Social Media Overseas
A recent article on how young people use social media ‘Teenager’s View on Social Media’, by Andrew Watts - became so popular that it was reposted or mentioned by the likes of Business Insider, TechCrunch and Reddit. The author soon published a second part and then really grabbed the attention of analysts and media professionals. One of them, Danah Boyd, pointed out some flaws in Andrew’s stories. Probably the most important problem Boyd diagnosed was the way in which Watts equalized users across various geographical, income and racial segments. While teenagers today are becoming more and more alike in how they communicate and act, new technologies penetrate markets at very distinct rates – depending on users’ existing habits, needs and sometimes the prevailing political regimes.
In this article I will show how disparity in incomes, access to information and differences in political views shape the popularity of particular social networks. While I am a little bit older that the audience I am referring to (I confess to being born in the mid-90s), I will try to depict this population at a whole, be stay unbiased and remain ‘above the battle.’ This is partly a skill developed by writing on various topics, but also partly due to the fact that I have been following these cases for a while and know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While the American market is undoubtedly the largest and the most attractive for research, I want to touch on a different one: Russia. Being Europe’s largest market by number of users, its growth is highly dependent on the relations that tech companies are fostering with the government, as well as on the information that governments are trying to communicate to citizens and other states. In the last couple of years the founder of the social network Vkontakte (‘In Contact’) was forced out of the country, while other networks are either directly or indirectly controlled through pro-government structures.
Ok, let’s start.
Odnoklassniki (‘Classmates’) was founded in 2006 and became the first ‘real’ social network in Russia. However, in following years it became technologically outdated and no longer met the current standards. Yet its audience appeared to be extremely loyal. Being older than that of other projects (29% of the users are in 25-34 age category, 22% – between 35 and 44, and 17% – between 45 and 54), it remained a resource despite of the changes to the space it occupied. It became so popular amongst less computer-savvy users that they caused problems. The well-known search web-site [Yandex](www.yandex.ru) used to run its own group in Odnoklassniki. And because in Russia, Yandex is Google’s equivalent, people started posting their web queries to the group’s wall, which was visible to everyone. Among advertisements of cheap flats for rent and inquires as diverse as ‘how to treat rhinitis’ or ‘porno for free’, one could find personal information like ID numbers and their expiry dates. It created a lot of hype in the Russian segment of the Internet and repeatedly certified the status of Odnoklassniki as a network for elderly people living outside of major cities (essentially, Moscow and St. Petersburg) who were incapable of differentiating between totally different services. During Russia’s invasion to Ukraine, Odnoklassniki became a citadel of pro-Russian users fully supporting the existing regime and reposting pro-state TV messages. As a reminder, all television channels are currently controlled by the government and are extremely successful in brainwashing. There is nothing interesting there for citizens who are reasonably educated.
And I can confirm this outlook. Odnoklassniki is considered out-of-fashion in the age group ‘12 to 17’. Nobody cares about it. Basically, you can assume that this social network is facing the same problems Facebook in encountering in the US: an exodus of younger generations. Why? While generation Z doesn’t want to see their relatives posting something awkward on their walls, Russians are just not getting features they can get in other ways: unlimited media in Vkontakte or the ease and speed of Twitter. In the last year, more and more people became less reluctant to accept what the government is doing on the international scene and how the country is perceived by outsiders. Odnoklassniki doesn’t provide this point of view.
To attract users born in the 90s, Odnoklassniki rebranded the web site and changed the name to ok.ru partly in order to cater to mobile users (who tend to be younger).
The controversial web site came through numerous changes and alterations but still remains the most lively and discussed: not only because of the recognizable founder Pavel Durov, famous for his liberal ideas, but also because the network is constantly evolving, rebuilding itself and resisting the various adverse forces floating around it.
In a last few years, VK found a balance by acquiring users across various social layers: from those who support a military intervention into Ukraine to hardcore anime fans. But the common denominator that still attracts everyone is an endless amount of illegal music and movies. Even in 2015, after numerous trials and investigations, one can find virtually any music album or movie that’s ever existed. The previous version of the mobile application allowed to stream everything on-the-go. Imagine – limitless and free Spotify and Netflix in one app!
