The number of South Africans using social networks has passed the million mark for each of the major services. But this is just the beginning.

The numbers seem to speak for themselves. MXit: 10 million South African users. Facebook: 4.5 million. Twitter: 1.1 million. LinkedIn: 1.1 million. Social networking has gone mainstream in South Africa. More than that, it continues growing at a rate never before seen in any service outside of the cellphone industry. Facebook picks up 100,000 new users a month in South Africa. LinkedIn has almost doubled in the past year. Twitter has grown by 600% in this time, and carries on climbing at the same rate as Facebook.

Of all the major social networks and instant messaging services in use in South Africa, only MXit has stopped growing. This seems astonishing, given the fact it can be used on any cellphone, costs close to nothing to use, has been the communications standard among youths across all market segments – regardless of income or language – and is growing its penetration among older users.

Within MXit’s plateau and the rapid rise of its rivals, however, lies the same message. South Africans have utterly changed their relationship with their phones. The explosion of Twitter was forecast a year ago in the Mobility research study conducted by World Wide Worx. It showed that almost a quarter of adult cellphone users living in cities and towns planned to use Twitter on their phones in the coming 18 months. That would amount to 4.5 million users. Given the fact that most intentions do not translate into action in the take-up of new technologies, we could still forecast 1 million users in 2011 and at least 2 million by mid-2012.

The SA Social Media Landscape 2011 Report, released in October by World Wide Worx and Fuseware, has backed up these findings, but both studies highlighted a trend that makes the South African social media market different to most Western markets where similar growth is reported. In South Africa, the growth is driven by the mobile phone and, in particular, smartphones. This is the primary reason for MXit’s stagnation. Although the made-in-South-Africa network is available as an app on smartphones, it has not made the transition as a brand from old phones to new devices. It is still perceived as part of the old way of doing things. That’s likely to change in 2012, when MXit’s new owners, World of Avatar, embark on its reinvention.

A second reason for the brakes on MXit’s growth is the nature of its customer base and MXit registration. Users are registered by phone number rather than user name and password, and most users happen to have pre-paid cellphone accounts. The churn rate in the pre-paid market ranges between 40% and 60% a year, meaning that MXit probably loses half its active user base every year. It picks up no less than 40,000 new users a day. But half of those, too, will have churned within the year. While number-based registration provides added security for MXit’s younger users, it also puts it at a disadvantage to every other major social network. It is a dilemma, but also a signal that developers have no choice but to adapt to the seismic shift in devices and how they are used.

The sudden emergence of the instant messaging service BlackBerry Messenger – from nowhere to almost 2-million users in barely two years – is one example of how fast a market can shift. BBM itself faces a powerful challenge from newcomer WhatsApp – which is, in turn, challenged by the likes of Google Talk and another local contender, Mig33. The only constant in these trends is: nothing stays the same.

When Twitter first arrived, the question asked above its status bar was: “What are you doing?” It took mere months for savvy users to understand the question wasn’t meant literally. Celebrities and ordinary users with narrow perspectives tended to take the low road, and before long the network had a reputation for shallow, meaningless and irritating drivel about people’s breakfast, arrival at work and even the mere fact they had woken up.

Meanwhile, the savvier users had figured out it was the ideal forum for airing their knowledge, opinions and new information they may have uncovered. Such users became thought leaders in this new world, and picked up followings to match. For them, the more appropriate question would have been: “What would you like to share with the world?” It took a while for news media to discover Twitter, and they had to be dragged in kicking and screaming, as they discovered ordinary bystanders breaking major news stories like a plane crash in the Hudson River and a terrorist attack in Mumbai.

Then, en masse, they took it to a new level: posting short, snappy and up-to-the-minute news updates that made 24-hour news channels look outdated despite the fact they were covering the news live. But even as the channels struggled to stay ahead of Twitter, they also embraced it to drive viewers to their own Twitter feeds. Before long, every radio and TV personality was trying to do the same for their personal Twitter feeds.

This combination of access to news and adored personalities provided the fodder for Twitter to go mainstream beyond Western markets, and to invade the unlikeliest segments, like the South African mass market. The mobile phone has been the key. Imagine someone who has never been on the Internet, watching TV, and being told by the presenter to follow her on Twitter. That name rings a bell. The viewer picks up her cellphone, and calls up the menu. Sure enough, the Twitter logo is front and centre on the menu. Three or four clicks, and she has become a Twitter user. The Internet never provided that level of instant engagement for the ordinary viewer in the street. The mobile phone puts it within immediate reach. Exactly the same applies to Facebook, except that here the effect is viral. Being encouraged to join Facebook to enter a competition or “Like” a radio station’s page is one thing. Knowing a friend or relative is on Facebook and that you can connect and share takes it to a new level in the same way news updates did for Twitter.

It gives the medium relevance, resonance and – most important of all – a deep attraction. Instant access via a smartphone turns that attraction into instant engagement. It also means that, as smartphone sales overtake ordinary phones – projected to happen in 2013 – the embrace of social networks will accelerate. For many, this will be their first experience of the Internet. And eventually they will want more. And more. The mobile networks will strain under the weight of the resulting data demand. Luckily, however, the operators began upgrading the fibre networks that feed their base stations two years ago, with a projected completion date for most of the new networks happening to fall in… 2013.

There is one more trend that reaches a critical level in 2013. That will mark five years since the growth in number of Internet users began to accelerate after years of stagnation. Up to that point, we had seen around fiv e years of sub-6% growth. Since then, the growth rate has not been below 15%. In 2010, it was close to 30%, thanks to the embrace of the mobile Internet on smartphones.

According to the Digital Participation Curve, a model developed by World Wide Worx, it takes the average online user five years to gain enough trust in the medium to begin engaging in e-commerce and self-actualisation – blogging and the like – on the Internet. The mobile Internet is no different.
This, in turn, means that the acceleration in user numbers that began in 2008 will translate from 2013 into acceleration in the number of users who are ready to participate fully in the digital world.

These will be users who will also already be fully engaged in social networking. The numbers we see now, as dramatic as they are, will seem small by 2013. Equally significant, this massive, connected user base will change the way South Africans communicate with each other, with institutions and with various brands. It will be exhilarating for both consumers and organisations who embrace this new world, and frightening for those who resist it.

By Arthur Goldstuck
Published by Playboy South Africa December 2011