Nicole Ng
Sep 3, 2015

Online in Asia: Clutter or clarity?

A cultural cross-examination of online ethos and behaviour is long overdue, writes Flamingo's Nicole Ng, so we can all move beyond recyclable tropes.

Nicole Ng
Nicole Ng

A crisis of attention. An obesity of the Mind. The luxury of silence.

There has been much public handwringing about the perils of the Internet Diet and attention economy in the Western thought circuit. How the onslaught of online baits and ambient ads leaves us hopelessly distracted[1], ruining our capacity for focus and meaningful thought. The tl;dr (too long, didn’t read)? We can only stomach listicles and are turning into unproductive, mediocre oafs.

The ‘sensory junk of the Internet’ is increasingly equated to second-hand tobacco smoke, with thinkers rallying around a right to “attention sovereignty” [2] or an ads-free “attention commons” that protects the sanctity of an uninterrupted mind. Fatigued users reflect this demand with digital detoxes, minimally invasive wearable tech, and a growing obsession with mindfulness and meditation.

But underpinning this discourse of ‘meaningful time spent’ is a narrow, if not normative, demonisation of distraction. It smacks of a somewhat Western fixation with utility and productivity. The kind that loosely suggests why Western users take to action-oriented apps like Slack and optimisation hacks, while Asia skews higher on lifestyle browsing and social gaming.

Clients often ask us to interrogate the Asian consumer’s online “leisure moments”, “guilty pleasures” or “pain points” to help users achieve their goals faster and smoother. But this assumes several things; a segregation of work and play, a highly purpose-driven approach to time spent and a general aversion to anything short of instant, seamless or invisible. 

What we’ve often found instead, is an un-anxious and spontaneous reality of meandering and accidental discoveries. Fun and enjoyment is oft embraced and sought in micro-moments at any given time of the day, and not necessarily through the strict verticals of entertainment and gaming (a silly ad or sensational piece of bawdy news can be deemed equal parts fun and education).

The fixation with an inalienable right to silence, privacy and a clutter-free space also comes across as a Western hang-up. China, Korea and Japan are said to possess a less antagonistic attitude to online ads. With more of a “value-exchange” mentality they have no qualms surrendering their attention when brands deservedly earn it with quality content. Cue the normalcy of QR-code ads in China, where users happily look up brands on the subway ride home and there is a preference for animation / video ads that ‘own’ the users’ time versus scurrying interstitial ads that apologise for intrusion.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

The Asian concern over privacy also has less to do with a European distaste for big-brother surveillance than a pragmatic fear of fraud and information abuse and control over the visibility of personal content. For example, see the quasi-private Path in Indonesia as an alternative to the all-and-sundry openness of Facebook, or the privacy shield of popular chat app Hike in India, which hides—but doesn't delete—chat logs from the prying eyes of nosy elders in cramped households, versus Snapchat’s 100 per cent ephemerality.

In fact, what to the West might be cues of kitsch and intrusion (a maximal phone contact, a hovering salesman avatar) may well be welcomed as cues of assurance to the Asian consumer. Trust is especially hard earned in the chaos and dodge of Asia (leaving a FedEx parcel on the doormat is naive) and e-commerce models (Taobao in China, Rakuten in Indonesia, Flipkart in India) are geared towards lending a human face to an otherwise faceless entity, be it via live chats, bricks-and-mortar advisory centres or a human middleman in COD payments.

In UX (user experience) the dictat of sleek minimalism does not necessarily fly for the Asian expectation of 'more-is-more'. There is the storied embrace of WeChat and Kakaotalk’s jam-packed multi-functionality over the spareness of WhatsApp. In web design, the 'Asian Aesthetic' sees users preferring what to the Western eye is a clutter of densely packed text, loud banners and jarring colours on news and e-commerce sites. The narrative of yore would have been a hubristic one about Asia needing time to “catch up” to the standards of excellent UI (user interface). However, today there is embryonic talk of the real cultural underpinnings behind this preference. There are cues of comfort in having things laid out in ‘handholding’ cultures like Japan, or slow loading times in China resulting in an impatience to click through layered architecture giving a misleading appearance of character script to a non-native viewer.

It is now 101 for brands to exercise humility when localising (offline) strategy for the growth world. A cultural cross-examination of online ethos and behaviour is long overdue, so we can all move beyond recyclable tropes of Asia being simply #mobile-first #solomo #fragmentedpayment #socialgaming #asiansshopmoreonline #asianslovepictures.

[1] Nicholas Carr kicked it all off with his silent-spring missive on how our brains are being rewired into a “staccato” frenzy incapable of deep “meaningful” thought.

[2] It will likely reach a crescendo when Tim Wu, father of “net neutrality” issues his next magnum opus on the notion of attention sovereignty, premised on the utility of attention for society.

Nicole Ng is project director at Flamingo Singapore


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