Published in The Myanmar Times on 10 June 2013
The unsung hero of Yangon’s online community talks to The Myanmar Times about the Google group she founded and how it’s grown into a behemoth over the past two years.
When Vicky Blades moved to Yangon with her young family in January 2011, she found the lack of information available online “kind of scary.”
“We knew there were international schools – but that was kind of it,” she told The Myanmar Times.
Three months later, she and a friend named Jen Herink decided to redress the information void. As Facebook wasn’t reliably accessible at the time (due to the government’s heavy-handed censorship), the pair spent an hour in Coffee Circles “cobbling together” a Google group called Yangon Expat Connection (YEC). It opened its virtual doors to members on April 19, 2011. The idea was to create a forum where expats could pool information and share practical tips about living in Yangon. Although the group’s name has the word “expat” in it, Vicky said that it was always meant to be inclusive and there’s no policy whatsoever against locals joining.
“We should maybe change the name to Yangon Connection (there is already a Facebook group of this name), but the YEC is so well known,” she said
Vicky said that initially, the number of members joining was steady, though nothing astonishing.
“We never thought in a million years that it would grow the way it has,” she said.
Vicky believes that part of the group’s early success was due to the fact that the internet was becoming more affordable in Myanmar, so there was an increasing number of people using the internet from home.
“We’d text each other and say, ‘Wow, there are a hundred members.’”
When asked whether she’s a techie, Vicky said, “Oh my God, no! I’m a forty-something mum of two. I struggle with Facebook; I have a Twitter account and never use it.”
Vicky does have a blog (she writes about parenting and the ups and downs of life in Myanmar), though she says with a modest laugh that she can barely post a photo. The Swedish-born ideas woman is also a professional actress (under the name Anna Blades) and the founder of what may be described as a spin-off website, called whatsonyangon.com
“Another reason YEC got off the ground was because people started contacting me about the blog. Writing long emails was very time-consuming, and part of me wanted to put all that information in one place for the wider community,” she said.
By the end of 2011, Vicky said YEC’s growth went ballistic and membership reached 1000. Today it stands at 1914 members.
The group isn’t open to the public – membership requests are approved on the basis that a person is living in Yangon and wants to connect with other people, whether it be to sublease a flat, join a sporting team or find a particular type of food – you name it, the YEC members have asked it.
“We were stricter in the beginning [about membership] because we had more time.” Vicky said. “If a person didn’t explain why they wanted to join, we’d ask them to tell us a little bit more about themselves.”
Vicky said that due to the volume of people joining YEC, it isn’t always possible to do individual checks. However a new team of moderators that came on board in February endeavour to vet potential members.
“I think we’ve managed to avoid any sort of spam postings,” Vicky said.
The three moderators, Sandra, Cliff and Marc, have each moderated other forums in the past and they have been something of a godsend to Vicky, who was spending a few hours each day moderating the forum.
“There was a point after Jen got a full-time job that it was just too much. It’s hard to know exactly how much time I was spending on YEC because I was doing it between nursery and playgroup drop-offs and stuff, but it certainly felt like a full-time job.”
Vicky said that her inbox is continuously full of questions from members – such as how to reverse accidentally unsubscribing or not knowing how to change the email digest of posts. Naturally, this should be discouraged, because the instructions can be found online. The moderators have full-time jobs and no one is paid to ensure YEC functions smoothly.
Although a lot of businesses have joined YEC in recent times, since June 1 it is no longer possible to send out regular posts about restaurant menus or events. This decision was made following negative feedback from members about receiving such emails – however, a number of members who support receiving all emails are becoming increasingly vocal. With such a large number of members, it’s no doubt impossible to please everybody.
“I’m really proud of what people say about [YEC],” Vicky said. “It’s had its moments. There’s been some controversy.”
The most recent was stirred following a posting from a real estate agent who was asking a staggering US$15,000 per month in rent. A back and forth between members and the person who wrote the original post went on for a couple of weeks – and the comments got pretty nasty.
