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**UPDATE: Please note that this conference has been postponed by the organisers

The  WTFMedia conference on social media, mobile media and cloud computing will take place from April 27 – 29, 2010 at CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre).

Some of the 40 speakers include Melissa Attree, Matthew Buckland, Dave Duarte, Arthur Goldstuck, Justin Hartman, Shel Istrael, Vincent Maher and Hans Mol. The conference will include a boot camp:  How to negotiate the social media landscape. (Don’t worry, no pushups or actual sweat glands are involved, but bring your own laptop and mobile phone.)
The conference blurb promises to use “common or garden words to provide relevant answers to real questions as to what works and what doesn’t”. So that’s likely to interest impatient hands-on practitioners, or the jargon-wary types who don’t relate to most of the usual connotations of the word ‘conference’ — other than ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’, of course. It’s also a juicy challenge to any academics who want to get their fangs into media history as it happens. Just imagine, all that warm-blooded industry talk, temptingly packaged as common-sense. Mmmm.

The registration fee of R4500 is indeed extremely steep for our academic budgets (WTF, most media scholars are in Humanities faculties, after all). So it’s good news that CPUT are offering academic discount rates of R1000 –  before 20 April. (You will need to produce valid staff or student card).

Here is the conference website
If the price is just too steep, there’s also the NetProphets event, which is also in Cape Town, and still free, Sadly it looks like I won’t be able to attend that one.
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ISEA2010I attended ISEA2008 in Singapore, and it was a fascinating and mind-exanding experience of digital art and scholarship.  It saddened me that, as far as I could tell, I was the only delegate from the whole of Africa. Thanks to the efforts of Andreas Broeckmann and generous sponsorship from the Goethe-Institut, the picture at ISEA2010 RUHR should look very different – twelve media artists from sub-Saharan Africa will have the opportunity to attend ISEA2010 this August.

“The Goethe-Institut South Africa and ISEA2010 are partnering to offer twelve people working within media arts in sub-Saharan Africa a chance to participate in the programme. The partnership will cover costs related to travel and accommodation, visas, health insurance, and a per diem during the chosen candidates’ stay in Germany.”

Here is more detail about ISEA2010 and how to apply for the Goethe-Institut award:

“ISEA2010 RUHR is an international festival for art, creativity and media technology, which will this year take place within the broader framework of the European Capital of Culture, RUHR.2010. The programme will include conferences, exhibitions, audio-visual and dance performances, public art projects, artists’ presentations and workshops, and is set for 20 to 29 August 2010. http://www.isea2010ruhr.org

ISEA was started in 1988, and ISEA2010 RUHR is the 16th incarnation of the International Symposium on Electronic Art. The symposium, which focuses on the role of art in the digital age, will bring together a large international community of artists, curators, theorists and scientists for ten days of discussions, festivities, networking and exchange of ideas.

The Goethe-Institut South Africa and ISEA2010 are partnering to offer twelve people working within media arts in sub-Saharan Africa a chance to participate in the programme. The partnership will cover costs related to travel and accommodation, visas, health insurance, and a per diem during the chosen candidates’ stay in Germany.

The Goethe-Institut is Germany’s globally active cultural institute that encourages international cultural cooperation, promotes knowledge of the German language abroad, and reflects a contemporary understanding of Germany. The Goethe-Institut aims to facilitate a deeper understanding between cultures, through a dialogue rooted in partnership, not political affiliation. There are presently over 147 institutes worldwide in 83 countries, with 10 located in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Goethe-Institut South Africa in Johannesburg coordinates all Sub-Saharan institutes, as well as the 15 Goethe Centres within the region. Our focus is on sustainable development in culture, as well as promoting networks across Sub-Saharan Africa, with our cultural projects the highlights of our programme.

The Goethe-Institut and ISEA2010 are looking for individuals who are well-placed and interested in networking within the African media arts community, as well as drawing connections beyond its borders. Further selection criteria for possible participants are as follows:

– Well-versed in current international media art developments
– Interest and documented work on the way new media and technologies are changing our culture today
– Active in the organisation of networks, institutions and community projects with other artists and cultural practitioners
– Excellent command of English, additional German useful

Please send a short focused CV and a letter of motivation, in total no longer than three pages, to Cara Snyman at pro@johannesburg.goethe.org. Be sure to include all contact details. The deadline for submissions is 15 April 2010.”

