Social media's rise as 'loudspeaker'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am

Social media, all but non-existent at the time of handover 15 years ago, has since evolved into a powerful loudspeaker for the city's internet users.

It has allowed Hongkongers' long-held passions for everything from food to activism to flourish.

Last Sunday's July 1 march, for instance, was partly galvanised by social media. It saw tens of thousands of Hongkongers voice their discontent with the government on the anniversary of the city's return to China. The strong turnout - especially among the youths - was partly the result of the organising capacity that social media affords an increasingly web-savvy community, regardless of age or social status.

'People were very politically aware in 1997, but they didn't know how to share it,' said Napoleon Biggs, a social media commentator who first came Hong Kong in 1993. 'You've always had people who have been frustrated, angry, dissatisfied.

'What Facebook, Twitter, and [Sina] Weibo do is rally people and get them to go on the streets,' he said. 'Imagine if we knew the conversations that were happening in 1997.'

Today, 87 per cent of local households have a broadband internet connection, up from 28.6 per cent in 2002, government statistics show.

In 1999, only about 700,000 Hongkongers had internet access through dial-up accounts.

The popularity of smartphones has been playing a crucial role in the growth of social media. In 2002, the city had about 75,000 mobile phone subscribers. Today, there are 15.3 million mobile phone accounts in a city with seven million residents - among the highest rates in the world.

In 2003, more than 400 million text messages were sent. Last year, 7.4 billion texts were sent.

'There was a tiny fraction of people who cared about what the internet was about [15 years ago],' Biggs said. 'It just wasn't on people's radars.'

Only those who knew how to work the hardware and configure dial-up connections could access the web.

'It was mainly travelling executives and systems engineers,' Biggs said.

Internet access has grown increasingly convenient, with the number of wi-fi hotspots doubling to more than 10,000 in the last five years.

At the end of 2006, the number of local Facebook users was an estimated 25,000, Biggs said. By then, the fledgling America-based social-networking site had about 12 million users worldwide. 'Hong Kong was lagging behind places like Australia and Singapore, but as soon as the Chinese interface arrived, the whole thing went through the roof,' Biggs said.

There are now 3.7 million Facebook accounts in Hong Kong, says Socialbakers, a social media research company.

The groundswell of angry feet on the city's pavements last Sunday was also a sign of how the friendship networks so valued by Facebook has shifted to suit its users.

'With the evolvement of social web, we are also seeing the rise of the power of friends,' said Jayne Leung, Facebook's regional director for North Asia. 'Instead of searching for information from the web, we are now seeing users look to their friends as a powerful source of information.'

Professional networking site LinkedIn has also seen a rapid increase in users in Hong Kong, with an estimated membership of half a million people. That prompted it to launch a local sales office in April.

John Merakovsky, Experian Marketing Services' managing director for Asia-Pacific, said their data also showed Hongkongers were following mainland websites more closely than before.

'This supports the development of a closer relationship between the people of Hong Kong and mainland China in the 15 years since the handover,' Merakovsky said.


This percentage of local smartphone users went online using their handsets last month, according to Nielsen Research


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