Some thoughts on why Australians are #1 globally on social media usage (from a slow start)


Well there are already plenty of opinions flying around and some excellent comments on my post yesterday Australians are #1 globally in usage of social media: Why?, which pointed to new research showing this startling result. I guess it’s time for me to offer some of my thoughts, helped along by the conversation so far. Be sure to read the insightful comments on the topic!

To my mind the question is less why Australians are such heavy users of social media, as why the uptake was so slow initially before a startling acceleration over the last couple of years. Here are a few initial thoughts.

Attitudes about the individual.

One of the most famed aspects of Australian culture is the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome (your head might get lopped off). This has tempered much over the years, but there has still been until recently a relative reticence to stand up and shout out personal opinions (with of course a number of notable exceptions). I felt this contributed to the initial slow uptake by Australians of blogging. Perhaps once enough people are expressing their views on social media, you no longer stand out by blogging and Twittering – you are in a majority and your self-expression is unleashed.

Twitter and conversational media.

Following on from the previous point, as social media has become more truly conversational over the years, it has better suited the Australian style of social interaction. The development of Twitter reflects this, with again a slow uptake from Australia initially, followed by a dramatic rise, now placing Sydney as one of the leading Twittering cities in the world by population.

Cultural adaptiveness.

I think Australia is recently proving itself to be adept at evolving its culture. This is partly due to the strong international focus of Australians, as well as the increasingly rapid pace of immigration. While ‘Australian-ness’ for many decades barely changed, I think that over the last years we are shaping our culture, in a way that is primarily positive. This may be optimistic, but if it were true this would be a massive advantage in an increasingly culturally complex world.

Corporate risk aversion.

Corporate Australia, until very recently dominated by old-school managers and directors, is I believe one of the most risk-averse in the world in terms of trying different approaches. Initially this resulted in Australian businesses being one of the slowest in taking Web 2.0 approaches – see for example my 2005 post on The sorry state of Australian corporate blogging. More recently this risk-aversion is gradually switching to being afraid of being left behind as global competitors move ahead.

Telcos belatedly unleashing mobile data.

For a long time Australian telecoms firms charged absolutely extortionate rates for mobile data, holding us back as a nation. The launch of the iPhone 3G in July 2008 was the turning point in bringing the telcos to the party. While mobile data is still expensive in Australia compared to many developed countries, for 18 months it has at least been possible to use mobile social media on a standard mobile data plan, unleashing Australians’ desire to connect while they are outdoors – where they are very likely to be at any given time.

Peripatetic nation.

Around 5% of Australians are abroad at any point in time, most of them on the other side of the planet rather in an adjacent nation. This increases the value of social media in keeping in touch with family and friends. In a similar way, one of the drivers of Turkey spending more time online than any other European country, and having possibly the highest per capita use of Facebook in the world, is that a large proportion of its population is working abroad.

There are a number of other issues, such as geographic isolation and a history of being early technology adopters, which may explain strong usage of social media in Australia, but do not explain why uptake was so slow initially before accelerating over the last two years.

As I noted some years ago when I was bemoaning what was at the time the very slow uptake of social media, we need to debate and discuss what is driving our use of communication tools. Five years ago The Bulletin quoted my diatribe on how Australia’s future depends on how well it connects in a global network economy must.

I will certainly be thinking far more about what will continue to drive how well Australia participates and connects in the living networks. I would love to hear what others think is happening here – understanding the drivers helps us to push things forward faster.

  • Hi Ross,
    I’ll be honest — I don’t buy your proposed explanations.
    You’re looking for social drivers when I think the change is more likely to have been driven by practical considerations. For example, policies forbidding webmail and instant messaging software in schools and offices have had an effect in moving people to web-only tools.
    The other factor is simply the “winner takes all” effect where people naturally congregate to the communications tool that everyone else is using. Once a critical mass moves to a new tool, there is a strong incentive for everyone else to shift there as well.

  • Fair enough Stephen, I’m not claiming these are the right answers – just possible ones.
    However your suggested explanations apply equally in pretty much all countries – there is no reason these would apply more in Australia than anywhere else.

  • Hi Ross,
    I know when i started blogging at it was about letting people at home know what i was experiencing when i first moved to New York but these days it’s more about what i’m finding over here work wise than lifestyle.
    However i’m curious about your figure of 5%? Do you have a source for that? it seems really high and curious how accurate that really is.

  • Hi Dean, I’ve seen the figure of one million Australian overseas (including people on holiday as well as those living abroad) from a number of sources – one of the most reliable (and a great document anyway) is the report Diaspora: the world wide web of Australians from the Lowy Institute

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  • I also use twitter for social media but it still hasn’t have any good result.

  • oh, thank you for share..