On the Role and Design of Social Media and Enhanced Technology

XVII.2 March + April 2010
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Ubuntu in the network

Nicola Bidwell

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The "social capital" concept continues to motivate policies aiming to bridge the digital divide; for instance, a 2006 European Commission recommended to the European Parliament social capital as a principle to guide e-inclusion strategies. The Internet's role in enabling us to accrue resources via our relationships with others over time was epitomized in the celebrated Social Capital Markets '09; panelists in one session linked under-exposure of Africa's talent to online social capital. While there is much scholarly HCI analysis on the function of social networking sites (SNS) in social capital, little concentrates on Africa. Here, I aim to redress that balance.

There are highly publicized examples of mobilizing Facebook for advocacy, social upliftment, and charity for Africa—from locating Sudanese war-crime suspects to campaigning Coca-Cola to distribute medicines. To some extent, digital social networks within Africa have effected change through activism (e.g., Facebook and Frontline SMS) and are increasingly accessible by local language translation (e.g., Swahili Facebook), and entry to sites via cell phones (e.g., Ugandan Status. ug) and mobile applications (e.g., East Africa's Sembuse). However, increased SNS use in Africa will not necessarily narrow the divide. SNS use is low by international comparison; consider how 30 percent of the UK's population are active Facebook users, while that value dips for South Africa, at 2 percent, representative of a particular social milieu. The huge majority of Facebook users in South Africa are in college or are higher-education graduates (97 percent) and, in Uganda, dwell in cities. There are few non-white faces on any African Twitter network. Accumulating those resources that make us "healthy, wealthy, and wise" [1] involves distant, formal, and diverse contact or bridging capital to link to resources beyond our immediate network. Even in the U.S., Facebook use generates more capital for urban than rural and for white than non-white people. Market forces shaping competition, such as between Twitter and Facebook, mean that SNS are constituted by the social capital in the networking of existing elites. So, in applying social capital to strategies to guide SNS for e-inclusion in Africa, we must consider what lies within interactions that build those ties of goodwill or mutual obligation.

Social capital involves recognizing and responding to patterns of conduct within social relations, which contain meanings about personhood or concepts about self. So, each of the daily updated statuses of 40 million Facebook users create and reproduce particular patterns that link to what we perceive as "naturally" indicative of being human and performing identity [2]. There is a corpus of analysis in HCI on the functions of SNS in emotional support, belonging, and sharing experiences and identities. But the meanings we associate with personhood in these analyses emerge from our own culture. Thus we infer in social capital that certain aspects of identity are "normal" for all humans, and we tend to forget that they arise through the process of sociability and interdependences between humans. Physical and emotional interdependence are basic components of social relations, but their expression varies culturally; we tend to ignore how that shapes performing identity and, ultimately, the interactions that amass social capital.

Stepping out of our own networks enables us to reflect on practices within, so I draw on research in a rural African village, a social milieu in the periphery of that which is typified in studies of SNS. I began by living for two months in a traditional Xhosa homestead in the remote and impoverished Eastern Cape of South Africa, and in the subsequent 16 months I returned for several stays of a week, maintained contact with some villagers by email and phone calls, and analyzed the use of Facebook. My situated approach differs from cross-cultural HCI studies on identity performance that draw on generalized cultural dispositions, such as Hofstede's dimensions; nevertheless, my experience in rural Ghana, Namibia, and Mozambique also suggests that insights in the Eastern Cape might be relevant elsewhere.

As I distill insights from the body of data I collected by participating in domestic and village life and socio-technical experiments, I am unsettled by readings of social capital that assume "networked individualism" or, as Castells argues, the "synthesis between the affirmation of an individual-centered culture, and the need and desire for sharing and co-experiencing" [3]. In the everyday acts, linguistics, and philosophy of precolonial African society, personhood was constituted by others—both living and dead—and identity was perceived as undifferentiated and fixed to a social position. For instance, the concept of ubuntu in Nguni languages (e.g., isiXhosa) translates to "the being human of a human being is noticed through his or her being human through human beings." Clearly, colonialism and modernism refracted sensibilities, however not all aspects of identity are exchangeable, and in Africa today identity performance is shaped by principles such as autonomy, openness, and questioning but is inconceivable without ancestors and kin.

Identity is often a hot topic for discussion among people in states of transition, such as in Africa's diaspora or dramatically increased urban populations. Often transition intensifies a yearning for and pride in tribal heritage and rural origins; for instance, 4,202 people have joined the Facebook group Khanizi thuthe bantu! to discuss clan names "so that we may all know where we come from." Here, identity is constructed in narratives about ancestral roots, post-colonial movements (e.g., African Renaissance), and contested histories of imposed relocation and struggles for liberation. Language is vital in this reflexivity, so postings in English are peppered with isiXhosa expressions, and while members abbreviate English in an elaborate lingo derived from SMS, they are chastised for ungrammatical isiXhosa.

