BANGKOK, Thailand — Many Americans have already watched with fascination (and sometimes horror) as Facebook absorbed their aunt, supervisor and ill-advised summer fling into one interconnected matrix.
With nearly half the U.S. population on Facebook, the social network’s omnipresence is almost passe. In Asia, however, the social network is still exploding, and with no end in sight.
Have a Facebook account? You are a few clicks away from Nay Si Thu, the Burmese leader of the “Yangon Drift” street racing crew. And model Hwang Mi Hee, peeking from behind auburn bangs in photos posted from Pyongyang, North Korea. And more than half of Singapore.
Asia is Facebook’s fastest-growing region, home to roughly 112 million of its 580 million users worldwide, according to Facebook statistics.
In the last 24 months, the network has seen quadruple-digit growth in Malaysia (1,000 percent), Thailand (4,000 percent) and Taiwan (7,500 percent). As of 2010, the largest Facebook population outside America is no longer the United Kingdom. It’s Indonesia, an archipelago where 80 percent still lack Internet access.
“Facebook has swept across the Asian region in a way no other web property has done. Ever,” said Thomas Crampton, social media analyst and Asia Pacific director of the 360 Digital Influence marketing agency.
Facebook’s eastern sweep is driven in part by development and demographics. As the Asian middle class rises, the price of internet access continues to fall. But the boom is also fueled by an Asian obsession with online games, as well as Facebook’s ease of use on mobile devices, far cheaper in Asia than at-home web connections.
Across the region, Chinese-made web-ready mobile devices sell for $150 with unlimited internet access plans as low as $20. Facebook has become an essential diversion during epic traffic jams in Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila.
“I use Facebook when I first wake up,” said Sahid Priambodo, a student at Paramadina University in Jakarta. “Then I go to school, but I’m still Facebooking in class.”
Priambodo’s Facebook addiction even follows him into bed at night via his smartphone. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because of Facebook,” he said. “It affects my GPA at school.”
Investors are convinced there are plenty more Sahids for Facebook to enlist. A Goldman Sachs investment this month led analysts to peg Facebook’s value at $50 billion and forecast continued heavy growth.
So far, Facebook has chewed through competitors Friendster, Hi5 and MySpace with very little local investment. Unlike Yahoo — which built offices in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in a bid for Asian dominance — Facebook only maintains offices in Japan and, as of last year, India and Singapore.
“Until mid-last year, if I wanted to talk to someone at Facebook, I had to call one poor guy in Australia,” Crampton said. “He was the only representative on this side of the Pacific Ocean.” (Facebook did not respond to GlobalPost’s repeated inquiries into plans for opening new offices or its overall Asia strategy.)
Facebook’s adaptability to local tongues has aided its Asian spread. When Facebook detects a non-English script, it asks the user to translate portions of the site for free — a clever means of recruiting an army of free interpreters.
Facebook also partially owes its growth to the Asian obsession with Farmville, a game that invites players to tend digital farms while sharing seeds and tools with fellow users.
The online phenomenon, played by an estimated 10 percent of Facebook users, is exclusively accessed through Facebook. Despite its simple 1980s arcade-era graphics, the game’s rules are complex and it begs near-constant attention from cyber-ranchers.
Farmville led Facebook’s charge into Taiwan, where people scrambled to sign up simply to access the game. “They wanted to play Farmville,” Crampton said, “but had to sign up for this thing called ‘Facebook’ first.”
Thailand, now the fastest-growing Asian Facebook population, is among the latest to fall under Farmville’s spell.
“Games are one of the main reasons Thai people join Facebook,” said Wattana Pattanagul, a 35-year-old biology professor. His hobby site, “Farmville in Thailand,” was created to decipher the game’s English-language instructions for Thai fans.
“I got tired of always translating for everyone,” he said. “Some people barely sleep because of Farmville. They set their alarm clocks early to wake up and harvest their crops.”
This month, Wattana officiated at a “Farmville Competition,” which drew spectators to a Bangkok exhibition hall where judges awarded points to contestants’ farms for beauty and skill. (Sample commentary: “All this empty space? The farm leaves me feeling cold” and “This garden is arranged strangely … are the crops meant to spell out something in Chinese?”)
Still, despite its rapid ascent in much of Asia, Facebook remains banned in the region’s most crucial market: China.
Asia’s largest social network isn’t Facebook. It’s RenRen, virtually unknown in America despite its 150 million Chinese users. (Facebook claims roughly 145.7 million U.S. users.) Unlike Facebook, RenRen and other Chinese-language networks are Chinese owned and subjected to communist party oversight.
“Facebook isn’t going to break into China anytime soon,” Crampton said. “Historically, the Chinese government is uncomfortable with any social media used in China but owned by foreigners.” Unblocking Facebook, he said, would require conceding to communist party controls under “some model no one has ever used.”
Still, Facebook watchers have noted China’s influence on founder Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old is studying Chinese, according to a cover story in Time Magazine, and recently visited Beijing with his Chinese-American girlfriend of seven years.
His empire has already proven willing to take on another communist, Facebook-banning nation: Vietnam. Even under an official (but poorly enforced) block there, Facebook quietly advertised in late 2010 for a Hanoi position.
According to the job posting, the company seeks an applicant capable of “communicating with policymakers” and “ensuring the site’s accessibility.”
Japan and South Korea, largely loyal to their homegrown social networks, are two more troublesome countries for Facebook. The tech-obsessed countries have only about 4 million Facebook users combined. Korean authorities in particular are suspicious of Facebook collecting data on its citizens.
If officials officials fear Facebook’s power to coalesce political anger, they need only look at Thailand as an example.
Despite cultural taboos against face-to-face confrontation, Thailand has spawned a notable number of Facebook campaigns channeling fury at various newsmakers and political adversaries.
Within the last month, 300,000 Thais backed a group devoted to denigrating an upper-class, 16-year-old driver who crashed into a van and killed eight people. The campaign insisted the girl was not appropriately remorseful for her wrongdoing.
“May you be cursed so that hell forever chews your heart,” read one comment.
“Some of the most popular groups, actually, are formed around disliking something,” said Benjamas Promchaisiri, a 33-year-old information specialist in Bangkok who joined Facebook last year. “People find it satisfying.”
But Benjamas is far too busy for online hate mongering. Tending her Farmville project — a strawberry ranch overlooked by gingerbread homes and a day-glo “party barn” — is akin to a part-time job.
“I’m on Facebook and Farmville about five hours a day,” she said. “At least.”