Cara Snyman
Goethe-Institut Johannesburg
119 Jan Smuts Ave – Parkwood 2193 – South Africa
Private Bag X18 – Parkview 2122 – South Africa
Tel:  (+27-11) 442 32 32
Fax: (+27-11) 442 37 38

Mobile literacies report

Read full report on Mobile Literacies (pdf)

South African teens were happy to give their thumbs a rest for a while and take a break between MXit chats to read the m-novel Kontax, on their cellphones. The m-novel (a novel written to be read on a cellphone) meant that there was finally something on their phones that would make their parents smile rather than frown.

The m-novel Kontax was written by Sam Wilson, translated into isiXhosa by Nkululeko Mabandla, and commissioned by the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4lit (mobiles for literacy) project. The story’s success shows that teens have mastered a whole range of mobile literacies and the m4Lit research shows how wide-ranging these new skills are. Still, teens need better support if they are to make the most of the opportunities of ‘Web2.0’, and benefit from the new phase of social media where people do not only browse the web, but contribute to knowledge and share creative ideas with the world.

The m4Lit project included a research component which investigated teens’ responses to Kontax and surveyed 61 teens from Langa and Guguletu who all had access to GPRS-enabled phones. Researchers Marion Walton (Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town), Ana Deumert (Department of Linguistics, University of Cape Town),  and Steve Vosloo (Shuttleworth Foundation), found that despite regular bad news about South African youth’s poor performance at school and in literacy tests, and despite their ongoing difficulties in accessing computers, teens’ digital literacy is developing rapidly as a result of their passion for internet-enabled cellphones. The success of Kontax suggests that cellphones have significant potential in literacy development and that schools and teachers could benefit by knowing more about teens’ mobile literacies. (Read the full report here.)

When published on MXit, Kontax attracted over 28 000 teen subscribers, suggesting that teens were intrigued by the idea of using their phones to read a story.  An estimated 26% of these interested teens became loyal readers of the Kontax story, a teen mystery which included 21 400-word chapters, written in cliff-hanger-style. Kontax was slightly more popular with female than male teens, and the overwhelming majority of subscribers came from Gauteng (69%) or the Western Cape (16%). We are not sure exactly why the novel was so popular in Gauteng, but we suspect that this reveals the existence of a rural-urban ‘digital divide’ between urban teens who regularly use the internet on their cellphones and rural teens who may not have a modern phone, network access, or money for airtime.

Many South African teens may be more comfortable writing on phones than on paper or computers. The teens from Langa and Guguletu barely used computers for writing, and only 18% had a computer at home. Outside school, teens wrote on a mobile phone (mostly short messages on SMS or MXit), or else, in only a minority of cases, on pen and paper.

Adolescents need to develop self-knowledge and broaden their horizons beyond their immediate family, and teens’ mobile literacies and MXit use are playing an important part in this process. Teens used the internet on their phones to chat on MXit (75% were daily users) because they wanted to deepen their existing friendships with their peers, meet new people outside their immediate surroundings, understand themselves better, and establish new romantic relationships, both online and offline. Because of this emphasis, we weren’t really surprised that none of the teens used MXit to communicate with their parents. Overall teens were quite savvy about using MXit and understood that their adventures in the world of online chatting might have unpleasant and all-to-real consequences. Many teens had made rules for themselves to limit interactions with strangers, to guard their real identity, or to protect their time for schoolwork and household chores.

Still, teens weren’t always successful in managing their phone use, and some teens talked about how, in a contest of ‘Book vs. Phone’, the phone often won hands down. A large majority (76%) reported that they had experienced conflict with their parents because of their cellphone or MXit use, most often because of late nights, neglected schoolwork, or uncompleted household chores.

Mobile literacies (such as ‘txtspk’ or ‘MXit language’) are forms of literacy where South African teens are more expert writers than many of their elders. Overall, teens are using writing to express a youthful, casual, up to date identity and to establish their status and manage relationships in the all-important peer group.

