The Great Migration

Published Postimees 13 Sept 2012



Recently, I asked a group of young people, if they have Facebook accounts. They looked at me like I was mad.

"That's like asking us, do we have a noses?" one of them said.

"Come to think of it even people who don't have noses have Facebook accounts," another said to much laughter.

Last week 6th July, Kanal 2 did a program "Minu Facebooki sõbrad". It was a light hearted look at the social network phenomenon. But the whole Facebook is king challenges some of our cherished beliefs about modern Estonia.

10 years ago when I first visited here, Estonia was more advanced than my own country the United Kingdom. It was a revelation. Estonia was my introduction to whole concept of social networking.

Rate.ee was founded in May 2002, that's a year before Orkut, or MySpace, two years before Facebook.

I so wasn't impressed when I first saw Facebook.
"Social networking,..... they have this in Estonia already for years, what is the big deal?"

Rate.ee was as successful as it was because it was "cool" for teenagers but it never made the transition that Facebook made to being a useful tool of communication for Generation Xers.
Then suddenly it wasn't cool any more. Estonians made the first great migration.

"We never lost the leadership of the market," Andrei Korobeinik Rate.ee founder told me.

"It's was like Myspace and Facebook. Myspace was the market leader. The problem with Myspace was popularity. It's started with teenagers who went there because it was cool and when parents went there it wasn't cool any more. That was actually the same situation with rate.ee."

For some reason, I don't exactly know why, the first great migration was not to Facebook or Myspace but Google's Orkut. Whilst in the UK and the US and Scandinavian countries we were all using Facebook by 2005-6 already.

Orkut is horrible. It looks horrible, its functionally is horrible. But some of us were kind of forced to use it because Estonian friends and family were on it. In 2008, the typical expat in Estonia would have both an Orkut account and a Facebook account. It was a nuisance.

When in Rome...and all that.

In 2008 when I came here to live, the majority of Estonians, even young people hadn't heard of Facebook.

But then in about 2010, Estonians suddenly realised that Orkut was horrible and the second great migration began. And when Estonian moved over they didn't keep a separate Orkut account they simply closed their Orkut accounts and made the switch to Facebook permanent.

Today thirty seven per cent of the population of Estonia are Facebook users.

Consider the situation with our neighbours. In Sweden 53 percent of of the population are Facebook users, in Finland it's 41 per cent, in Denmark it's 32 per cent of the population.

Russians are almost exclusively using Russian language social networking. Only 4 per cent of the population use Faccebook, though this is a larger number on absolute terms, 6 million people. Ukraine and Belarus are similar, 4 per cent. This situation is unlikely to change.

Latvians are still using their own Latvian or Russian language social networking sites. Only 16 per cent use Facebook.

In you want evidence that Estonia is more Nordic than Eastern European, this is an example.

In Lithuania 30 per cent of the population use Facebook. The explanation is that unlike Latvia (or Estonia) Lithuania does not have a large Russian speaking minority.

Surely "the Facebook great migration" is then a good thing?

It shows Estonia as moving in tandem with the West. It also has the practical advantage of making it easier for Estonians to form bonds with the rest of the West, making social and business connections that may bring investment or create export opportunities.

Well yes and no!

If you haven't spotted it already, the great Facebook migration means that Estonia has gone from being as leader to follower.

Whereas five years ago Estonia was ahead of the curve now it is behind it. Instead of inventing stuff that others are using, Estonians are now using stuff invented elsewhere.

Estonia has become e-backwards. And it is not just in Social networking that Estonia is falling behind. It's all IT.

"The general public think we are leaders of E-government in the EU and the World but actually we are not," Korobeinik said.

"We are not looking for foreign experiences. The UK is way more advanced and still they come to learn. Our politicians don't understand other countries are way more advanced."

"Our systems are not as good as in other country because we did these things earlier. ID cards, you would do them different nowadays.

"The tax department for example. There was not such thing as cloud service. Five years ago US and UK were way behind now they are way ahead."

Korobeinik said that lack of vision by the government is behind all this.

"We would keep our number one position if companies were able to export e-government solutions.

"Could you imagine if the US tax department was developed in Estonia?
"That would be a huge thing. Or if elections in UK are made with local e-voting systems. Estonian companies can't export them because of contract and the government's never going to export because there is not a single person in government who is interested, he is not getting anything from that."

"The Government should own the license and company gets everything else."

There is another bad side to this. Think about why Social networking exist. The web is popular because it creates spaces on the internet were people can operate in their own language and culture.

Go to the cinema and you basically have to watch American movies. That's OK... sort of. People don't have to go to the cinema if they don't want to. Estonians actually don't go to the cinema, American teenagers go every week, sometimes two or three times a week and if they like a film they will see it again.

But now we have a situation that even if you want to hook up with friends or put on an Estonian literature event, somewhere in California, somebody gets paid.

I'm not sure if this is bad, but it can't be good.

What's to be done?

Actually nothing. People have voted with their feet and that battle is over. IT leaders like Korobeinik are not that interested in social networking any more, the future is mobile.

"We won't go back to roots. We will try to use competency in other areas. Mobile will be way more important than internet because it provides possibilities. You can interact will people in real time. This is new area we don't have a lot of successful mobile services around.

"It is not a very exciting opportunity to have the number one social network in Estonia. You can earn a few million Euros and that's it. Much more exciting is to do something globally," he said.