Vicky said, “Obviously I have a personal opinion, but as a moderator of YEC I have to stay as neutral as possible. However I can totally understand why people got upset – I also think some of the replies were much more humorous than people realised. There’s often a joke behind what people say, but because it’s electronic and text, I suppose it’s hard to know if people are being sarcastic or making fun. I take everything with a big pinch of salt,” she added with a laugh.
Another well-known controversy was the “pineapple pizza” fight. It began innocently enough, when the owner of the newly opened Papa Pizza posted a menu. Some YEC members were livid that pizzas with pineapple were available and a fight ensued over the validity of such a creation.
“Some were joking and others took it seriously. [The fight] raged on and on. It was just ridiculous. It’s pineapple pizza,” she said with a smile.
Emotions ran high on another occasion when a YEC member asked where spoons were available to purchase in Yangon.
“I’m convinced it was a joke,” Vicky said.
Yet with YEC, you never know.
“I’m astounded by what people put in print. I don’t think people realise that what they say goes out to 1900 people.”
Although YEC’s policy is to never remove a post, the same cannot be said for members who seriously misbehave. However Vicky said she can count on one hand the number of people who have been removed from the group during the past two years.
“We try to take the approach that people say things in the heat of the moment, not realising it’s a public forum. We try to give them the chance by saying it’s not tolerated or acceptable and to make sure they won’t do it again.”
This is done privately, although general tickings-off have also been issued to the group as a whole – most recently this happened when the argument over expensive rent escalated into snide racial comments.
One of Vicky’s most embarrassing moments on YEC occurred shortly after giving birth to her second son, Oscar.
As Vicky explained, “Someone called Daphne posted on YEC that she and her husband had just arrived in Yangon and were looking for some adult friends to play with. I’d just had a baby and my response was in that frame of mind. I emailed back that she should join the IFG [International Friendship Group]. Then Jenny emailed me and said ‘I’m not sure that’s the sort of friendship she was looking for.’ I was mortified.”
High jinks aside, when I asked Vicky whether the number of members could ever reach a point when the group becomes too large to be manageable, her answer is far less optimistic than expected.
“The future of YEC is something I’ve thought long and hard about. I’ve debated it with friends for many months now. I think there is going to be some natural attrition, in that the group will one day just fade away. Compared to the rest of the world, there’s still very few websites for Yangon and Myanmar. But that’s going to change, and I think people will start using other websites. I spoke to a friend last week who’s lived in Yangon for eight years – she said she thinks she’ll unsubscribe from YEC. She said, ‘It used to be interesting and sometimes entertaining, but now it’s just the same questions over and over again, and there are too many businesses posting. I’d rather go to a website and search for the information I want.’”
Vicky believes that YEC has changed a lot – just as the city itself has. However she is keen to emphasise that YEC is a dynamic group and as information changes on an almost daily basis, it is YEC that keeps up. She rues the fact that some people – possibly out of fear of being criticised – reply privately to queries rather than sharing the information with the wider YEC community.
“We are currently the first point of contact for a lot of people, but I think that will change,” Vicky said. I don’t know how long we’ve got. I think just letting it happen naturally is the best way forward.”
For the moment however, YEC isn’t going anywhere, and the number of new members continues to increase by 3.6 people a day. There would be few expats who could say that Vicky’s creation hasn’t made their life a little or a lot easier at some point during their stay in Yangon.
Some may wonder whether YEC will take the socialising offline from time to time – that is, in the form of face–to–face get–togethers.
“In the old days, we said we’d have a party when we reached 200, 500 or 1000 members – but we never did,” she said.
The dance club Hola approached Vicky and put on a second birthday party for YEC earlier in the year. Although there isn’t anything in the pipeline at this stage, Vicky is very much open to the idea. As the networking extraordinaire said: “I love nothing better than going around chatting to people. I can do that all day long.”
Click here to visit the YEC Google Group