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7 Things You Didn't Know About Vietnam's Net

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 4 2014

Screenshot of Vietmeme's Twitter profile

Vietnam has an active Internet culture of civic engagement, but it can be hard to see because it is relatively ephemeral and dispersed over multiple networks. A one stop shop for a snapshot of Vietnam's online community is Vietmeme, a kind of front page for the Vietnamese Internet.

Their mission is “to provide a representative look at the diversity of ideas, opinions, sages and crackpots that comprise Vietnam’s online civil society.” To achieve this they feature both original articles and blog posts as well as various visual memes floating around cyberspace.

In an interview with The Civic Beat Reader's Ben Valentine, Vietmeme founder Patrick Sharbaugh explains some of the quirks of Vietnam's net. The interview was broken into three separate parts. Culled from the interview are the following seven things you probably didn't know about netizens, civic engagement or the Internet in Vietnam.

1. Media outlets in Vietnam are state-owned, so you would expect them to always toe the government line. However, because they are also for-profit companies they want to encourage page views, creating a surprising conflict of interest.

2. A Facebook page calling for the resignation of the Minister of Health has garnered more than 105,000 signatures on an online petition; the original goal was 15 thousand.

3. Even more surprising and noteworthy, soon after the creation of the Facebook page and online petition, a mainstream media outlet called for the Minister of Health's resignation, a first for a state-controlled media outlet in Vietnam. Sharbaugh explains this would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

He added:

Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Communication had the article taken down almost immediately, but many people captured screengrabs of it and so it’s continued to be shared widely across Vietnam’s internet. It’s an impressive and remarkable illustration of the new power of Vietnam’s online public sphere.

4. Memes are the most potent form of online activism in Vietnam today:

The visual memes commentary these sites and their users have generated are significant in Vietnam not because they’re amateurish, or often puerile, or short-lived, though they are all those things. It’s because they are achieving what all the finger-wagging from the bloggers and Western democracies have not: they are changing minds. And they’re achieving this precisely because they are amateurish and ephemeral and, yes, often silly.

5. Facebook is technically blocked, but racking up new users all the same. The current estimate is more than 22 million local users, far more than half of the Internet population.

6. Digital activism doesn't need to leave a footprint to still be valuable.

Sharbaugh explains:

A Facebook page will pop up one day decrying a low-level government official or a crazy new traffic law or calling for signatures on a petition to advocate for some person or cause. And people will post scores of remixed photos and images and manga that subtly mock the issue or ridicule the person in a way that requires razor-sharp pop-culture sensibilities to understand, and the page will collect a few thousand Likes. And then, two or three weeks later, it’ll be gone. They made their point, and nobody wants to get too carried away.

7. People in Vietnam don't think of privacy the way Americans do. To them, it is less a fundamental right and more a personal responsibility.

Sharbaugh again:

For us, again, that concept is bound up in Enlightenment-era values of individual autonomy, free will, the rights of the individual, the social contract, democratic participation, all that stuff we take for granted. Privacy for us is a fundamental right that’s guaranteed by the State (well, it used to be, anyway). But Vietnamese appear to care little about those things. They seem totally unconcerned by third-party tracking, for example, whether that’s the government or big commercial operators. They view privacy only as something like locking your door — taking individual measures to assure that malicious individuals out there don’t get valuable information like your passwords or account information that they could use to steal — literally steal — from you and your friends.

The information-packed interview is a must read; I didn't even touch on censorship, Decree 72, or the use of JapaneseDoraemonmanga in meme-making.

Sharbaugh says he hopes Vietmeme will one day do for Vietnam what Tea Leaf Nation does for China.

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