Although social media like Facebook and Twitter are growing in Vietnam in a way they’re not in neighboring China, it’s worth noting that the two are not doing equally well in Vietnam: Facebook is loved in Vietnam while Twitter is ignored. Why is that?
Let’s look at some numbers. Facebook in Vietnam has been adding about one million new users per month. This month last year, Facebook had 12 million users in Vietnam. In January, that number hit 22 million. If the growth has remained stable, it could be around 24 million today. That makes Vietnam one of Facebook’s fastest growing countries.
Tech In Asia contacted Twitter for numbers on its Asian growth, but the San Francisco-based company declined to give numbers. Everything in Vietnam points to Twitter not being so popular. I organize Barcamp Saigon, one of Vietnam’s older and bigger tech events. Last year, we welcomed over 1,700 people. When the audience, largely tech savvy nerds, was asked if they used Twitter, relatively few raised their hands but it was far from being a multitude of users. With Facebook, everyone raised their hands.
Why not Twitter?
For me, it boils down to culture and contemporary history.
If you’re Vietnamese, family members likely recommend to you their favorite tailors, shops, and restaurants. If you want to find a new spot, you’re going to ask your family first and your friends second. This is even more dramatic in terms of relationships and new friendships. When Vietnamese people go out drinking (and we’re talking about the majority of people here), they mainly prefer to go out with friends. This is most noticeable in business, where relationships are essential. It is difficult to get a good deal unless you’ve got the relationships to back it up. This has been a pain point for foreigners who have tried to tackle the Vietnamese market.
At the same time, this kind of culture has made the Vietnamese language colorful. People ask you what your age is so that they can determine what pronoun to use to address you with. The word for “inside” (nội) is the same word used for family members on the father’s side. “Outside” (ngoại) is the word used for family members on the mother’s side. The language reflects an intricate network of relationships. Arguably, this relationship-based language is far more complex than any other language in the region. Most neighboring countries to Vietnam do not have as many personal pronouns and most often use their own form of “you” and “me”, whereas in Vietnamese this is not the case. The language reveals to us how entrenched this relationship thinking is.
This world of relationships has a profound effect on social media. With Twitter, people usually congregate around topics they love and end up meeting and chatting with new people. With Facebook, you update people you have met. With Twitter, the majority of conversations and information is public. With Facebook, the majority of conversations and information occur in isolated circles. Indeed, Facebook’s approach to personal content has increasingly become more public, but at the core, a status update is only shared with your circle of friends. Virality on Facebook only occurs from one circle to the next, whereas virality on Twitter is largely defined by a very public #hashtag.
If you look at how Vietnamese society works, it becomes clear that Twitter could never have made it in Vietnam. Twitter is a place where you chat and maybe even become friends or acquaintances with total strangers. But Vietnamese people, like in every society, need forms of social media that mirror their culture. Vietnamese people don’t want to chat with strangers.