Online Burmese ‘Looking for a Place to Meet, Socialize and Have a Voice’

By Nyein Nyein 28 June 2013

Burma’s notoriously low Internet penetration rate will not deter Rita Nguyen, who last week rolled out SQUAR, the country’s first Burmese-language social networking site.

First drawn to long closed-off Burma early this year, Nguyen saw potential in the country, which hosted the world’s largest Internet conference focusing on user-generated content just a few years after most online censorship was lifted by the government.

The SQUAR cofounder brings more than 15 years’ experience in gaming and social networking, having worked for the US video game developers Electronic Arts, where she helped build and lead online communities and social media strategies for the company’s products.

Born in Vietnam but a Canadian citizen, Nguyen returned to Asia three years ago and began to focus on social networking and mobile gaming applications. She visited Burma for the first time in January, when Rangoon hosted the world’s largest BarCamp, which are conferences held globally with a focus on technology and the Internet. Debuting in Burma in 2010, BarCamp has seen rising participation each year since, and drew 6,400 participants to Barcamp Yangon in 2013, making it the largest user-generated conference in the world.

It’s that online enthusiasm that Nguyen hopes to tap with SQUAR, a homegrown social application that launched last week and can be downloaded through the Google Play store. In an e-mail interview with The Irrawaddy, Nguyen talks about the launch of the application and Burma’s insomniac web users, and describes “something very special happening” among the country’s web users.

Question: The beta version of SQUAR was introduced last week to Burmese mobile phone users. Will there be more development soon on a version for PC, Mac or tablets?

Answer: Yes we are working hard to launch a desktop and mobile browser version for early next week. In addition, plans are in the works to add iOS and maybe a few other platforms, but that will be a little later.

Q: What is your impression of young Burmese who are very active on Facebook and other social media?

A: You know, they are not much different than groups of Asian youth in other markets. They are looking for a place to meet, socialize and most importantly, have a voice. I am very surprised at how active Burmese youth are on Facebook and SQUAR, especially very late at night. Apparently the kids in Myanmar don’t sleep.

Q: How did you come up with the idea to introduce a Burmese-language social application like this?

A: I came to visit Myanmar early this year after hearing the news that Yangon had the largest BarCamp in the world. After spending a week here, I could see that there was something very special happening. And while there was so much talk of big investments and big infrastructure deals, I noticed that there was nothing that was built specifically for the Burmese nationals. I knew that the access to Internet connectivity would correct itself with the new foreign carriers coming to the market, but even if Burmese were online, there was really no destination that belonged to them, built for and by them.

Q: What kind of challenges have you encountered so far in developing SQUAR?

A: Wow, we learned so many things that we simply did not anticipate. Like more than half the Android users can’t access the Google Play store and couldn’t download our app! Also, the translations to Burmese and different keyboards was a lot of fun.

What’s more interesting though is that we really took a leap of faith to release the product as early as we did. It’s very common in Silicon Valley to develop technology like this. Something very light, called a minimum viable product. The idea is that you have something that is functional so that your customers can use it, feed back and help you refine and build your product.

What I wasn’t sure about is if the Burmese youth would be very forgiving with such a light product since they would not have had a lot of exposure to products built in this manner. We didn’t have photos, profiles and barely even had notifications in. There was a very good chance that people would download it, try it and then abandon it. However, the positive response we have had has been overwhelming! The people of Myanmar have rallied around this, providing hundreds of ideas in thousands of posts in just over a week.

Luckily we were already working on the most pressing things like photo support and sharing to other social networks but they also gave us a lot of other ideas and I think I have a good handle on what the youth of Myanmar want with their social network. Now it’s just a matter of getting it built! Our plan is to keep releasing new features every Tuesday to allow our community to test, try and feed back on the new features.

Q: What do you expect from Burma’s active social media users? Do you think that SQUAR will be able to beat an established social networking site such as Facebook?

A: Well my view is that there is room here for more than one social network and I fully expect that everyone in the SQUAR community will also have a Facebook account. That said, we are offering a different experience than the largely 1-to-1 and personal relationships that are more Facebook’s focus. We will also be rolling out many, many other features and experiences in the upcoming months that are solely built for the Myanmar market.

Q: Will SQUAR be a free application like Facebook or do you have any marketing plans?

A: SQUAR will always be free to users.