Might social media critics factor in the view from developing countries?

By Anne Collier

Those of us in developed countries can get so wrapped up in the potential downsides of social media that we can barely imagine how much positive potential they represent in developing countries, where some parents work hard to get their children mobile phones that connect them to the rest of the world – and possible upward mobility – through services such as Twitter, Facebook and Google (see this). In the news media we’re often reminded of how global social media are, yet critics here give little indication they’re factoring in perspectives outside the US. Here are some insights from a young activist in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which raise the crucial question of how to support full, healthy participation in social media, wherever they’re used, rather than spread fear and encourage roadblocks….

In honor of International Girls in ICT Day, a two-year-old initiative of the UN’s ITU, Arsène Tungali, who I met after he traveled from neighboring DRC and spoke at the Internet Governance Forum in Kenya last fall, recently (and impressively in English, most probably his third language) wrote a blog post about the barriers to tech adoption Congolese girls and women face.

There are financial, infrastructure, and cultural hurdles in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tungali says people can learn basic “ICTs” (information and communications technologies) at “data centres scattered throughout the city [his city of Goma, a provincial capital in the DRC], paying between $60 and $80 to learn MS Windows, MS Word, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint,” but that’s pretty prohibitive in a country with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world (USAID said it was $500 in 2006, and now it appears to be closer to $300). There are cybercafés, Tungali writes, but they charge the equivalent of a $1 an hour.

Mobile can be safer, more reliable

Then there’s the basic struggle for adequate electrical power. Last fall, Tungali said Goma, or at least his part of it, only had electricity at night (from 11:30 pm to 6 am), so, as for people in many developing countries, mobile connecting is much more reliable – and safe, where most people, especially youth, can’t own their own computers and connecting through cybercafés can only happen at night. Tungali, who graduated from the University of Goma in 2009, said he uses YouTube, Skype, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia on his mobile phone, though it’s not a smartphone (here’s his Facebook page and that of the nonprofit organization he co-founded for training youth in ICT, Rudi International, which hopes to hold a Girls in ICT Day next year).

Facebook Zero helps. Launched two years ago, it’s a low-bandwidth, bare-bones version for mobile phones that makes using social media and connecting globally so much more possible for people in developing countries with basic cellphones (Tungali writes that most young people in his area use it). Because of agreements Facebook struck with mobile carriers in 45 countries, including in the DRC, the carriers in those countries assess no data charges for using Facebook Zero on mobile phones (see the chart at the bottom of this page and BBC coverage showing that, in the UK, Facebook represents “nearly half of all the time people in the UK spend going online using their phones”).

Last summer the Times of India reported that cheaper Internet-ready phones could well make India Facebook’s biggest market after the US this year, with more than 50 million users – because, last year, the number of active FB accounts there jumped 85% to 32 million, FB’s third-largest behind the US’s 153 million and Indonesia’ 39.2 million users. [See also “Snapshot of how Indian youth use social media” and “Data update: Social media use around the globe.”] With mobile phone use just taking off in Africa, we can expect to see fast-growing uptake of social media on that continent too, at least for people who don’t find the cultural challenges too great.

Cultural hurdles for women especially

For women in the DRC, the cultural hurdles are high – “customs and traditional behaviors that represent how the young woman is educated in society from birth,” Tungali wrote. These customs “do not allow girls to embrace the world, as they have learned not to be seen.” Tungali mentioned two unusually connected Congolese young women, Gloria (15) and Florence (25), whose favorite Web services are Yahoo, Facebook, Google and Gmail. He says their Internet use is unusual in that even 4th-year female university students heading into the job market don’t typically show a lot of interest in technology.

Which is why, where women in developing countries can find family support for discreet, in-home Internet use on phones, social media can be a means for safe intellectual and social interaction beyond their very limited local spheres of activity.

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