In 2018, the team at Facebook had a puzzle on their hands. Cambodian users accounted for nearly 50% of all global traffic for Messenger’s voice function, but no one at the company knew why, according to documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen. From a report: One employee suggested running a survey, according to internal documents viewed by Rest of World. Did it have to do with low literacy levels? they wondered. In 2020, a Facebook study attempted to ask users in countries with high audio use, but was only able to find a single Cambodian respondent, the same documents showed. The mystery, it seemed, stayed unsolved. The answer, surprisingly, has less to do with Facebook, and more to do with the complexity of the Khmer language, and the way users adapt for a technology that was never designed with them in mind. In Cambodia, everyone from tuk-tuk drivers to Prime Minister Hun Sen prefers to send voice notes instead of messages. Facebook’s study revealed that it wasn’t just Cambodians who favor voice messages — though nowhere else was it more popular. In the study, which included 30 users from the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Benin, Ivory Coast, and that single Cambodian, 87% of respondents said that they used voice tools to send notes in a different language from the one set on their apps. This was true on WhatsApp — the most popular platform among the survey respondents — along with Messenger and Telegram.
One of the most common reasons? Typing was just too hard. In Cambodia’s case, there has never been an easy way to type in Khmer. While Khmer Unicode was standardized fairly early, between 2006 and 2008, the keyboard itself lagged behind. The developers of the first Khmer computer keyboard had to accommodate the language’s 74 characters, the most of any script in the world. It was a daunting task. Javier Sola, a Spanish-born, Phnom Penh-based computer scientist, was part of the team working on the initial KhmerOS project in 2005. “There are many, many more symbols in Khmer than in [the] Latin script,” Sola, now executive director of Cambodian NGO the Open Institute, told Rest of World. On a Latin keyboard, a user could see all of the alphabet at once, making typing intuitive. But in Khmer, each key hosted two different characters, which required flipping repeatedly between two keyboard layers. Not only that, but limited fonts meant that some messages failed to appear if the recipient’s computer lacked the same font as the sender’s. Still, users made it work. Facebook became popular in Cambodia around 2009, just at the same time as cheap smartphones and internet access, which meant that its usage exploded. Today, it’s still the country’s most popular overall platform. But on a small smartphone screen, that same typing system became nearly impossible.