Europe’s Most Socially Networked Country? Not What You'd Expect

Europe’s Most Socially Networked Country? Not What You'd Expect
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Why you should care

Hungary had a Facebook long before Facebook existed.

Looking for Europe’s most avid social networkers? Forget the traditional tech hubs, such as Germany or Finland. Instead, look toward the traditional home of goulash and George Soros:

In Hungary, 83 percent of internet users report being on social media. That’s the highest rate in Europe.

In fact, it’s 20 percent above the European Union average, according to Eurostat’s latest report on Digital Economy and Society in the EU. The same survey, which polled 6,018 people in Hungary, also found a whopping 97 percent of people aged 16-24 are social media users — tied with Belgium and Denmark for the top spot. The study did not specify which social networks they use the most.

I think there is a lot of need for escapism here in Hungary, and social media provides that with great efficacy.

Gergely Szirmai, Hungarian entertainment news video blogger

Either way, it’s an interesting finding — and part of the explanation may lie in the country’s precarious political history. According to Eva Bognar, a senior program officer at the Central European University’s Center for Media, Data and Society, rigid communist rule during the second half of the 20th century eroded the Hungarian people’s faith in official structures and public life and pushed them to rely more on their own private, non-digital social networks. “This is something social historians have [studied]: the importance of these personal circles, as opposed to institutions,” the Budapest-based researcher says. With communism a mere quarter-century in the past, its legacy is sure to live on much longer.

Depending on who you ask, these days might not be much better. The far-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has grown increasingly autocratic in recent years. Yet openly talking politics is still somewhat taboo, says Gergely Szirmai, a popular Hungarian entertainment news video blogger. Which is why he says many of his compatriots are drawn to flashy, well-produced reviews of movies and video games on YouTube, for instance. The Eurostat survey polled usage of video-sharing services separately, finding that 68 percent of Hungarians aged 16-74 enjoy the likes of YouTube. “I think there is a lot of need for escapism here in Hungary,” Szirmai says, “and social media provides that with great efficacy.”

But there’s yet another, perhaps more surprising, explanation: Hungary had its own version of Facebook before the now ubiquitous social network was even a twinkle in founder Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Called iWiW and launched in 2002, it was an online directory that allowed users to search for and connect with friends and friends of friends. Think six degrees of separation, Hungarian style.

By the late 2000s, iWiW had logged several million users — no mean feat for a country of only about 10 million. According to Gabor Gerenyi, the founder of Index.hu, a Hungarian news site, the nascent social network was part of a broader trend including even older online forums that helped cement the country as an early leader in the field. “Hungary was very strong in social media before Web 2.0,” he says.

Whatever’s behind Hungary’s enthusiastic embrace of social media, it seems clear this socially networked nation is ready for the future.

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