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Column – Asia Techonomics: Why Half of All Voice Messages on WhatsApp Come from Cambodia

Asia Techonomics

In the weekly column, we alternately write about innovation and economic trends in Asia.

(Photo: Klawe Things)

Bangkok It is not very often that Cambodia suddenly finds itself at the top of the world. The country in Southeast Asia, with its 17 million inhabitants, has a manageable economic importance. Its export volume is somewhere between Angola and Lebanon. Bicycles and some textile products are among the few best sellers. In a niche of the digital economy, however, the comparatively small state leaves all others far behind: Cambodia is the world market leader in the production of voice messages.

Anyone who has business partners, friends or colleagues in the country could already have guessed it: Messages are usually not received as neatly typed e-mails, but as sound recordings on WhatsApp or in Facebook’s Messenger. Instead of text, there is only a sequence of play buttons in a row in chat processes.

Internal data from Facebook now shows how unusual the usage behavior of Cambodians actually is in an international comparison: According to this, almost half of the total volume of voice messages recorded by the group in its messenger came from Cambodia in 2018. The spoken messages were also popular in countries like the Dominican Republic, Senegal or the Ivory Coast, but nowhere as much as in the former French colony between Thailand and Vietnam.

Even the prime minister sends voice messages to his people

The data reported on the “Rest of World” website, which specializes in emerging markets, comes from the database of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. In recent months, the internal documents had caused criticism of the behavior of the social media group, which is now called Meta. In this case, however, there is no cause for reproach – only for amazement, even with the social media group itself.

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According to the report, the company tried to do a user survey to find out why voice messages are so popular in some countries, but did not get very far in the case of Cambodia, because only one person from the country took part in the study.

When I ask friends in Cambodia what they think is so great about voice messages, nobody has to think twice: speaking is uncomplicated, and voice messages are a better way of expressing feelings. Most people find it incomprehensible that text messaging is not so popular elsewhere. Even Prime Minister Hun Sen regularly sends important announcements to his people via voice messages – not always with the desired result: In April one of the recordings in which he imposed a lockdown on the capital was leaked prematurely and led to panic buying.

The habits are stuck

But although hardly any user in Cambodia questions the omnipresence of voice messages, experts believe there is a structural reason for this: the Khmer script used in the country. With 33 consonants and more than three dozen vowels, it has the most letters of any alphabet font. For a long time, mobile phone keyboards could hardly represent the diversity.

For years, none of the big tech companies bothered to provide the Cambodians with simple input options. Voice messages then prevailed as a remedy. In the meantime, the range of keyboard software has improved. But the habits are already so stuck that hardly anything will change in terms of communication behavior.

For technology companies that focus on growth in emerging markets, this hides an important lesson: Not every market ticks like the industrialized countries in Europe and America. Indians like to place orders when shopping online via WhatsApp, Thais want to inspect the products beforehand in live streams and in Indonesia e-commerce companies cooperate with kiosks in order to reach people without internet. Only those who understand these peculiarities can hope to meet with broad acceptance. Those who ignore them have to expect that users will look for alternatives.

More: These Indian tech companies are thrilling investors and Silicon Valley

Reference-www.handelsblatt.com

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