How did Viber become a space for Filipino communities in times of crisis?

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When the lockdown urged residents of Metro Manila to stay indoors, they gathered in Viber communities to find answers and seek solace in a time of uncertainty. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Sydney, Australia (CNN Philippines Life) — If you ever needed quail eggs, a NutriBullet, or a plumber, the last place you’d think to look was a chat group. But with anxieties flying high during the first few weeks of the lockdown in Metro Manila, Filipinos found solace in one another through Viber communities. Here, all questions and topics are welcome — like where to get water, what new ordinances are imposed, or a 36-hour discussion on where to get “the best pan de sal.”

The community feature was launched by the tech company Rakuten Viber in late 2018, allowing users with similar interests to interact in one group while maintaining their privacy. “The phone number of a community member is by default hidden, and the member can disable getting a private message from other community members,” says Lana Macapagal, Rakuten Viber’s PR Manager for the Asia Pacific. She says that Viber enjoys a 71% penetration rate in the country, mostly from millennial users within Metro Manila, its nearby provinces, and Cebu. “Recently, we have seen a surge in community engagement, not just globally, but also in the Philippines. There has been a 2.5 times increase in community viewers and 2.7 times growth in messages sent to communities.”

Amid the pandemic, users in the Philippines turned to Viber communities as a support system and information hub, usually demarcated by location: for cities from Quezon City to Parañaque. Some groups broke off and clustered according to barangay, zones, or subdivisions.

One of the earlier groups to pop up was the New Manila Community Updates group, currently with over 4,000 members. Its creator and administrator, Vladimir “VJ” Manuel, says that initially the community only had four members: himself, two cousins, and his dentist. Manuel, who works with the Asian Institute of Management, made the group a few days after the lockdown to keep up with what was happening within his neighborhood. "You want people to quickly exchange information in real-time, so you use the tools that you have," says Manuel. He chose Viber simply because it was natural to him — he was already a heavy user.

When Zarah Ruiz, a former brand and social media manager, saw other neighborhoods were conglomerating on Viber, she gathered her friends, mostly other parents like herself, to create the Pasig Residents Group. Ruiz says she preferred the Viber platform over Facebook to avoid “trolls.” The intention was just to share updates, like how long the lines in the groceries were, to friends and friends of friends who wanted the low-down. “Then we started getting more members, mostly through word of mouth. We just woke up one day with over a thousand members.” Now, the Pasig Residents Group has over 6,000 members, with a separate group dedicated to selling products called the Pasig City Marketplace, with more than 9,000 users.

These communities, if not bombarded with updates, have information that can’t be found on the news. When checkpoints were deployed around Manila, people could get tips on which routes to pass. When the alcohol ban was imposed, some communities bartered liquor. “It's so easy to get information about what’s going on in the Philippines as a whole, but it’s hard when you’re more concerned about what’s impacting you in your neighborhood,” says Manuel. "The interesting thing about it is while the world is really global, we still need certain elements for small communities to thrive, especially when you can only move around your geographical area that is so constricted,” he says.

Ruiz adds that these communities worked because the information was tailor-fit to the user. “It’s more personalized because for example, in the Pasig community, you know that the information you’re getting is really for Pasig residents,” she says.

Kapwa in Viber communities

The administrators noticed unique aspects of social interaction arise in the groups. "I see them trying to look after each other, and there's an urge to help out,” says Ruiz. Parang may feeling of belongingness since you know that they belong to the same community.” “Kasi, there was a time somebody passed by Ortigas and saw construction workers stranded there with placards asking for help, and they posted it in the group. I remember members of the community got together and did something to help those stranded workers,” she shares with delight. Proving that the cultural characteristic of pakikipagkapwa comes to light especially during a crisis, a theorized core value of Filipino social psychology posited by Virgilio Enriquez. Pakikipagkapwa means that we carry a moral obligation to treat others as fellow human beings, connecting through a shared identity.

Manuel also observed this sudden reliance on the goodwill of strangers when users asked to share in bulk purchases or “pabili.” When one user wants to buy something online, but the item is only sold in bulk, they make a shoutout for whoever wants to go halves with the purchase, and someone would most likely raise their hand. It suddenly became normal for two complete strangers to share a cart, anything from bulk sweet white corn to bulk bibingka. "I felt na it became more neighborly," says Manuel.

Administrators as mediators

People like Manuel and Ruiz are community administrators, who acquire the responsibility of managing these groups voluntarily. Their mediating roles afford them substantial authority. For example, banter about politics is something they can choose to deal with, or not at all. This is a responsibility that, only until recently, tech companies like Facebook have tried to steer away from. “We delete posts that do not follow community guidelines. We don't want 'fake news' as much as possible, we only want reliable and valid sources of information shared in the group," says Ruiz.

Ruiz, who also administers the Pasig City Marketplace, says that the monitoring work there is even more tedious. "We have to monitor not only the posts but also the pricing kasi we see overpriced products being sold. Since we’re the admins, we feel like we owe it to our members to protect them. Kinakabahan kami for the buyer, lalo na if they're from Pasig, so we also intervene," says Ruiz, exercising an intermediary role over the community. When the alcohol ban was imposed, Ruiz didn’t want the marketplace group to be complicit in the selling of alcohol. “We don’t want to put the drivers at risk,” reasons Ruiz. While she admits some of her decisions were contentious, she thinks it her role to impose regulations, and isn’t afraid to call out a seller for jacking up the price of a pack of Yakult.

Support system

As weeks pass, and things normalize in Manila, Viber communities have also become more self-managed. Users come in and out of it when they need to, sharing news, an occasional meme or two, and for some groups (like the San Juan City Residents) lots of prayers. Information within these groups is not hard to find. One can easily search on Google to see “which branches of BPI are open today.” But it shows that in times of difficulty, having access to any kind of information is enough. These digital communities offer the comfort of sharing worries during a time of utter precariousness. And during a crisis, an answered query provides guidance when the world seems so lost. It’s even better when information is vouched for by your kapitbahay.

It also doesn't hurt to have access to the lived experiences of other people, like knowing whether the internet is down for the whole area, or “is it just me?” Or knowing that “the pack of U.S. seedless oranges bought from Unimart last week were all rotten.” Most of all, it's a reminder that while we are more isolated than ever before, we're not struggling alone. There is comfort in knowing that at the end of the day, everyone enjoys an excellent pan de sal.