Facebook loses sparkle as Malaysian youth embrace messenger apps

by Boo Su-Lyn
The Malaysian Insider
November 26, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — Fara Halina Rosli updates her Facebook status only once every three days, but the 24-year-old chambering student uses other messaging apps daily to text, and share photographs/cute digital stickers.

Social media analysts say that chat apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk are cutting into the social networking giant’s youth customer base in Malaysia, where the entire Facebook population numbers about 13 million.

“Chat apps offer a higher level of privacy versus Facebook or Twitter,” Jagdish Singh Malhi, social media director at global media company Universal McCann, told The Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.

“Although you can set your privacy level, once you’re friends with a parent, relative or minder, then your personal space is somewhat constricted… In fact, the fastest growing age group on Facebook are the boomers and one of my clients even had her grandma win an iPhone in a Facebook campaign!,” he added.

Facebook admitted last month that its usage among teenagers was dropping, with American business magazine Forbes quoting its chief financial officer David Ebersman saying that the site is witnessing a “decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.”

In Malaysia, teenagers between 13 and 17 years comprise about 14 per cent of the country’s Facebook users, while the largest age group is people aged 18 to 24 years, according to social network monitoring site socialbakers.com.

Fara Halina, who has over 1,000 friends on Facebook, is still on the popular social networking site to keep in touch with friends or acquaintances she does not see regularly, but uses WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk much more frequently, or “most of the time”, citing her distrust of Facebook’s privacy settings and her desire to keep her interactions private.

“I don’t really update much on Facebook,” she told The Malay Mail Online recently.

“I don’t think the privacy settings work on Facebook right now. Most of your status and photos are public. So I think, sometimes, people may (misinterpret). To avoid that kind of issues, it’s better to just keep it very general and not too personal,” added the 24-year-old.

Fara Halina also said that KakaoTalk, WeChat and LINE are far more convenient apps than Facebook Messenger, which she said was “not that good” when it was first launched.

“Sometimes Kakao and WeChat have cute stickers, moving stickers, instead of normal emoticons,” she said.

Fara Halina also said that she regularly engages in group chats on those apps, such as with her schoolmates in one group, but not on Facebook Messenger as it is “not really convenient.”

Jagdish said Facebook messenger was recently revamped to halt the downward trend of teenagers’ Facebook usage, but noted that it has yet to take off.

“I suspect it’s because Facebook is already viewed as ‘my parents are on it’, so they naturally move away to something where their parents are not, instead of thinking ‘how can I go around it on the same platform?’ It’s easier to just switch,” he said.

Goh Su Gim, security advisor for the Asian branch of Finland-based computer security company F-Secure, pinpointed the rapid growth of messaging apps like US’s WhatsApp, China’s WeChat, Japan’s LINE and South Korea’s KakaoTalk in Malaysia to increased smartphone sales over the past two years.

Smartphone penetration went up from 47 per cent in 2012 to 63 per cent this year, according to a study by Ericsson ConsumerLab in South-East Asia released last September.

“FB is still the choice of platform for broadcasting generic posts to a more generic pool of friends, such as sharing their travels and food, or checking in at a location,” Goh told The Malay Mail Online.

“Messaging apps like WeChat, WhatsApp, LINE and KakaoTalk are used mostly to communicate with their closest friends, or first-degree friends, where it is more private, such as a group of friends/ common close friends sharing more private activities together.

Social media analysts say that chat apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk are cutting into the social networking giant’s youth customer base in Malaysia.“Apps like these are now multi-platform (works across iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry) and are able to create personal groups of friends to share activities that are relevant to the group, such as high schools friends, partying drinking buddies, and so on,” he added.

Many of the messaging apps—such as WeChat, KakaoTalk and LINE—do not just do messaging, but they also sport social networking features like games, digital stickers, and music sharing.

The exception is WhatsApp, whose founder Jan Koum was reported by UK daily The Guardian as saying that he does not plan to add games to his service, preferring to focus solely on communication.

Digital culture commentator Niki Cheong said that the boom in messaging apps is due to people wanting to return to more private communications, who are also attracted, at the same time, to novel features like “very cute” emoticons.

