September 15, 2008

Online Network Ties That Bind

By Rozana Sani

TWENTY-something Aliyah's day starts off by checking her mobile phone for any SMS or MMS from friends or family.

When she gets to work, she quickly logs in to Friendster for notices or messages before getting on with work. And while she works, her instant messenger is on for any alerts from colleagues, acquaintances and friends.

During lunch, she checks out a few of her favourite blogs to see what the writers (mainly friends) have been up to. Her phone also has an instant messaging (IM) feature, in case someone needs to chat with her. Her phone is never off; her computer, sometimes.

According to Telenor Research & Innovation Centre Asia Pacific (Tricap)'s head of market research and customer insight Sheena Lim, Aliyah's habits are typical of Malaysian youths aged between 15 and 29, who were surveyed by the organisation over the last 18 months.

Tricap, which is Telenor's first research and innovation facility outside Norway, looked at over 1,175 consumers' mindset on communications and technology as well as social media - which is the sharing of content across social networks using new media such as the mobile phone or PC.

Lim says the research findings reveal unique information and communications technology trends among Malaysian youths regarding the usage of the mobile phone, Internet and social networking platforms such as Facebook and Friendster. The communications tools are used as a faster means of communication, and for convenient information sourcing and sharing.

"Malaysian youths cannot seem to get enough of their friends and will stay in touch through different communications platforms.

The higher the level of closeness, the more communications tools will be used to keep in touch. Those with stronger ties will be on all communications platforms - e-mail, IM, telephone and digital communities.

"New friendships, as they evolve and become stronger, will gradually add new communications channels. It typically starts with a connection on a digital community such as Friendster, then it evolves to communication via IM and finally, to mobile communications such as voice and SMS. That is how youths connect in their social network," Lim observes.

Mobile phone is king

Almost everyone in Malaysia owns a mobile phone, and it has become the indispensable gadget that connects youths to friends, family and other contacts.

On average, the research respondents have 100 contacts in their mobile phone's address book. The mobile phone is so important that it constantly has to be by the individual's side and switched on 24x7.

SMS usage among the respondents also is relatively high, with about 18 SMSes sent per day among Malaysian youths, compared with those in other Asian countries such as Thailand (three), Bangladesh (less than five) and Pakistan (six), where Telenor has operations.

It is surprising to find that there is no difference in SMS usage between Malaysian boys and girls, Lim points out.

Accessing Net everywhere

According to the report, most respondents access the Internet either from Internet cafes, at home, workplace, educational institutions, places with Wi-Fi access, or their mobile phones.

Nearly half of the respondents use the Internet to meet new friends or keep in touch with existing friends (mostly teens). The main vehicle to keep in touch with friends is

The respondents also use IM to flirt, communicate with close friends or keep in touch with family members who are abroad.

"MSN and Yahoo! are the most common IM services. For IM services, Yahoo! Messenger falls slightly behind MSN. The need to go to cybercafes explains why realtime chats are used less than social networks such as Friendster, since services such as Friendster do not require the user to be online all the time," Lim says.

There is also a growing awareness of blogs among Malaysians.

"The majority of participants surveyed only have a profile on Friendster, the No.1 social network for youths in Malaysia. Sixteen per cent of the respondents also registered for similar services such as MySpace, and there is growing interest and following in Facebook.

"While very few respondents have blog sites, 34 per cent visit other people's blogs and of this number, a fifth actively leave comments in the blogs," Lim points out.

She says the main incentive for users to become an active community member is social interaction and exposure.

"For Malaysian youths, who tend to be `homebodies', mobile communications and digital communities are the answer to socialising from home. Friendster has been in Malaysia for seven years, and Facebook has the potential to be the next wave. The respondents state they use Friendster more because `my friends are there'." Lim also highlights that the Friendster network is made from strong and weak ties.

"Strong ties become `close friends' who share thoughts, experiences, memories and emotions. On the other hand, weak ties have less loyalty, but are still valuable with information and attention exchanged among acquaintances, online friends and strangers.

"The Friendster user has an understanding of the need to provide new meanings and experiences to his/her Friendster peers so they do not get bored. Attention from friends and peers is also viewed as a reward in itself," she says.

(c) 2008 New Straits Times. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.