Moreover, recently a DIY approach led to emergence of dozens of pages (they are called ‘publics’ in VK’s universe) devoted to topics as diverse as witch houses (with some high-quality playlists and reviews), moonscape photos or possessing the name ‘high-boots of a big sister.’ They virtually substituted traditional printed magazines and web sites with reviews responding to users’ demands quicker. VK, who initially copied Facebook and its interface but later reinvented itself thanks to the convenient API, gained enormous amount of content and a user-friendly interface that was much easier to use. With almost 55 million monthly users it is the most popular social network in Russia.
The network developed by Mail.ru, an Internet conglomerate, which started as a mail service, is the dark horse of this list. While this report shows that it is the third largest network (Disclaimer: the report is prepared by Mail.ru; however the data is provided by TNS), I cannot understand who the active users are. It seems to be an older audience that uses mail.ru accounts (which automatically provides access to the network) with interests centered around households and daily activities. To me, it is an analogue of Google+ - another social network that simply wasn’t able to gain traction among users.
While in the US Facebook is losing its popularity, in Russia its momentum is not yet fully discovered. Not everyone possesses an account here, and the network is still regarded as at least quasi-elite. After the death of LiveJournal, the majority of users willing to type lengthy topics flip-flopped over to Facebook. While this platform isn’t ideal for 300+ letter posts, you can frequently see lengthy messages and even more lengthy discussions. The range of topics is quite broad: from feminism in local suburban trains to the falling Ruble. Also, in the last couple of years, the generation born after 1985 became obsessed with startups and running their own businesses. Eventually therefore, Facebook became a place for informal advertising and bragging about not-yet-launched projects. And because Russian society doesn’t usually tolerate others’ success, lots of ironic and often jealous comments are being poured out in these threads. What starts as a friendly discussion often ends with contracts being broken because of dirty things accidentally exposed in public. The reason for such heated debates going online is probably that Russia - for a long time - was lacking public places for discussion, meet-ups, networking sessions or conferences.
Such online interactions lead to another interesting case: people are adding their business partners as friends on Facebook. LinkedIn is not popular at all, so an active networker (her occupation should include the words “CEO” and “Co-founder”) might have more friends on Facebook than an average undergraduate student from, say, Ohio University. A tendency not to separate private from professional prompted a situation when ‘friends-only’ photos from parties aren’t perceived as something improper by a potential employer.
All this puts Facebook into a category that is usually taken by LinkedIn outside of Russia. It also became a place for more high level debates, with a lot of opinion makers posting on it on a regular basis.
The younger generation (from 1993 on) follows favorite musicians or computer games and participates in contests on Facebook, too.
Probably the only service that has usage patterns which coincide with those of the Western Hemisphere. It is basically on course to become the new Facebook: people post, comment and like various personal things here. A free plugin allows cross-posting to VKontakte (all other networks already have in-built support). In the last few months, I encountered more and more private profiles, which means that users are posting very personal stuff. Instagram remains the land of the young: this is strange, given how basic the interface is. Probably because most of the photos need editing in order to look good, less tech-savvy people are reluctant to use the service more often. Some users – primarily 17-26 year old females – have built their brand on Instagram. By acquiring tens or even hundreds of thousand of followers (for which you need to be in shape and be willing to post some provocative photos) such Instagram models generate interest from local fashion stores and sometimes even international companies that sign advertising contracts with the models (or at least support them with free product). Historically, Instagram has been free of advertising (and even now the occasional promoted posts do not really distract), but nowadays advertising comes from users themselves. Any popular Instagrammer might expect dozens of spammy comments such as ‘get a Schengen visa fast’ once they get enough followers. This might eventually turn someone away. Another obstacle that has grown from service’s popularity is a high level of entropy. Once you tag your photo using a popular hashtag (let’s say ‘New York’ or ‘Latergram’), you can be sure that your photo will go down the list immediately – so many snapshots are made and tagged every second that only a very relentless user is going to scroll down to your photograph. This makes it hard to build a fun base, because people might like your photos but still be hesitant to follow you.
Twitter is an instrument of the political sphere first and a mockery tool for high school graduates second. It is a powerful gizmo if you set up your newsfeed in the most condensed and compelling way, but kids usually utilize it for mocking others and retweeting jokes. Political activists, however, use Twitter as a messaging service, which allows them to quickly convene groups of people and broadcast information on the municipal and national levels. The revolution in Egypt became possible because of Twitter; Russia is in a similar situation. When access to TV and radio is fully controlled by the ruling party, and when web sites are shut down on the grounds that they favor overthrowing those in power, Twitter remains a relatively safe and fast tool to use. Recent street protests were closely linked to Twitter hashtags, and a lot of them made the “Trending” list of Twitter topics.