It may surprise parents and teachers to find that teens still value the ability to communicate well and that they take care to hone their writing skills. They enjoy chatting to others who are able to use written language flexibly, responsively and creatively. Teens told us that they needed to learn to spell differently because, when they chat on MXit, speed and responsiveness are of the essence. ‘Txtspk’ deliberately breaks with the spelling conventions that teens have learned in school. It introduces a whole new set of rules for them to learn, and many of them talked about their embarrassment when, as newcomers to MXit, they unwittingly transgressed these new rules. They learned the hard way that they need to pay attention to their writing style or run the risk of ‘being deleted’ or losing friends on MXit.

Beyond MXit, many teens were also actively exploring the web. Their favourite site was Google, many had discovered Facebook, and ‘wap’ media download sites were also popular. Most teens had used the web on both computers and phones, but they were more likely to use their phones for everyday Web use, particularly to access news and Facebook. Beyond this improved accessibility, having a web-enabled phone did not appear to expand the range of daily opportunities for web use for this group.

Some teens had difficulties using websites, preferring to access content on MXit. These teens struggled to find their way around and sign up on the Kontax mobisite. Overall, when we compare them with their wealthier suburban counterparts or to teens in the US or Europe, the  teens from Langa and Guguletu didn’t seem to have as much experience in finding information for school, joining interest groups or publishing their own creative writing, art, video and music. This is partly because it is not possible for teens to publish their own writing or artwork or manage interest-based online communities on MXit. South African teens who learn to use the internet on their phones, who focus on MXit rather than the web, and who don’t have regular access to computers may thus be missing out on some educational and creative opportunities.

Schools could also be making better use of teens’ internet access on their phones and using teens’ enthusiasm for all things mobile to encourage educational uses of the web. Nonetheless, the limitations of mobile access mean that it is still an urgent priority to improve computer access in schools and libraries, particulary in rural areas, and to make broadband internet access more affordable for all South African households.

I’m presenting a paper today with Jonathan Donner about the role of mobile Internet in the SA 2009 elections, at the International Conference on Mobile Communication and Social Policy, at the Center for Mobile Communication Studies, Rutgers University.

The conference has been a wonderful way to meet social scientists and humanities scholars studying mobile communication around the world. Kudos to James Katz and the organisers for their success in attracting scholars from such a wide range of countries (20) – we should definitely make sure that there is a larger African contingent at the next meeting.  Here is a prepublication draft of the paper, prepared on 22 September 2009. It has corrections added after we submitted the paper, and additional changes and edits are possible, so please check with us before citing. Comments welcome.

‘This paper describes four kinds of mobile mediated political participation observed during the 2009 national elections in South Africa: (1) SMS ‘wars’ in the run-up to the election; (2) .mobi websites hosted by political parties; and the political content included on (3) the mobile social network Mig33 and excluded from (4) its counterpart/competitor, MXit. We discuss the failure of all four forms to support the emergence of a networked or mediated public, and consider how particular properties of the mobile internet, vs. the ‘traditional’ internet, are partially responsible.’

ICT and social network access in South Africa

m4lit: Mobile phones for literacy

kontax.mobi

kontax.mobi

From this week, South African teens will encounter the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4Lit project, which launches today. m4Lit centres around Kontax, a teen m-novel, or a novel designed to be read on a cellphone, in either English or isiXhosa. Readers will be able to access the series from WAP-enabled cellphones (or from computers) and they can read the 21 episodes of the story as they are released over the next 21 days. The social design of the site is intended to allow readers to interact with one another and and with the story. They can vote on and discuss the plot, leave comments, download wallpapers and submit their own stories for a competition. Credit for the project goes to Steve Vosloo, 21st century learning Fellow at Shuttleworth, to the ‘mobilist’ and author of Kontax, Sam Wilson, and to translator Nkululeko Mabandla.

Books are a bit like telephone landlines in many parts of the African continent – hard to come by, controlled by exploitative intermediaries, expensive, somewhat exotic, and only for the rich. This applies to some extent to school textbooks (which are not always available in all schools when needed, and which must often be shared), but especially to school libraries, and to leisure reading material.  Mobile websites are becoming more and more accessible, thanks to growing availability of  feature phones and rapidly expanding mobile networks  in Africa. (Cellular operators estimate that about 9 million South Africans already have Internet access on such GPRS-enabled phones, while apparently about 13 million users have registered with the most popular internet-based instant messenger, MXit). It will be interesting to see whether, despite the associated network costs, mobile web access is used by people in Africa to bypass the complexities of accessing books, just as cellphones were used to gain access to telephony.

