Last week, a few local users of Twitter began complaining that they’d suddenly discovered they could no longer access the microblogging platform in Vietnam under certain local ISPs and 3G services. At Tech In Asia, staffer Anh-Minh Do, who covers the Vietnam beat, asked “Did Twitter Just Get Blocked in Vietnam?” Do reported that, “A mild DNS block, which surfaced a few days ago, appears to be preventing people from accessing Twitter on certain ISPs.” A brief flurry of fact-checking and speculation ensued among a small clique of the Twitterati in Vietnam, the upshot being that most users (including those at Vietmeme) have had no difficulty at all either accessing or sending tweets, and the “block” — if indeed it is such — seems to be limited to VNPT, one of the big three state-owned Internet service providers in the nation.
Whether or not Twitter actually is being blocked by one or more providers in Vietnam, it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to suspect, with some justification, that it is. In November 2009, local ISPs and mobile Internet providers all began quietly blocking access to Facebook at the DNS level, presumably at the direction of the Ministry of Information and Communication. That was back when Vietnamese users were still discovering the world’s biggest social network and were migrating to it in droves from the recently shuttered Yahoo360+. At that time, Facebook use was probably still well under a couple of million — just a tiny fraction of the approximately 31 million Vietnamese netizens. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth from local users and a tsunami of indignant attention from the international news media, the government never officially acknowledged restricting access to the Big Blue — but neither did they ever deny it with much sincerity, either. Today, that light block remains, strengthened on occasion, as during meetings of the National Assembly. Despite that, there are now 22 million Vietnamese people on Facebook — more than 71% of the country’s active Internet users.
So it hardly strains the limits of plausibility that even a mild, scattershot restriction on Twitter might be part of a larger, more coordinated pre-emptive effort on behalf of wary officials here. Any one of them can easily look north over the border into China to see what a nightmare widespread use of a popular microblogging service — in that case, Weibo — can be for control-minded old-school communist types. If Chinese officials could somehow go back in time and block not just Twitter, as they did in 2008 following the Sichuan earthquake, but Weibo as well, they’d surely do so in the blink of an eye. The hundreds of millions of people using Weibo in China today have become an ersatz civil society there larger than the population of the United States, forcing transparency and public accountability upon government and military officials, creating a powerful alternative news media, and generally being a royal pain in the ass to everyone in a position of leadership and publicly-funded comfort who would prefer old-fashioned top-down control.
But Vietnam doesn’t have to go back in time to achieve that. They have only to implement a block on Twitter, and what few local clones have gained any traction to date, before microblogs gain widespread popularity here. Which may be precisely what they’re doing.
“If Chinese officials could somehow go back in time and block not just Twitter, as they did in 2008 following the Sichuan earthquake, but Weibo as well, they’d surely do so in the blink of an eye.”
Just how many Twitter users there are in Vietnam is anyone’s guess, though most estimates clock in well below a million. In 2012 an official Twitter count put local accounts at just 200,000. Local clone Mimo claims 2.5 million active members, though there’s no sure way to corroborate that figure. It’s become conventional wisdom that Vietnam is simply not interested in Twitter and microblogs. Which begs the question, Why not? Disinterest is certainly not an Asian thing. If Sina and Tencent are to be believed, the number of Weibo users in China approaches 100% of Internet users there. Twitter is used by 64% of those online in Indonesia (2.4% of the world’s tweets come from Jakarta) and 30% of Japan’s netizens. The Philippines boasts a Twitter penetration of 25.6%.
At the same time, according to Facebook’s numbers Vietnam is that social network’s fastest growing country on earth. Why the different uptake rates here between the two popular social networks?
One reason that’s been suggested is that Facebook is a people-driven social network, and Twitter/microblogs are content-driven social networks. Vietnamese people are very social, and it’s possible that what matters most to them is people, rather than content. In other words, who is saying something may be more important to them that what is being said. Twitter allows its users to post under nicknames and usernames, which Facebook does not. Not knowing who’s on the other end of a post may not have much appeal in such a status- and hierarchy-obsessed culture.
But that presents a bit of a paradox, as Twitter allows a much more intimate, personal connection with high-profile names like celebrities than Facebook does. It’s possible that feature hasn’t been effectively communicated by Twitter and its clones, or by Vietnamese celebrities, most of whom seem not to have met a promotional tool they couldn’t love.
Another point: Vietnamese are very conservative, in tech adoption as in all things. They were attached to LiveJournal 6-7 years ago, then were voracious users of a social network called Yahoo360+ (available only in Vietnam for a time). When Yahoo360+ was taken offline in 2008, they were quite slow to move to Facebook. Vietnam lacks a culture of eager, early adopters they way you might see in mother more developed nations.
“What takes 140 words to say in English can take a Vietnamese person twice that to say in Vietnamese.”
It’s often said that Vietnamese people are naturally wordy and voluble; what takes 140 words to say in English can take a Vietnamese person twice that to say in Vietnamese. It’s possible Vietnamese are repelled by the restrictive 140-character limit of Twitter and other microblogs. This is obviously true everywhere, but perhaps it’s especially true in Vietnam, where if it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying at length.
(This points up an interesting difference between Vietnam and China’s huge microblog popularity, with 500 million Weibo users: 140 Roman characters — used for both English and Vietnamese — is quite limiting. But 140 Chinese characters can convey paragraphs of information, as each ideogram can have a sentence’s worth of meaning.)
Finally, there’s also the fact that smartphone chat apps like Viber, Line, KakaoTalk, and WeChat are all increasingly innovating into Twitter’s space in Asia. These apps, which are enormously popular in Vietnam (excepting China-developed WeChat) combine instant messaging with social networks. “We face competition from well established competitors in certain international markets, including Kakao in South Korea and Line in Japan,” Twitter noted in its IPO filings a few weeks ago. All of them have been adding Twitter-like features, such as official accounts for companies and public figures that allow them to distribute promotional messages to followers. It’s possible Twitter has missed the boat in Vietnam, and that local users have leapfrogged past the platform onto the New New Thing.
“In an instant, an ordinary citizen can launch a public debate or shame government and corporate officials by posting photos, videos, comments and messages.”
Even Silicon Valley took its sweet time in embracing Twitter; few people had any idea what to do with it from 2006, when it was founded, until, suddenly, they did. Likewise, the Chinese were sluggish in grasping the uses to which they might put the Twitter clones that sprang up there four years ago. But once they did, the versatility of such simple, mobile, networked tools for transparency and, yes, even protest, became clear, despite the Chinese governments bests efforts at censoring content and propagandizing their use. In an instant, an ordinary citizen can launch a public debate or shame government and corporate officials by posting photos, videos, comments and messages. It might be crowdsourced photos of polluted waterways throughout the nation, or snapshots of expensive watches on corrupt mid-level bureaucrats, or a blistering discussion of food safety issues, or an ever-changing menagerie of homonyms, puns and wordplay to get messages across in the face of censorship (an estimated 13% of all social media posts, according to a Harvard study last year).
None of the things that might be preventing Vietnamese from falling in love with microblogs are unique to Vietnam. Diplomatic disagreements aside, Vietnam has more in common with Chinese culture than any nation in the world, and it’s a safe bet that as the Sinosphere goes, so goes Vietnam’s Internet culture — eventually. And that may be exactly what local officials are afraid of.