There are a lot of misconceptions about Internet media habits in Asian countries, especially in comparison to the US. For starters, did you know that many Asian countries have a much greater percentage of their population accessing broadband and that broadband is generally much faster than similar service in the US?
There are also misconceptions about social media, like the extent to which Facebook is a global phenomenon and how every major country has their star bloggers. The reality is that the US is far and away the strongest consumer of what most people consider social media. Some other countries have higher rates of adoption for specific technologies, like social networks, but no place in the world rivals the US in the influence of the blogosphere. I also don’t believe any other market would serve as a launching pad for emerging social technologies, like Friendfeed.
Why is that? China has a larger population online and more broadband users so why is the US ahead, in many respects? After a recent trip to Korea, I think I have a few of the answers:
- Privacy – This is largely a social phenomenon but there appears to be a common perception that sharing too much information about yourself on the Internet is dangerous. This also speaks to the popularity of BBS since it offers a degree of anonimity.
- Censorship – This isn’t much of a news flash but many Asian countries don’t exactly embrace the concept of free speech.
- Consolidated platforms – Unlike the various disparate networks in the US, many Asian countries focus their social media activity on a few networks. For example, in South Korea, Naver is the hub of not only search but also video sharing and BBS. In China, Baidu is following Google’s lead by launching knock offs of most of the services they provide, which is fine with the Chinese government.
The most striking thing is how closely APAC social media resembles the US market circa 1994. If you remember back to 1994, the Web wasn’t much of anything and most social activity was happening on major hubs like America Online, The Well and Compuserve (Prodigy was already in decline). Sure, multimedia content is now much more prevalent in APAC now than it was then but the bulk of consumer generated content is still relatively simple threaded discussions.
What I took away most from my trip to Korea was the opportunity that is emerging in that market. Politically, Asian countries are becoming more progressive, as is evidenced by their leanings in the US election. Most of the barriers to social media adoption can be cured politically as governments become more progressive, which I believe is somewhat inevitable. Then there is the simple fact that broadband penetration is, overall, much more successful than it is in our market and the online population in China alone is going to leave us in the dust.
If I was a VC, and thankfully I am not, I would focus more on the companies that rolling out new technology in enormous untapped markets than the legions of Web 2.0 companies that are pumping technology into oversaturated markets in the US.
Update – Sam Flemming, who is more of an expert than I in these markets, corrected a few of my thoeries in the comments and also offered this excellent link to an article he wrote about how the market is changing in China.