For those people who want to read more fiction (or want to publish their own stories), but who struggle to access books or to get a publisher to take interest, the m4Lit project is worth watching.

Together with co-researchers Ana Deumert (Linguistics, UCT) and Mastin Prinsloo (Education, UCT), I’ve been involved as a researcher on the project and have been given the brief of investigating mobile media and digital literacies. Here’s a draft paper for the mLearn conference that Steve, Ana and I wrote which outlines our research. I’m looking forward to getting to grips with Kontax, and to see how the story shapes up as a new mobile genre, and whether it takes a place alongside other text-based mobile genres that teens enjoy such as MXit language, ‘txting’, Google searches, and mobile wikipedia.

Kontax promo poster

Kontax promo poster

I’ve just signed up for the Kontax mobisite, and was impressed to see that it provides great social media functionality –  users can indeed set up a profile,  make and invite friends, and generally comment and interact around the ‘chapters’ of the story.  On the downside, while I enjoyed the  retro-styled cartoon graphics, they may perhaps be a bit heavy on bandwidth, and I couldn’t spot a ‘no graphics’ button anywhere.  Mobile internet users in SA don’t all buy data bundles, and downloads can get expensive very quickly, especially for very price-sensitive users. (Apparently MXit users complained noisily after MXit introduced profile pictures in the latest version of the app, since their MXit use suddenly became much more expensive).

The Kontax mobisite can be accessed in an English or an isiXhosa version,  from Abahlobo (Friends) to Iprofayili (Profile). A lot of work has gone into translating the site and the story, but it’s worth looking at a few details of how a multilingual community can be integrated, such as where the results of a quiz on the isiXhosa version of the site are recorded separately to an identical quiz on the English version of the site.

The first few visitors to the site seemed to have enjoyed the first chapter of Kontax. I’ll be watching during the next few weeks to see whether teens see Kontax as a welcome extension of the informal mobile literacies that they value, or whether features such as the daily quizes and all the reading mean that, to them, it still perhaps smells too much of school?

Mobisite-in-a-box: mobile publishing, gatekeeping and aggregation

After this project, the Shuttleworth Foundation will be making the code of the Kontax mobisite and its social network (lite) available for free, to be used and adapted by anyone who wants to upload and share a novel or story with mobile-centric phone users. (I don’t yet know whether the mobisite-in-a-box will be built to be configured from a phone, though I hope it will.)

This initiative may encourage writers to self-publish, use a mobi-site to build their audience, and (perhaps) later leverage that audience into income from a publishing deal or a commercial release, whether via a conventional publisher, or a mobile publisher, such as MXit books, which could help to market their work to a larger audience.

MXit already aggregates music, and allows local musicians free access to their platform, so that they can release, promote, gain fans and (if they get enough votes from fans) sell their music to mobile-centric users. As I understand it though, the model for MXit books is different. There is no way for ordinary users to upload books, i.e. MXit is not aggregating user-generated content, but rather acting as publisher or gatekeeper, with authors treated like other clients who pay to publish and access an audience via the platform. (The ‘books’ are delivered to readers in exchange for micropayments). Readers must pay a small amount to download each chapter (and, infuriatingly, they have to pay again every time they want to download it again). They also have not integrated any fan activity, such as voting, into the service.

Understanding mobile intermediaries

Sadly, even in the land of Internet, there is no such thing as disintermediation, just new intermediaries. As a researcher, a key issue I’ll need to think about is the role of intermediaries — such as mobile networks, who’ll be charging readers for data transfer everytime they click to read a new episode of the story (whether they’ve paid for it before or not), and the role of mobile gatekeepers and publishers, such as MXit and other South African social networks.

As in any social media project, the key intermediaries we need to understand will be the users, or teens themselves. And that brings me to the really big questions. Will the teens in our study take to reading a fictional series on their phones, when (as we expect to find out from the survey we’ll be conducting shortly) they don’t read that many traditional fictional texts? Will the economical (low bandwidth) html+ text download be cheap enough? Will the affordability make up for an absence of visual storytelling?

