Why you should care

Hate on social media as much as you want, but in some places, likes may be lifesaving.

Rain is drumming so hard on the windows of Enda Nasution’s office that I can barely hear him speak. It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday in Jakarta, Indonesia, but almost all his 45 employees have stayed home. Throughout the city, roads are submerged, and thousands are displaced. Nasution is warning me that our Skype connection may soon cut out … and after a few minutes of silence, the Internet starts back up. Ironic, isn’t it, that this is considered one of the social media capitals of the world, huh?

You’d better believe it. The nation of 250 million is obsessed with Facebook, WeChat and everything in between. But even among the pandemonium of apps and sites vying for Indonesians’ attention, Nasution, the so-called father of Indonesian blogging, still thinks he can give the country’s 80 million Internet users something better, something Indonesian. His network, which launched last November, is called Sebangsa (“One Nation”), and Nasution hopes to amass the best parts of Twitter and Facebook with a serious local twist: the addition of emergency services, customer support and even a chance to chat with politicians.

All of which might seem like a pipe dream if the name Nasution doesn’t mean anything to you. And it doesn’t help that, as is so common in the tech world, a lot of the “details” (funding, for example) about the venture are kept tight to the chest. The one detail that is known — that it’s just thousands, not millions, using Sebangsa — isn’t encouraging either. But social media experts are cautiously optimistic given the 39-year-old’s impressive following and track record, an acumen they liken to Nate Silver, the darling founder of sports site FiveThirtyEight. “It might just gain traction,” says Jeff Lewis, a professor of media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “It is the most ambitious network I’ve seen.”

Nasution looks the part of Facebook killer and great democratizer.

Ambitious because it’s offering some services that really no social network has developed and it has a true “Made in Indonesia” stamp. Through an 1800 channel, users can query, complain about or praise companies and public figures and actually receive a response. A 911 channel, where Indonesians can post about freeway accidents and floods, for example, will serve as a stopgap measure before police and medics step up their game — it even has a panic button that broadcasts users’ locations to friends and family.

There’s no doubt Nasution looks the part of Facebook killer and great democratizer. He matches clear and cultured English with a sharp white collared shirt (first two buttons open, of course) and medium-long hair unkempt even for the startup world. Though he holds a degree in civil engineering from the Bandung Institute of Technology (Indonesia’s MIT), he didn’t exactly “disrupt” his father’s legacy — Syarifuddin Nasution was a professor at the same university, in the same department. But once the Internet reached Indonesia’s shores in ’94, Nasution was quick to jump onto the bandwagon. His personal website and, later, blog were natural extensions of the diary he has kept since middle school and would spawn his Internet fame. Nasution was instrumental in building a nationwide blogosphere of 5 million by organizing nationwide conferences — one of which was hosted by then-mayor of Surakarta and current President Joko Widodo (“I was impressed but didn’t care much for him at the time,” remembers Nasution).

Only a third of Indonesians are connected to the Internet, but the number is growing by 30 percent yearly.

With only 6,000 Sebangsa users so far, Nasution could really use increasingly social-media-savvy politicians like Widodo to embrace the social network. Already, several ministers have expressed interest, he says, and he’s not kidding. Rudiantara, the nation’s minister of communications and information technology, told OZY he’d help the country support Sebangsa, including perhaps joining the site himself down the road. For now, other partnerships are more in reach. The Indonesia Boy Scouts for example, which has 22 million members, is “very interested” in working with Sebangsa, though no deal is set, says Indo Reyano, the organization’s spokesman.

But those partnerships are still ifs and depend a lot on whether there are users in the first place. While providing much-needed emergency services is a good idea in theory, some don’t think it’ll be enough to lure users away from Facebook and Twitter. And experts have doubts about whether some of the features will really be that effective. It’s great that people can post emergencies to Sebangsa, but it won’t matter if traffic is so bad that medics can’t get to the scene, says Lewis.

For an aspiring Mark Zuckerberg, there isn’t a better place to be than Indonesia. The country is disproportionately young and hungry to be connected, especially as rural to urban migration cuts Indonesians’ ties with family and friends. And with only a third connected to the Internet but the number growing by 30 percent yearly, there are a lot of fresh users waiting to be picked up by Sebangsa, says Nasution. A moment later, the Internet cuts out once again.

Photography by Leonard Adam for OZY.

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