Every country that develops fast goes through two phases. The first is the physical phase — the structural and infrastructural transition of a nation from what it was to what it will be. Part of this includes increased individual wealth and a wider access to goods or services that were previously unavailable or available to only a select few.
The second phase is social and cultural. It is the phase that sees people change socially, the period where the mindset of the past alters itself into the mindset of the present and the future. It is where conservative values clash with contemporary, and where a tug-of-war takes place between what should be allowed and what shouldn’t. It’s one step forward, two steps back. It can be rewarding; it can also be painful.
While in Vietnam the first phase continues apace, so more recently the second phase has kicked in. It is the phase led by smartphones, digital media and Facebook. It is news read digitally rather than in newspapers, communication through social media and messaging apps rather than through standard phone calls or just catching up with each other on the street. And it is a change in tastes, a change in sensibilities, a questioning of the accepted wisdom, a change in knowledge and understanding, a change in worldview.
At the end of 2009 we wrote extensively about the problems with using Facebook in Vietnam. The issue was that the powers that be just didn’t know what to do with it, this phenomenon that was taking the country by storm.
Here was this website that seemed to strike a chord with the very nature of being Vietnamese — at the time which, by country, Facebook’s growth rate was fastest in Vietnam. Despite difficulty of access, its popularity continued to soar. Make ‘the book’ undesirable, and it became something to be desired.
The five years since have seen an explosion in the site’s usage. Vietnam has 18 million Facebook users — 20 percent of the population. And Vietnamese of all ages, particularly the young, seem to spend their lives on the website.
The key to its popularity, though, is not just networking, making friends and keeping in touch with people. It’s Facebook’s troll-like ability to let you speak your mind. And if you so wish, through faking your avatar, to speak it anonymously. Whereas a decade ago people watched their tongues, especially in public, now people seem to do the opposite. Saying what you think in a public forum is an attractive prospect, especially from the safety of your computer or smartphone. In Vietnam, people, especially the young, have taken to this like a fish takes to water. Now they see self-expression as the norm.
The younger generation of today is growing up with a freedom of speech, a freedom of expression that was unknown in the past. Yes, there are boundaries — but aren’t there everywhere? It’s something that must be lauded — no longer are automaton-like thought processes the norm. This has been led by access not only to Facebook, but also to LinkedIn and Twitter and Skype and Viber and many more.
Forget Generation X or The Beat Generation. Today’s Vietnamese youth are the Facebook Generation, a generation brought up on a different worldview to that of the not-so-distant past. — Nick Ross