Viral questions

If the story does engage some teens, will they choose to tell their friends about Kontax? Does the mobisite allow them to pass the story around to their peers as easily as if they wanted to bluetooth a video clip downloaded from zamob.com or a track bought via premium-rated SMS? Will the mobisite make it easy for them to do so? Will they choose to read and talk about or pass on the English story, or the isiXhosa translation, or both? So much of what we know about fan behaviour is based on wealthy consumers in the global north. How do fans behave in impoverished contexts? What happens when price-sensitive potential fans have to pay every time they want to pass on a message?

Mobile literacies

I also have plenty of other questions around literacy, which is probably a topic for another post. It’s hard to talk about literacy, especially its mobile variants, such as ‘MXit language’ and ‘txtspk’ without activating all sorts of prejudices, but that’s what we’re hoping to do. Our approach originates from an ethnographic approach to literacy, known as the New Literacy Studies.

Here are just some of the literacy-related questions that intrigue me:

Will a concept inspired by the activities of young female authors of keitai shosetsu (or Japanese m-novels) and their fans take off in Langa and Gugulethu (the site of the m4lit pilot project)? While mobile phones are heavily used by young people in both places, and are used extensively to access the internet, the two contexts differ along other dimensions.

To name only a few, the resources required and available for such literacy practices as mobile reading and writing are very different, both in terms of billing models and the availability of bandwidth. Thus access to ubiquitous two-way connectivity of monthly contracts and multimedia communication formats common in Japan sets up a far lower cost of interaction, vastly different to the one-way connectivity (when airtime runs out), and the text-only bandwidth-economies associated with much prepaid use, which makes MXit very popular, and means that many South African users eschew relatively expensive images, sound and video.

More important though, the meanings of literacy events such as reading and writing a story are also highly contextual, and connect in complex ways to school and media-connected leisure literacy practices. So, for example, the success of m-novels in Japan build on a very different school system, and their readers’ and writers’ involvement with dialogue-driven manga stories.

Do phones need to be reshaped to support a wider range of literacy practices? They are now being used by people who don’t have easy access to computers, internet, books and libraries, but many of whom nonetheless  participate in the literacy rituals of formal schooling and are increasingly (via their media use) drawn into convergent narrative ecosystems. Interestingly, Microsoft’s OneApp, a new aggregator for mobile applications which is targeted at users from developing countries, already includes a collection of free applications for instant messaging, RSS readers, and social software such as Facebook and Twitter, while eschewing the ‘heavier’ applications associated with its Office Mobile suite. Should be an interesting space to watch.

We know that currently, there are more than 4.6 billion
mobile phone users around the world, and in South Africa 90.16 people in every hundred use a mobile phone. But how many of these people are using the mobile Internet?
At one stage, there were discrepancies of 9.5 million in estimates of the number of South Africans using the Internet on their phones. In 2008, Rick Joubert, head of mobile advertising at Vodacom claimed that the number of unique South African users accessing the mobile internet using WAP was almost double the number of South Africans accessing the Internet via fixed lines. He had extrapolated data about the most popular mobile Web destinations for South African users (e.g. 2.3 million Vodafone Live! users and the then 9 million registered MXit users) and estimated that by early 2009 there would be more than 10 million mobile Web users. At that point, the number of South Africans using fixed lines to access the Internet was estimated at 5 million, and so this was a claim that grabbed headlines and gained a great deal of attention. Joubert speculated that the online media industry did not cater adequately for most of these users, since up to 70% of them might not have any other form of Internet access. He also pointed out South African media brands did not feature at all in the top 50 mobile sites.

At a Netprophet 2009 talk, Arthur Goldstuck argued that these estimates of mobile Internet should be questioned. Notably, he pointed out that the mobile advertising industry has ‘a vested interest in persuading corporates to market to 10 million people on their cellphones’. Goldstuck pointed to proprietary research by his company, World Wide Worx which estimated a considerably smaller number of mobile Web users (500 000) , or 180 000 people who use their cellphones as their primary form of Internet access.

It is possible to reconcile these two sets of figures if we develop a more nuanced model of South African mobile Internet use. Jonathan Donner and Shikoh Gitau differentiate between mobile primary and mobile only Internet use (Donner and Gitau, 2009), a model which recognises that many people have some kind of access to the Internet on computers, but that they are more comfortable using their phones, or that they have to use their phones most of the time.

