Bangkok Karaoke

I think everyone can attest to the proliferating role social media plays in our lives, whether we like it or not. Today we basically carry little computers in our pockets (aka smartphones)– making social media even more accessible. Over here in Bangkok–sans smartphone– I basically feel like I live in the woods without being able to Tweet or mupload pics to FB while on the go. I just want all 700 Facebook friends to see this absurd traffic jam… ugh. Not to mention being unable to log onto LinkedIn, look at my Feedly, check email… oh, the list goes on! 

Though, I’m just like any other female, American millennial: characterized by avid texting and a fear of being cellphone-less. Accidentally leaving your iPhone at home before heading to work or school can be almost physically painful, especially during moments of boredom. We are so addicted to our smartphones that it is actually a classifiable addiction, according to Psychology Today.

But is it just Americans, particularly in my demographic, that indulge in high cellphone usage? And with that thought, elevated levels of social media engagement?

Not at all. Bangkok is the FB world capital. (Socialbackers did release the report in 2012, nonetheless I would be surprised if the rankings changed drastically for 2013.)

Bangkok has some 8.68 million Facebook users, followed by Jakarta (7.43 million) and Istanbul (7.07 million). Interestingly, two of the top three cities are in Southeast Asia–clearly reflecting an FB obsession on this side of the globe. Perhaps even more than in the Western world. 

The article talks with Byron Perry, a Bangkok-based social media watcher and operator of Coconuts Bangkok. Perry says to take the ranking with a grain of salt for some key cities, like Hong Kong and others in China, are not included in the survey. Not to mention some other faults with data collection.

When looking at countries as a whole, the US comes in first for most FB users followed by Brazil and India. Thailand, with an estimated population of 67 million, sits at number 16 on the list with a total of 14 million users. This means that more than half of all FB users reside in Bangkok.

While there may be some data discrepancies and Thailand as a country is not even on the top ten list, Thais without question love FB. And their infatuation may be different from those in the Western world. Mr. Perry notes that,

“one reason some Thais may be such heavy Facebook users is that Thai society places great importance on social connections, and many people enjoy interacting with — not to mention talking about — their friends and acquaintances. Facebook is viewed as ‘a utility, not a new trend” in Thailand. It’s ‘what people are using to do everything on the Internet.’ “

So maybe Thai people see Facebook as a way to keep up with old friends as well as build relationships with new ones. For Westerners (well at least for me) Facebook is used to keep up with some friends, sure, but also to creep/stalk/look at people I maybe haven’t seen in awhile. Maybe never see again. For example, scour every default picture of the girl from high school who never turned a head, but now has grown out of her awkward phase and has a Wilhelmina contract.. you get the idea. If I want to build connections, I use LinkedIn. (Let me add that LinkedIn is not all that popular here in Thailand–yet. Maybe in several years, Facebook’s role will evolve if other platforms gain popularity.)

Thinking past social media, I consider how connected Thai people are to one another, especially to family. This is something I realized very early on, even before I came to Thailand. It was further instilled when I first went to my English coordinator’s house while teaching. Her home was quite massive, consisting of three separate buildings. Nevertheless, almost everyone in her immediate family lived in the main house. Her mother, older sister, two younger brothers and almost all of their spouses as well as children. Truthfully, I couldn’t really keep track of everyone who lived there. Some came and went for they had apartments also in Bangkok. This setup is quite common for Thai people.

And even more than that, today while I was eating dinner alone (pretty much the norm on a weekday) I observed a woman next to me, also alone, on her cellphone the entire meal. Making her not really alone after all.

Social media sites apart from Facebook are also taking root in Thailand, like Twitter. While it was once considered a personal chat for elites, today it is acknowledged as a channel for ordinary people to share their opinions.  Southeast Asian heads of state have also taken to the Twittersphere, such as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, @SBYudhoyono. His Twitter experience has been quite successful, gaining 1.7 million followers after two weeks of joining. On the other hand, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has had not as much triumph. She was ultimately forced to delete her Twitter account in 2011 after being hacked and sent out tweets that were critical of the Thai government. Yikes…

An infographic put together recently by Bangkok-based Zocial.Inc reveals behavior on FB, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram within Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. While not all of SE Asia is included, the study does shed light onto some usage trends. Apparently a normal Twitter account in these four countries has an average 2,400 followers. I would like to know how the study defined normal because that figure sounds pretty high for “normal.” For Instagram, it claims there is an average of 71 “likes” per post. (Without a smartphone and without Instagram, I am not sure what the general number of “likes” are–again, though, this sounds quite high.)

At large, social media in SE Asia as a region is flourishing. So much that Accenture put together a study in 2012 on “Surfing Southeast Asia’s Powerful Digital Wave.” Some interesting stats are given on the growing industry, like that 60% of Thais would be happy doing all their online surfing on a mobile device. 55% percent of Vietnamese would be happy doing the same, whereas the worldwide average for happiness with mobile-only browsing is only 31%. The report also includes lots of cool, modern pie-charts and tables to convey comparisons. One of my favorites is below, showing how the people across the ASEAN-6 view the internet’s purpose compared to some other nations. (ASEAN-6 are the six largest economies in the area, which are much larger than the remaining four: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Vietnam)

webuse (2)

The graph basically speaks for itself, however it is interesting to see how all the ASEAN-6 have a relatively high daily internet usage percentage, but the engagement level varies among the countries. And ultimately the ASEAN-6 do have different perceptions of the internet’s primary purpose. For anyone interested in a more detailed analysis of factors behind SE Asia’s digital growth, businesses taking advantage of the trend and what the future may hold– I highly recommend looking through the Accenture Survey. Even just skimming through the key statistics on the side bar and featured graphs is insightful.

Overall, technology and with it social media is blooming in Southeast Asia. The Facebook capital of the world is Bangkok with Jakarta not far behind. Other social media platforms are taking root in the region as well. With all of this in mind, should social media businesses give more attention to SE Asia, especially the major cities? And with much more growth potential in the digital sector, should tech-driven startups deliberate setting up shop in one of these metropolises?  I say yes.


Image Credit – Courtesy of a coworker, uploaded via Facebook.

Graph Credit – Found in 2012 study on technology growth in Southeast Asia via Accenture.