How farmers in Myanmar shape the future of the web

The Atlantic pub­lished The Face­book-Lov­ing Farm­ers of Myan­mar this week. It’s a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly inter­est­ing write-up by Craig Mod of ethno­graph­ic research he under­took in the South­east-Asian coun­try. What makes that mar­ket so par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing is that Myanmar’s net­work was until recent­ly arti­fi­cial­ly capped and con­trolled by the rul­ing mil­i­tary jun­ta, but a vast num­ber of peo­ple have sud­den­ly come online as the price of a SIM card plum­met­ed:

Mobile SIM cards in Myan­mar have his­tor­i­cal­ly been pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive. In 2014, the cost of a SIM card dropped from about $2,000 USD to $200 USD and then once again, to $1.50 USD.

In a coun­try of 53 mil­lion peo­ple, only 12% had access to cell net­works in 2014. By this year, the government’s plan is to have 74% online. That’s a huge influx of users, and large­ly in rur­al areas. The phones of this new wave of net­worked farm­ing users are com­mon­ly import­ed from Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ers, often bought sec­ond-hand. The biggest imped­i­ment to using the inter­net is the cost of data:

They feel each megabyte. For about 10 U.S. cents you can pur­chase 25MB of data. If you buy in bulk (although almost nobody does) you can get 2GB of data for 11,900 Myan­mar Kyat or about $9.20 USD. Most farm­ers grab dataon their scratch cards in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 Kyat chunks. How long it lasts depends on the user. For some 3,000 Kyats gets them through the month. For oth­ers, it lasts only a few days.

What the research dis­cov­ers is that every­one is on Facebook—and often noth­ing else, except per­haps a mes­sag­ing app. The rea­son has lit­tle to do with the social graph, and more with that data restric­tion:

Face­book has a com­pelling advan­tage over oth­er news apps or even Twit­ter: The con­tent of many posts and news items live inside Face­book itself. There are exter­nal links, but most of the arti­cle sum­maries and pho­tos are self con­tained. As Face­book con­tin­ues to ramp up their Instant Articles—special ver­sions of web arti­cles that are lean­er, load more quick­ly, and are Face­book optimized—the amount of con­tent that lives in Face­book will only increase. For those who are data sen­si­tive, this is a clear virtue.

I wrote recent­ly about Twitter’s planned move to allow 10,000 char­ac­ters in tweets, quot­ing Will Oremus’s arti­cle Twit­ter Isn’t Rais­ing the Char­ac­ter Lim­it. It’s Becom­ing a Walled Gar­den. and its con­tention that:

If I’m right about what’s real­ly going on here, this move will not fun­da­men­tal­ly alter how Twit­ter looks or feels, nor how peo­ple use it. Rather, it will change where online con­tent is host­ed, who con­trols it, and who is in a posi­tion to mon­e­tize it.

I’m not naïve enough to think there’s def­i­nite­ly not an ele­ment of con­trol involved, but my orig­i­nal response was “it’s prob­a­bly more com­pli­cat­ed than that”, and I still think that way. To me this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about monetising—not yet, at least—but more about being rel­e­vant. Twit­ter are tak­ing a look at the emerg­ing mar­ket and see­ing them­selves with no place in it. Right now, it’s not even a com­pe­ti­tion.

The oth­er com­pa­ny that stands to lose big from this is Google—the open web pow­ers pret­ty much every­thing it does, so los­ing out to Face­book on the next bil­lion online users would be dev­as­tat­ing to its busi­ness. Hence they’re push­ing Accel­er­at­ed Mobile Pages (AMP), a strict and opti­mised sub­set of HTML aimed at pub­lish­ing sto­ries with­out lega­cy adver­tis­ing and track­ing cruft. AMP is set to launch next month, with Twit­ter on board as a part­ner.

Why employ a strict sub­set of HTML rather than get­ting pub­lish­ers to clean up their acts and pro­duce bet­ter-opti­mised pages? Time. Although per­for­mance is a hot top­ic in web devel­op­ment cir­cles, web pages con­tin­ue to get heav­ier. It will take more time to cor­rect that, and the rapid growth of mar­kets like Myan­mar shows that time is an ill-afford­ed lux­u­ry.


Also pub­lished on Medi­um.