My MA student Tino Kreutzer did some excellent research for his MA dissertation (2009), where he  differentiated between mobile Web use (the use of mobile browsers to visit websites and WAP sites on mobile phones) and mobile Internet use (a far broader category which includes any use of the Internet protocol, such as the use of Internet-based mobile applications such as MXit). Goldstuck suggests further categorisation, which would allow a sense of the range of audiences now available to online marketers via mobile sites, as well as the new groups of users who can now potentially be reached in different ways, via MXit and other Internet platforms.

How we understand ‘Internet use’ is obviously crucial to this debate. Technically speaking, the ‘Internet’ is the transport mechanism – the network of networks which links devices and the TCP/IP protocols that facilitate data transfer around this network. What people call the ‘Internet’ depends on what applications they use, and the platform to which they have access – while students and office workers might use Facebook and Twitter, and might be able to check Google for every query, other South Africans might only know MXit, wap download sites like zamob.com, and while some may well have used the ubiquitous Google for an occasional query, they may not even realise that all these things they do require the Internet to work.

In common lingo, ‘Internet’ is most often used to refer to the media transferred via the Internet – the graphical interface, or the Web, most often viewed via a browser, which has traditionally been used on a computer. Most South Africans have no experience of the Web, and consequently associate ‘Internet’ with computers, rather than with the mobile applications such as MXit which are more widespread, but which only work on phones with Internet access (e.g. GPRS or 3G).

Many people use applications such as MXit, but they don’t always know that they are using the Internet. For example, the  mobile-centric teens I’ve interviewed may often refer to MXit as a ‘game’, since it is stored in the same folder on their phone where their games are stored. The need to define ‘Internet’ does not only relate to the reporting of statistics, but also extends to the way in which data is gathered in surveys of Internet users.  Tino’s dissertation (2009) makes the point that the word ‘Internet’ bedevils the usefulness of many surveys where people are asked whether they use ‘the Internet’, more particularly when this question is used as a filter for further questions in the survey (such as in the AMPS survey, for example).

Goldstuck rightly explains  that the nature of Internet use is very different for users who primarily use their cellphone’s Internet access for WAP downloads, or to IM with their friends on MXit. This is obviously very important for marketers. At the same time, Joubert’s point, that the online media industry does not understand the needs and interests of the new group of mobile-centric web users, remains entirely valid. We could even start talking about different ‘Internets’, given the different socio-economic circumstances, technology, display capability and bandwidth available to people in our country. Consider two South Africans. One might use a 2 year old handmedown Nokia to access MXit, and treasures the tiny amount of precious on-board memory on the phone where she can store only a limited number of pictures and music while her access depends on prepaid airtime and electricity to charge the battery. Another wealthier South African might own a desktop and Mac Powerbook which hold terabytes of data, and is connected via a broadband contract which allows a sense of always-on connectivity, interrupted only by the occasional Eskom power heist or MWEB capping message. He or she may have Internet access on a smartphone as well, but  is seldom motivated to use it. These two people thus have an almost entirely different experience of connectivity, which leads to distinct concepts of the Internet, and it certainly means that their demands and requirements for their phones are very different. And we haven’t even started to address the other differences that would come into play. We should thus beware of the assumption that everyone’s ‘Internet’ looks the same as our own.

I recently asked MXit how many of their 15 million registered users are South African, and the answer was 13  million. This is particularly impressive if you think how complex it can be to download and install an application on a cellphone. As Vincent Maher said at a recent talk at UCT,

[MXit] has prepared about 5 or 6 million young people for the process, very painful as it is, of downloading and installing an application on their phone. The Americans wouldn’t do it. They needed the iPhone to come around before they would do actually bother to have Internet on their phone, because it was just too complicated. But thanks to MXit (and I think it has around 12 million people now) there is an entire generation of South Africans who understand how to interact with the operating system on their phones.

I’m at the IAMCR conference in Mexico City. There are quite a few papers focusing on mobile media use on the programme, and I’m trying to attend them where possible. If I have time and battery power I’ll post a few reports here in the next few days.

Aiko Mukaida from NTT DOCOMO’s Mobile Society Research Institute talked about a large global comparative study of children (9-18 years old) and their parents’ perceptions of mobile phone use. Over 6000 participants from around the world were surveyed.

I must admit that I was disappointed that the study didn’t use data from any African countries. Aiko explained that apparently DOCOMO approached had approached the South African mobile networks to sponsor research into South African children and parents, but they were not interested in participating. What a pity.

