Why Facebook faces the Myspace graveyard in Asia (and Line, Instagram and Twitter don't)

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In Indonesia - Southeast Asia's largest economy, with a population of 265 million - Facebook is faced with an unexpected dead end. After 12 years of super-charged global growth, the tech champion with a US$414 billion (S$560 billion) market cap that began life on university campuses has become the social media of choice for "old" people.

Indeed, it appears to be losing its allure among its core demographic: the young, educated and upwardly mobile. In fact, many younger users have just stopped logging in.

The reason? It's simple. The "kids" apparently see Facebook as clunky and outdated. Its tiresome algorithms prioritise family and friends over more interesting content.

Of course, there are still markets where Facebook remains dominant. In Myanmar, some 91 per cent of internet users frequent the site. Whether this level of penetration can be sustained as users in Yangon, Mandalay and beyond become more sophisticated is another matter.

Elsewhere, Facebook's well-publicised problems with data security and hate speech haven't helped, but in much of ASEAN, such concerns have barely registered. Users in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur have little idea about the allegations against Sheryl Sandberg of "lean in" fame. We are so used to hypocrites that we hardly notice.

Facebook's real problem, however, is that it's BORING.

With dinosaurs like MySpace, Bebo and Friendster already condemned to the digital graveyard, could this be the beginning of the end for Facebook?

As I sat down for lunch back in December with a group of college students from one of Indonesia's premier tertiary institutions, Gadjah Mada University in the cultural capital of Yogyakarta, their views on Mark Zuckerberg's start-up, turned lifestyle symbol, were clear.

Rully Satria, a 20-year-old college student from Padang, considers Facebook passe: "I haven't used it in a while. The times that I do - which are rare - I'll check up on how my family [and] relatives have been doing."

In Indonesia, 19- to 34-year-olds constitute 50 per cent of all internet users. Most millennials, like Rully, have grown up with the internet. However, in 2018, the largest number of new Facebook users were aged between 45 to 55. Indeed, it has become the domain of millennials' parents and grandparents.

"Only my parents, aunts and uncles are still using it," Rully adds.

Facebook is primarily a web-based platform, made for desktop users. Newer social media applications are exclusive to smartphones, which require a different kind of fluency. And the more complex smartphone interface provides millennials with a blanket of security.

Once a bastion of free speech, recent government and military intervention has also often forced Facebook to bend the knee, to the detriment of human rights.

In Vietnam, the restriction of "toxic" anti-government content on the site has alienated activists and silenced free speech. Meanwhile Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, has used fake Facebook accounts to incite genocide against the Muslim Rohingya.

In this age of mass data harvesting, anonymity has become a priority for many internet users. Reports linking Facebook with the controversial Cambridge Analytica have tarnished the site's public image.

The fact that Zuckerberg's brainchild has been known to sell personal information to advertising companies deepens the distrust. On the other hand, Twitter and Instagram don't rely on personal information, giving a greater feeling of privacy.

"I don't want them to know about my social life," says Rully.

So, where is everyone moving to? In Indonesia, Instagram, LINE and Twitter are viewed as much more stylish and streamlined. Moreover, many users find Facebook's algorithms to be random and disjointed.

"Political figures and celebrities are also more active on Twitter. The 140-character limit makes posts a lot more readable," says Probo, a 23-year-old recent graduate.

LINE, the Japanese-owned messaging service, has become immensely popular in Thailand. LINE TODAY, its daily news platform, boasts a user base of well over 32 million in the Southeast Asian country alone.

In contrast, Facebook's "News Literacy" programme, launched last year, hasn't generated much excitement.

Rully, for instance, turns to Instagram for his daily news, "Tirto.id, Opini.id and Beritagar offer infographics which are more informative and interesting to me."

Yet according to Adryz Ariffin, a social media marketing executive based in Southeast Asia, this shift away from Facebook hasn't had an immediate impact on digital marketing. "Facebook still has the most returns and reach. For most Southeast Asians, it's their first point of contact with the internet, " he says.

Facebook and Google continue to dominate online advertising markets in Southeast Asia, of which "Indonesia is the biggest", according to Adryz. "Vietnam and Myanmar are growing, but aren't on the map yet," he says.

Even Adryz concedes that he has left the platform and predicts that in five years or so, it will no longer be number one.

Maybe what we're seeing is not so much the "death" of Facebook as its dethronement. It was once the king of social media. For some people, it was social media back in the day.

But in most of Southeast Asia, that's no longer the case. Can an old dog still learn new tricks? We'll have to see.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.