“We don’t walk around with loudhailers announcing everything to everyone. There are many things in life we still keep secret, we still talk personally to people we trust and care about,” Cheong told The Malay Mail Online recently.

“The fact is, it’s really not that easy to keep in touch with people on Facebook if you have lots of ‘friends.’ Even Facebook chooses who appears at the top of your chat box. It doesn’t always hit the right targets,” he added.

Cheong also noted that Facebook seems “less exciting these days.”

“Other than uploading photos, updating status and liking other people’s updates—really, what else does Facebook offer? Also, it constantly changes its algorithm on what appears and doesn’t on your timeline so people have to constantly readjust,” said Cheong.

Joanne Lai, a 26-year-old IT support officer, said that she only logs into Facebook once every few days.

“Facebook, there’s too much stuff already, too many ads, sponsored posts. Especially if you use mobile, they always have ads in between posts. That’s annoying,” Lai told The Malay Mail Online.

Lai said that she uses LINE to text and to subscribe to her favourite K-pop artistes, like JYJ and 2NE1.

“LINE is more user-friendly if I want to follow specific people, rather than Facebook,” she said.

Wind Koh, LINE Malaysia head, said that LINE features the official accounts of various celebrities, sports clubs, and local radio and TV stations for people to subscribe to the latest news.

He declined to reveal the number of LINE users in Malaysia as he deemed it sensitive business information, but pointed out that LINE Malaysia’s official account has over four million subscribers since it opened here in April this year.

“The trend is moving towards mobiles. Facebook was originally designed for the PC (personal computer), not mobile. We started from mobile,” Koh told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“Not only messenger apps, but also Instagram. That’s why they purchased Instagram,” he added.

Facebook bought the photo-sharing network last year for US$1 billion (RM 3.2 billion).

It also recently tried to purchase the evanescent photo-sharing app Snapchat—which deletes a photo within seconds after it is viewed—for US$3 billion (RM9.6 billion), but was turned down, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Snapchat, however, does not appear to be popular here, according to LINE Malaysia and Kakao Malaysia.

Koh said that LINE’s key attraction feature is the stickers of its popular characters like Moon, Cony the rabbit and Brown the bear. LINE has over 10,000 stickers and its designers come up with new stickers twice a week.

“Among teens, the most popular thing is the games,” he said, noting that LINE offers over 30 games for free.

Although the games are free, users typically purchase various things to get to the next level in a game, making games the main source of revenue for LINE. Some of its stickers are also free, but most are sold at US$1.99 (RM6.40) for a set of 40.

“Our stickers are a very good way to communicate. They’re very expressive,” said Koh, pointing out that Moon has varied expressions, while Cony represents the typical “office lady” who diets every day, and Brown expresses himself through body language.

He said that LINE, which has 300 million users worldwide as announced by LINE Corporation yesterday, plans to localise its popular characters for the Malaysian market, such as putting Cony and Brown in Hari Raya costumes, or Moon in a Santa Clause outfit.

“We’re still a messaging app… (but) we’re trying to enter the social market. That’s why we have a timeline. Everybody knows there’s a huge market in messaging,” said Koh.

WhatsApp has 300 million monthly active users globally, which may be beaten by WeChat which is estimated to have reached that mark in April 2013, according to a Forbes August report. KakaoTalk follows behind at 120 million users globally. Facebook reached 1.11 billion users worldwide in March.

Mellissa Lee, Kakao Malaysia senior vice president, said that KakaoTalk’s distinctive feature is games that users can play with their friends.

“We’re working with local developers for games and local designers for emoticons,” Lee told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“Kakao Friends are free emoticons…Frodo the dog, Apeach, Tube the duck, Muzi the radish, Jay-G, Neo the cat. Our characters are very strong,” she added.

Like LINE, KakaoTalk’s main revenue generators are its games and emoticons.

Lee said that KakaoTalk has three million users in Malaysia after it was launched in June, just less than half a year ago.

“We are growing at a very, very fast speed,” she noted.

“From what we see, Facebook has too many things right now. If you have 500 friends, they’re posting updates and news that are not relevant to you. You see a lot of ads, sponsored posts,” she added.

Lee pointed out that messaging apps, on the other hand, are “a lot more private”, which means that “you don’t have to filter your content anymore.”

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