The study draws on research from Korea, China, India and Mexico. The data shows how children in different countries start using phones at different ages and adopt them at different rates. In Japan and Korea, for example, children start using phones at young ages (with Korean children starting earliest of all). In these countries, about 90% of twelve-year olds have mobile phones. In Japan children tend to adopt phones at particular points in their schooling careers – when they change schools and start having to rely on public transport. In India, the children in the sample mostly started using phones at about 14. In Korea, parents seem to be discouraging teens’ phone use in the final years of schooling, probably because of the tough school-leaving examination in that country.

Aiko focused on identifying correlations between parental concerns about mobile phone use. Most parents have concerns about their children’s mobile phone use (60% of the survey). There were also some interesting global differences which probably relate to the key social, cultural and economic differences between children and parents around the world.

Parental concerns related primarily to worries about children using the phone for too long, spending too much money, and (in contexts where mobile Internet use is growing) concern that children might be accessing inappropriate information, or communicating with strangers. I wondered why the potential health risks from radiation posed by children’s mobile phone use did not feature in the study, but Aiko explained that apparently, other than in Europe, parents have low levels of awareness of this as a risk to their children.

Aiko expected to find that parents’ concerns increased the more their children reported using mobile phones, and the more children were dependent on their phones. While this did seem to be happening in Japan, it didn’t turn out to be the case everywhere. The actual use of mobile phones or children’s dependency on them didn’t consistently correlate with parental concern in all the countries that were studied.

In India, for example, where children used text messages primarily to communicate with their parents, high levels of messaging were not a source of concern, perhaps because this was likely to reflect a strong relationship with the parent.

The study was commissioned to investigate children’s use of mobile phones, and so does not use random sampling – for example in Mexico, the study focused on selected regions which have mobile phone coverage, while in India a socio-economic index was used to identify children who are likely to have a mobile phone. The Korean and Japanese data is apparently more of a random sample, and so the 90% of twelve year olds with phones is probably pretty close to the actual figures. Apparently most have contracts, and mobile email is very popular because it allows them to exchange images – so they’re using it in similar ways to an MMS.

Internet is Maklik

In South Africa, the Vodacom mobile network recently ran a humorous television advertising campaign to attract more first-time users to use their mobile Internet products. Apparently first time users tend to think that internet access is tricky and difficult to set up and use. Now where would they get that idea?

The campaign introduces two earnest emissaries  from a nameless foreign country  on an official mission to South Africa, to find and retrieve some exciting new invention called ‘Internet’ (less obscene, more boring, but shades of Borat nonetheless) . Wherever the two travellers go, happy partying South Africans assure them that  ‘Internet is maklik’ (Internet is easy). South Africans, though, are too busy having fun to bother to show them exactly where to find this elusive ‘Internet’. They eventually find a shop called ‘Maklik’ in a dorpie somewhere, selling what look to be large, ancient geysers. They return triumphantly to their Glorious Nation of [Unspecified Eurasian Country], where their solemn unveiling of the geyser-like Internet-thing is greeted with appropriate fanfare.

I spent two days of my last holiday helping my godmother, an award-winning primary school teacher, get connected for the first time. Between a dodgy bargain-basement modem, mismatched software and hardware, and endless stretches of time spent listening to irrelevant options on the Vodacom customer care line, I have to concede that first-time users are entirely correct in their prejudices. The Borat-lookalike probably had as much fun trying to log onto his geyser as we did trying to get online with Vodacom. While getting online is definitely easier than it used to be for cellphone users, mobile Internet is not so ‘maklik’ for everyone — my godmother called me in tears a while ago, frustrated at suddenly being unable to connect. After a bit of troubleshooting we realised she’d run out of airtime. This was a good sign to me, as it showed she had been using her connection, but I expect to be getting regular helpdesk calls like that over the next couple of months as she tries to figure out all the other ‘easy’ things which all Internet users struggle with at some stage, but which we find so very ‘maklik’ to forget.

Here’s a transcription of Vincent Maher’s talk on his personal experience of moving from traditional journalistic publishing at the Mail and Guardian Online to working in mobile media for South Africa’s mobile network, Vodacom, where his key project is The Grid, a locative social media application. (Talk presented to the Media and Writing third year students at the University of Cape Town on 15 April, 2009.)