Malaysians have the most online friends

You may think of Japan as a hive of digital activity, but it turns out users there have the lowest number of friends on social networks. Instead it’s Malaysia where online activity is most frenetic.

The findings come from TNS, which has carried out the first in what’s planned to be annual series of studies into online activities in 46 countries. (While that might not seem many, TNS claims it covers 90% of the world’s online population.) The company released the first set of figures yesterday, declaring the date (10/10/10) to be “digital day.”

The average user in Malaysia spends nine hours a week on social networking sites and has 233 people in their online networks. At the other end of the scale, the average Japanese user has just 29 friends. (The image above shows each country in proportion to the average number of online friends.)

The biggest disparity between the two measures came in China, where the average user spends a lot of time on social networks (5.1 hours) but only has 68 online friends. TNS suggests that may be a cultural issue about quality rather than quantity of friendships.

Another pattern shown by the usage statistics was that in countries where internet use is only recently becoming widely popular, users are more likely to spend more time on social networking than on using e-mail; in countries where internet use is well established, the opposite holds true. (However, social networking may be on the rise everywhere, driven by greater use on smartphones rather than computers.)

The study also showed that censorship doesn’t necessarily have the effects you might expect. In China 88% of internet users say they have written a blog, compared with 32% in the US. That might seem unlikely given China’s reputation for online freedom of speech. However, it’s possible those in other countries are more likely to express themselves through social networking sites, or “microblogging” services such as Twitter.

The main theme of the results is the big differences in behavior among people in developed and developing markets for internet use, with developing markets much more likely to be using services such as online photo sharing. That’s partly because of the novelty factor, but may also be that in countries relatively new to online activity, it’s mainly avid tech-lovers online, whereas in countries where the Internet is established, a more general audience is online, using it more as an information resource than a means of sharing content.

That also explains why many of the figures for Japan are so much closer to North America and Europe than to those of other Asian countries.

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