Time to switch off? How social media is burning out Southeast Asia

Southeast Asians use Facebook more than any other social media platform, connecting people and information in a way the historically-restricted region has never dealt with before. This brings opportunities, but also physical and psychological unrest.

By Tan Zhi Xin

Pongpat Sukarbjai, is not your usual Thai rice farmer. He used to sell all the rice he harvested straight to the local mill, but like many young people across Southeast Asia he realised the power of social media and took to selling online. He now sells his rice berry at a healthy 100 baht per kg, above what the mills would give him.

I have sold the rice both online and to the mill,” he said, adding “For me, the mill is still an important place to sell rice, but the online channel provides an alternative point of sale. It allows you to sell other farm products as well.”

Is Pongpat’s enterprise a glimpse of the future? After all, southeast Asia ranks second in the world for its number of active social media users; 234 million people regularly share details of their lives online. That is far more than regions like North America and Western Europe, though those areas have users spread across a variety of platforms while southeast Asians congregate on Facebook.


Driving growth, driving unrest

And although opportunities for development, like Pongpat’s new customers, are part and parcel of better connections between people, the darker side of social media use is also driving violence and protest. The current aggression towards Jakarta’s Governor Ahok has been driven by content shared on YouTube and rumours circulating on Twitter. In Malaysia, accusations and counter-accusations about the arrest of Bersih 5 activists have fuelled the fire of public distrust.

Some say this is simply because the new information channels are not subject to the decades of censorship and restrictions on traditional media forms in the region. The undercurrent of protest was already there; social media simply lit the flame.

People buying and using mobile phones is driving this growth says Simon Kemp, Regional Managing Partner of consultancy We Are Social, explaining, “Publicly available data indicate that Facebook remains the most popular social platform in all countries around the region… LINE registers almost as many monthly active users as Facebook in Thailand, and Viber is hugely popular in the Philippines.”

He also notes that, “Blackberry Messenger — now available to users of most smartphone operating systems — still has an impressive user base in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia.”

Increasing isolation

However, this trend does not extend to China. Although the Great Firewall of China can be easily circumvented, many Chinese users still prefer local options such as Qzone. Created by the Internet giant, Tencent, in 2005, QZone is a social networking site similar to Facebook and currently has 653 million users in China. Besides QZone, Chinese social media users are also very active on WeChat, an instant messaging service also created by Tencent. As of May 2016, WeChat boasts a total of 700 million active users, which is nearly half of China’s population.


And so, whether is it on a train to school or in a café, we live in a world where we sit with heads bent over mobile phones. But what impact is this connectedness having on people’s lives? Many millennials are actually becoming resentful of their digitalised lives, and feel that they have become a slave to social media – obliged to check and update every aspect of their life. Perhaps it is time to cool off?

This is a new issue for society to address for this is the first generation of people to grow up in the embrace of technology mainlined into their lives. And as this pressure builds, many are resorting to unplugging from social media for various reasons, ranging from wanting to eliminate distractions, to seeking solitude in this highly connected world.

Disconnection rate

In the West, a recent study conducted by the British telecommunication authority Ofcom revealed that “34% of internet users have at some point voluntarily gone offline”. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center recently released data that shows the growth in young social media users in the United States (US) is plateauing. Instead, it is those over 65 that are driving the growth of social media use.

But while there is a global trend of youth unplugging from social media, it is difficult to argue that this will soon spread to our region. This is because with the exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, the Internet penetration rate remains low in many Southeast Asian countries, which lag behind the global rate. This means the market is nowhere near mature – for all those that already use social media are many others who do not yet even have the chance.

As Zuboff’s law states, “everything that can be automated will be automated”. There will be a day when ASEAN becomes fully connected to the world in an explosion of information and opportunity. Until then, it is difficult to imagine people going digitally backwards when the world is growing so fast.