, to condemn injustices in the judicial system (Prita Mulyasari case and others) and to express disappointment with elected representatives. I think the sway social media has in the country’s politics will continue to increase.

  5. Sarah Logan says:

    Hi Ashlee – your points are fascinating. I especially agree with you on the importance of the history of the media as a whole – i.e. when the concept has been contested in the past, ‘free speech’ has a big impact on how people approach the absolute freedom of digital media, including social media, I think . I’m also intrigued by your reference to mobile use and nationalism – I think Yudhuyono’s recent comments on social media at ASEAN might be relevant …

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  7. Nella says:

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