We will find those who disappear if we look for them, and as the time passes by, we will forget those who passed away…”

– DuckyEgg posted in Toilet SWAT Police Forum, author’s translation (from Burmese).

And so begins a dialogue in Burmese cyberspace on the popular social networking site, Toilet Wall. The carnivalesque dialogue continues with descriptions of lepers competing for the hand of Princess Cigarette Lighter, the daughter of King Love. While the standard picture of media and internet use inside Burma is one of censorship and repression, it seems that social networking is providing an important outlet for freer expression.

For those unfamiliar with the term, online social networks are websites that allow users to create their own online identity, through a nickname, avatar and personal page, and then interact with other users through chat rooms, forums, comment boards and groups. The most common of these in the English medium Internet are Facebook and Myspace.

In one sense, Burmese online social networks are like meta-teashops. Users come together and gossip, discuss news, talk about everyday life, religion, love, art, community work and occasionally politics; sharing their opinions. While in an offline teashop in Yangon, customers have to fear when the conversation verges on topics sensitive to the state, in the online world Burmese Internet users can hide behind their made-up identities. The sites can verge on something like an anyeint (carnival) — where the world with all its rigid social norms are turned upside-down: discussion about bowel movements is encouraged, swearing becomes acceptable, and parody is a way of life. “No toilet paper but unity!”, a slogan on Toilet Wall, is but one example of the witty satire found online. It is a parody of the official slogans calling for unity. Absurdity is cool.

The wide-range of social networking sites and their sub-groups give insight into new social and cultural developments: graffiti art, underground hip-hop, sexual identities, hacking, metal music, migration. The socio-economic reality is never far away as users struggling to work or study in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore offer advice and support to others. Discussions about the many difficulties young Burmese struggle with in their lives easily leads into sensitive topics.

In cyberspace, Burmese gay and lesbian people are gaining visibility too. Offline homosexuality is still largely taboo and homophobia remains common in Burma. Online social networks can provide important space for gay and lesbian people to gather, talk, organise and counter popular perceptions in a relatively safe space. Planet has a forum for gay people to share their experience with the opening message announcing, “Why are you hiding your feeling to other people? You can talk anything you feel about…. Let talk and open your mind happily [sic]”. For gays and lesbians in Burma, online networking has also led to offline events — in the form of parties or gatherings, including one for the International Day Against Homophobia this year.

While sites like Toilet Wall are hosted on free platforms accessible around the world and based outside the country, Burmese companies in Yangon are also designing networks from scratch. Two of the biggest, Planet and Mysuboo, are part of Inforithm-Maze, a business owned by Thaung Su Nyein, the son of former foreign minister Win Aung. Both of these men are targeted by European Union sanctions. Inforithm-Maze is also a key IT firm for the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). They boast an extensive range of government contracts, from web design and hosting for the Ministry of Commerce to stock administration and budgetary systems for the Ministry of Defence. They are also in charge of designing and maintaining “PSRMS Press Scrutiny Management System” for the Ministry of Information, the government agency tasked with censorship. Presumably if an effective system for user-generated web censorship were to be developed, it would come from the very company that is profiting from the open space.

Rather than being a marginalised form of media, online social networking technology is therefore firmly in the sphere of economic and state power. Co-option rather than government repression appears to be the trend.

According to one Yangon-based editor, the government does not yet have the technological skills to censor social networking sites, despite possessing what the OpenNet Initiative has described as “pervasive filtering”. Their only option at present appears to be the outright banning of sites, which is common with exiled media and political blogs. Some sites which maintain a legal presence in the country display rules warning against postings that could be considered “illegal”. Self-censorship exists online, but importantly there is space for debate about how far to push the boundaries. In response to one highly political posting in a Yangon-based web forum, one member responded, writing “If you want to post this – there are other sites where you can do that. This is an important public space so we shouldn’t risk losing this site!”

The dialogue taking place through social networking sites is important for building solidarity, community, awareness and consciousness among users. It can provide an outlet for freer and creative expression, compared to the tight control Burma’s government has on traditional media forms. Online social networking should be recognised as a key part of Burma’s new mediascape.