Welcome to the twitterati

By: Oscar Quine - Posted on: August 1, 2009 | Culture & Life

Social networking services are capturing people’s attention as the coolest tool for accessing a world of information.

By Oscar Quine

Out of the noise and confusion of the Iranian riots last month came a distinct sound: Twittering. As protesters used the social networking service (SNS) Twitter to organise and rally supporters, the outside world was listening in. For journalists, world leaders and political activists it marked the moment Twittering became less of a gossip column and more a force to be reckoned with.

Social networking services are capturing people’s attention as the coolest tool for accessing a world of information

Twitter enables users to post micro-blogs (messages of up to 140 characters) to their online profile via SMS or computer. Known as tweets they can be read by anyone with internet access. The tweets from Tehran were the first anyone heard of the insurrection. 

On the first day it read: “It’s worth taking the risk, we’re going. I won’t be able to update until I’m back.” Then later: “People are running in streets outside. There is panic in streets. People going ino [sic] houses to hide.” The message had the urgency of words snatched from the midst of chaos.

Reluctant to shut down internet access but needing to limit communications, Iranian officials slowed bandwidth, but due to their brevity the tweets still got through. Learning this lesson, China enforced a total Twitter blackout when protests broke out in Xinjiang province.

(Roger Spooner)
Photo by Roger Spooner

The rise of Twitter has been meteoric. Set up in 2006, it is now the 27th most visited website. During the 10 co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, eyewitnesses posted 16 tweets every second. In December 2008 Mike Wilson, an American, made headlines around the world after Twittering from a plane crash.

From pop stars to politicians, Twitter is king. Britney Spears is the third most-followed Twitterer, keeping fans updated on her favourite brand of yoghurt. Barack Obama, the US president, is seventh, using the site to present a more accessible, youth friendly White House.

From the 40m professionals who have joined the LinkedIn business networking site to Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the “YouTube killer”, and the CIA, which recently revealed that 80% of Taliban intelligence is collected from tweets, the global cyber-chatroom is impossible to ignore.

At first glance, Cambodia seems to have been left out of this revolution. Due to the high price of computers, low internet speeds and the language barrier to Khmer-only speakers, it’s  not surprising that just an estimated 2% of the kingdom’s population is online.

Chanrith Peth, founder of khmerlife.com, sees this as a big problem. “As with any site in general, having limited internet access will affect traffic hits and membership counts,” he says. But there are signs of change and in the ultra-fast domain of communications technology, change happens at warp speed.

The National Information Communication Technology Development Authority was set up in Cambodia in 2000 to improve connectivity, the World Bank earmarked $2.6m to improve internet access in rural areas and Google launched Khmer Unicode, the first standardised local script, in late 2006. A regional spokesperson for the corporation commented: “As with most things in southeast Asia, the internet is seen as an emerging market.”

With the basics in place, Cambodia is a perfect environment for SNSs to thrive. One legacy of the Khmer Rouge years is the age disparity in the population. More than two-thirds (68%) of Cambodia’s “baby boom” generation are younger than 30. It’s therefore no wonder that the big three – Facebook, Twitter and MySpace – believe that half their Cambodian users are in the 18-34 age group. 

In 2001, khmerlife.com was set up by Thy Sok and Chanrith Peth, two Cambodians living in America. The site now has about 17,500 members who mostly live in the US, Canada the United Kingdom and Australia and, according to their figures, Cambodia ranks fifth in terms of traffic.

The business potential of SNSs across Asia, where the networking services net much bigger profits than their western counterparts, is staggering. Cyworld in South Korea and QQ.com in China proclaimed operating profits of $100m and $224m respectively in 2007 compared to Facebook’s comparatively modest $50m.

Benjamin Joffe, chief executive officer of plus8star, one of Asia’s leading telecommunications consultancies, applauds their innovative approach. “Advertising did not work, so they tried other models and found that the ‘freemium’ model, where users pay for premium features or personalisation, was working great. In general, 90% of users don’t pay, but the remaining 10% pay for all and more.” Western SNSs have to follow suit, he says, or face “bankruptcy or endless refinancing”.

 

(Roger Spooner)
Photo by Roger Spooner

“Access is key,” says a regional representative for Google, “and in southeast Asia we’re looking at getting our products out there over mobile phone networks. This will be the future of internet usage in the area.” In Cambodia, where the mobile is king with 2.5m now and a predicted 6.4m by 2011, nine service providers are vying for supremacy.

“One laptop per child is a great concept; one phone per person is closer to reality. Anyone with a phone in this country can already broadcast out to the internet via international SMS and Twitter. These channels will widen and get more sophisticated,” explains John Weeks, chief executive officer of House 32 web design and founder of tweetcambodia.com.

The mobile infrastructure has seamlessly fallen into place, driven not by foreign dollars but domestic consumer enthusiasm and Cambodia’s youth is in the vanguard of change. “Of course, the amount of internet usage increases every day among Beeline’s subscribers,” says Nhem Socheata, public relations head of Cambodia’s latest service provider. Weeks agrees: “Everyone is seeking ‘hard numbers’. There certainly seems to be no end to the demand for services, which is a good indicator right there.”

“Connectivity is becoming a must-have, not only for the corporate professionals and entrepreneurs, but also to a younger market that’s gradually discovering the benefits of the worldwide web,” says an insider who works closely with Mobitel. “It is an important selling point as more and more people buy 3G phones, and it is important for mobile providers to offer it as well, unless they want to be left behind.”

Beeline puts a strong emphasis on its internet service “GPRS without settings”, which it describes as “the easiest way for subscribers to connect to the world. They just simply insert and activate their Beeline SIM card”. This is the most radical step in a market in which providers offer internet connections at just 1c per 50 kilobytes. With the recent takeover of Mobitel and an expectant shake-up in the market, this will have to be bettered. And there are so

me high-profile Khmer advocates setting an example.

Somaly Mam, a human rights activist, has always used the media in her campaign against human trafficking. Named a CNN hero in 2006, she is now turning her attention to SNSs to increase the reach of her campaign. “Social media sites offer us a great opportunity to connect supporters to our cause,” said Greg Opperman, director of technology at the Somaly Mam Foundation. “Between Facebook and Twitter, more than 1,000 people receive daily updates from her. She’ll tweet about trips to shelters, visits with dignitaries and brothel rescues.”

While Twitter has hit the headlines recently for providing a window of information on dramatic world events and proved a useful tool for pioneering campaigners such as Mam, the real power of SNSs may be less exciting but more profound. By giving everyone access to independent information and  a conduit to express themselves, it empowers populations and could prove to be as good a curb on abuses of power and the erosion of rights as any number of NGOs.

Hun Sen may have no fear of the Thais or Global Witness, but, in the future, he may come to be a little wary of the sound of Twittering.