While in the US Twitter is more popular among Afro-American users, there is no correlation like that in Russia, nor are there any gender and age spikes. Twitter remains a limited tool for those who are interested in tech and for politically and socially active peers.
FourSquare enjoyed very limited penetration in big cities with developed infrastructure but has never grown into something more tangible. After the application was divided into two – FourSquare and Swarm – usage rates went down.
YouTube has never been perceived as a social network but rather as a point of access for shorter video clips (for motion pictures and music albums VKontakte works better, remember?). In the last couple of years new movies and TV shows have been released on YouTube, which has attracted the attention of older (22+) users that are more conscious about piracy.
One of the most powerful social networks has never taken off in Russia because of the cultural differences. While in the US the concept of networking is widely known, overseas simple cronyism is much more popular. Nobody would agree to have a phone conversation with an unknown person (even if you have common online connections). However, if you are introduced with a good word put in from a mutual friend, the connection can immediately lead to a job offer (even if you are clearly not the well-qualified candidate). Ultimately, such personal relations lead to connections on Facebook rather on LinkedIn. So who still creates profiles? Mainly high-achievers from strong undergraduate institutions (and mainly majoring in economics, accounting and finance), who land their first job in the investment banking or consulting industries and who are already targeting business schools as their next step. So, if Russia had an Ivy League, each alumnus and all prospective students would be on LinkedIn.
WhatsApp is a convenient app to use when one is travelling. About 82% of Russian citizens don’t possess an international passport (it means they can’t travel outside of Russia - not counting some neighboring countries), but WhatsApp became popular among international students and migrant workers. However, these seasonal employees don’t fall under the age categories we are interested in.
It is a hit in every American university – GroupMe is available on any platform, has different settings and is easy to use at the same time. In Russian colleges, it is not so widely accepted. Why? Again, because of the cultural differences and contrasts in the study process. Education in Russia is not so group-centered, homework is usually done personally at home or a dorm, not in groups. That’s why those who are the largest category in the USA aren’t really covered in Russia.
Communities and web sites that grew into networks Sports.ru
An important sports web site, which developed a strong base of committed users that are creating a substantial chunk of material. Sports.ru showed that user-generated content could be a sound foundation for a prospering web site. In future I see sports.ru as a platform for over-the-top broadcasting, but clearly the social factor won’t be so critical for its success.
Lifehacker meets reddit. Add some technological flavor. Get a Mecca of techie dudes. Questions about programming, APIs and web design attract skinny folks around the country that know how to deal with a machine much better than with a human being. I thought that the site’s popularity would go up in lights because of the widespread craze of learning how to program, but it didn’t happen.
Look At Me
What started as a WDYWT blog, eventually inaugurated the era of ‘digital-first-and-only’ media houses. Initially, Look At Me wrote about concert tours and movie premiers in Moscow, but later broadened its perspective, launched additional web sites (Village – about events in major cities, Hopes & Fears – about entrepreneurship and business, FurFur – men’s magazine, Wonderzine – for females), started providing services as an ad agency. Lookatme.ru has lost some of its communications features (editors turned off comments under looks posted in the WDYWT section – it was the most discussed one, often with hundreds of haters) but obtained a digital chic with its classy design and topics like ‘The Fermi Paradox’ or ‘Scientist answer your questions about soils.’ But what’s important is that the LAM team created a number of products that attract and engage a huge chunk of uses between 15 and 25 years old across the whole country – the most loyal, optimistic, energetic and funky audience – given how disperse and localized Russia is, it is an unthinkable achievement. It is something that GQ, Esquire, Cosmo PlayBoy, Rolling Stone or MTV have never achieved – unlike a startup that started with a couple of street fashion photos.
Here is why research and analytical think-tanks get paid: You can never extrapolate from your own common knowledge all the way to other regions and countries. In the cases described above, the local social network surpassed Facebook because of illegal content, Twitter is a political instrument but GroupMe has never become really big. Before nailing any audience, make sure that you understand its habits and background.