Props, Mark Zuckerberg

A study on Facebook use where internet does not exist

One thumb, way up

As if he and his pet project, Facebook, don’t get enough praise for facilitating the instant (and free) connection between more than 800 MILLION people worldwide, I would also like to applaud him and his $45 BILLION dollar jumble of 1’s and 0’s for successfully finding a way into the lives of people who not only don’t have personal computers, but who also do not have access to the internet.  More specifically, the lives of those living in rural Ecuador.  How DOES he do it?

I know this topic is a little off kilter from my usual blog posting repertoire, but I just wrapped up a 3-month study on the adoption of social media in rural Ecuador and what I found was actually pretty interesting.  (Relax, I don’t normally go around Ecuador doing random studies for schnitzel and giggles, but I had the opportunity to do a directed Spanish Language study for my graduate degree and decided to go for it.)

Anyway, the most interesting result was that while only 72% of those surveyed have access to internet in their home towns, more than 92% indicated that they use some form of social media – namely Facebook.  At first, 9/10 seemed about right to me.   Most everyone I know (except Alex uses some form of social networking site, so I figured it would be the same in Ecuador.  Then I did a little more digging, and now that 92% figure has managed to blow me out of the water.  Here are a few reasons why:

  • Ecuador was not connected to the international fiber optic broadband network, AKA really fast internet, until 2007
  • Most of the rural survey respondents’ towns did not receive access to any internet until late 2009 or 2010
  • 2/3 of respondents who use internet do not have access to a personal / household computer
  • More than 50% indicated that they mainly use cyber cafes for all their internet needs
  • Facebook was not even offered in the Spanish language until 2008
  • The study showed no significant differences in the adoption of social media between urban and rural areas.
  • Even though Facebook and other social networking  sites have been around in the US since 2003, only 2/3 of online Americans use social media

So in a nut shell, not only is anyone and everyone with an internet connection in Ecuador signing up for social networking sites, but even those without internet are literally seeking out ways to get an account and making time (and spending  lots of money) at internet cafes to sign on to sites like Facebook, Hi5, Badoo, and Sonico quite regularly.

To give these facts and figures a little more perspective, imagine you’re from Mondaña, Ecuador.  You’re still not connected to the national electricity grid, and cell phones rarely get decent service – then all of a sudden the Yachana Foundation installs wireless internet services for the local schools.  A week ago it was difficult to communicate with the other side of the river, but now that you’ve created an account on Facebook  you can pretty much communicate with the rest of the world.  Whoa.

Talk about leap-frogging communication technologies…

The implications of this are massive, both in the positive and negative sense.  On the positive side, I’ve seen individuals connect with their loved ones working in the US and Spain and discover long lost family members around Ecuador (Ecuadorian families usually roll about 100-deep…).  A few of those surveyed even use Facebook to promote their small businesses.

And then there’s the negative side.  Let me start by explaining that one of the predominant uses of social networks in Ecuador is meeting new people.    As Americans, this is difficult for us to culturally relate to as we tend to use social networks mainly for keeping in touch with our existing circle of friends and family members.

In a perfect world this “cocktail party” approach to Facebook would be all fine and good, except for the fact that many of the students I surveyed admit to uploading personal information, including phone number and address, to their profile pages.  When asked if they use Facebook’s privacy controls or if they knew how many people had access to this personal information, most of them looked at me like I had seven heads.

This is no bueno – especially when more than 1/10 of any given user’s “friends” are “desconocidos,” or complete strangers.   Add in a national firewall system that’s about as strong as wet noodle as you’ve got a recipe for some intense cybercrime.  In fact, identify theft, spamming, and spyware installation by way of social network mediums is one of the top crimes in Ecuador right now.

So what’s the solution?  I vote for host responsibility and increased education.  In a country that literally skipped chat rooms, dial-up, AIM and all other archaic internet applications, the learning curve is a bit steeper than it was in the past and ignorance will only lead to short-lived bliss when it comes to the ever present threat of viruses and cyber criminals.

So Mr. Zuckerberg, I know you’re all for the “opt-in” approach when it comes to Facebook privacy, but I think it would actually be good for business to have one of your 3,000 employees create an “opt-out” privacy tutorial for new members who in addition to being new to Facebook, are also new to the world wide web.  I know Ecuador is just a tiny country, but multiple negative user experiences in similar emerging markets around the world could create some problemas down the road.

And while we’re on the subject of business, we also can’t overlook the huge opportunity that the rapid emergence of social media has created in Ecuador.  For entrepreneurs, social media not only represents a new (economical) interface to engage and connect with consumers, but the social networking wave has also created tons of new jobs and businesses in web marketing and digital media.

So, Mark,  I know you’re dealing a few other issues at the moment (can we say ‘whoops!’), so it’s okay if you don’t get to my little suggestions for Facebook in rural Latin America right away.  But for now, you definitely have my and the rest of Ecuador’s “like.”