22 August 2019
Hong Kong student protesters have taken to Firechat to communicate, using its blue-tooth technology to bypass online channels. Photo: The Verge
Hong Kong student protesters have taken to Firechat to communicate, using its blue-tooth technology to bypass online channels. Photo: The Verge

How online democracy is shaping social communication

Any agency or communications professional will be swift to point out the challenges that corporates face these days in terms of social communication and reaching the client.

While solutions that fill up our smartphones and tablets may enable instant worldwide contact, the number of possibilities can have the reverse effect.

The evolution is fast. Two months ago you may have been hard pushed to describe Firechat but the protests in Hong Kong have thrust it into the spotlight.

Students and pro-democracy protesters used the blue tooth-based system to communicate without having to go online and risk prying eyes or even as was claimed at the time, a temporary blocking of the internet.

But what is it that creates this explosion of uptake for one app or another?

In the end, it is the evolving needs of individuals who are not satisfied any more simply with a tool that allows us to speak for free to friends and family or even strangers.

The Firechat example is clear: an instant communication tool was needed that would circumvent any possible controls on the internet.

Other examples are just as interesting. WeChat became universally adopted in Asia and China originally because of its interactive icon capability.

But this has evolved and its voice message and payment features are attracting groups, sometimes that are wanting to interact publicly but out of the public eye.

A blog on NPR even quotes a Beijing academic who suggests that “what Weibo has done for freedom of speech, WeChat has done for freedom of association”, and may be used by those wanting to circumvent the Communist Party’s ban on non-governmental political groups).

What these adoptions show is the characteristic that allow particular groups to carve themselves out from the whole.

As a worldwide community technology progress is making us more connected but the desire is growing for a private network within this, that may have certain needs.

Do we want a universal standard for social communication? I’m not sure.

It seems likely that in fact we will become more fragmented as online democracy means that individuals can move towards the group that they most identify with.

For businesses this does mean that communication with customers becomes more complicated and for any campaign you have to decide which of the applications to tackle.

As individuals the trend may continue of maintaining social media networks of our “friends” and our friends will be kept even closer.

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A business trend observer, Tim Nicholls is Director at Paradigm Consulting and formerly Regional Communications Head at HSBC in Asia.

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