Some constructions of identity arise unconsciously, not ideologically, from lived experience and physical reference to rural life. In the village in which I work there is plenty of migration to cities, but the character of this relocation suggests that we should not view identity and social capital with a Western perspective on modernity. Firstly, most villagers can trace their ancestry to the area's settlement, at least eight generations ago, by a chiefdom descending from a distinct Xhosa tribal cluster; second, migration is a temporary strategy to maximize the benefits for rural origins rather than migrants' urban "progress". So villagers "sent" to a city dwell in informal, modest settlements or with a relative, send money home or save for a rural abode, and always return at holidays. This reflects continuities between migrant and village that are distinct from inclinations that drive Western peripatetic lifestyles or migration in earlier centuries, as shown in many of the 1,000 posts on the South African Facebook Group "I grew up in a village (rural area) and i'm proud of it!!" which has gained 4,721 members since May 2009.

The adage that it takes a village to raise a child has literal meaning to villagers who state with pride, "We share what we have" and say that neighborly assistance is part of their identity, and, by implication, that interdependence is not a Western trait. Collectivity is integral to identity performance, from participating in prolonged meetings to achieve consensus to harmonized singing, and reflects ties over generations and cooperation to survive and safeguard security. Identity involves visibility of unity, such as prioritizing hospitality over temporal efficiency. At first glance, joining groups or becoming a fan on Facebook is a display of unity. However, these actions involve a level of autonomous choice that may be more open to those of us inhabiting a diverse nexus and familiar with performing multiple distinct identities.

Communication protocols in which villagers perform identity are not well supported by available media since display of unity demands transparent, frequent contact. Sometimes expense marginalizes villagers' use of ICT; for instance, they note difficulties when "you can't ask person to call you back" and shorten phone conversations more than they would like. Villagers' impression that phone calls allow falsehood, as noted by other Africans [4], may explain local nurses' ease with the frequent communication over a CB radio but discomfort with a system of storing messages for recipients to collect later [5]. Digital social networking can enable virtual surveillance beyond static identity representations (e.g., Facebook "Info") or asynchronous updates. However, villagers do not use the perpetual contact enabled by Mxit (a mobile application used by 11 percent of South Africans that enables cheaper delivery of short messaging than SMS) or Twitter, and it appears they offer sparse resources to structure mutual awareness and interdependence.

Indeed, villagers tend to use ICT to display bonds within face-to-face communication, such as gathering vast numbers of contacts in cell phones when they meet people but not calling them, or using digital photos in long conversations [6]. Villagers are disadvantaged in communicating effectively in SNS in the absence of salient emotional and physical resources. For instance, a contact I had introduced to villagers updated her status to report the death of a beloved family member, and a day later, a villager posted to the contact's wall: "hope u'rre doing well and hope 2 see u this year. Anyway how is life? Have a good time." Maybe he did not notice the numerous condolences posted on the contact's wall. More likely though, his response is natural in a village where burial is commonplace and people devote 10 percent of their income to funeral plans, where ancestors are believed to have a continued presence and, as he later said about a death in his family, "it is part of life."

Many Facebook postings refer to the lack of anonymity in village environments, "where everyone wants to know your business." In the village in which I work, I notice the way the furniture of rural life entwines with the identity of those who spend their life mostly outdoors. From birth to burial, and beyond, the landscape is a grammar and a vocabulary for identity and relationships [6]. The physical place is part of people's interdependence and shapes performing identity, and I notice a tact in performing identity [6] that couples location with modern or traditional expectations. Villagers who attend college in the city share cultural capital, such as tastes and values, with other Facebook users and draw on vocabularies and grammars of identity, reproduced in the SNS that are inaccessible to those who draw on local norms. For instance, the son of the village headman identifies himself in a way esteemed locally but less legitimate in Facebook; compare his description "...l am a chief of khonjwayo trabe and l will send u invitetion card 4 celebretion soon" with liberal sentiments expressed on Facebook about Jacob Zuma (current South African president), such as: "I like you, but for a good chief, not president." The headman's son's symbolic capital enables amassing social capital unavailable to other villagers, but its reach is limited by norms of identity performance. The village supports his actions if he affirms its identity and prioritizes local needs, so he constructs his identity by listening, friendliness, modesty, and avoiding local envy. He assumes these qualities are transferable, but his local symbolic capital is insignificant in Facebook, where his strategies to accrue social capital are often unsuccessful. Those with better SNS fluency cannot necessarily domesticate SNS use to village norms of person-hood. The student in the city receives little local response to the Facebook groups she has formed to help her village, or to her expressions of longing for her home in her updates and poetry or her efforts to introduce Mxit. Villagers do not ask for help with the Internet or SNS from relatives returning home or email or issue friend requests to remote family, and perceive a disjuncture with the independent identities needed to survive township life.

The challenge I notice as I step out from my networks of individualism, and my cultural concepts of self as a discrete, autonomous entity, is to design tools that richly support an ubuntu identity to enable local people to reproduce their own system of social capital.

back to top  References

1. Putnam, R.D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

2. Butler, J. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

3. Castells, M. "Afterword: Why Networks matter." Network Logic. DEMOS, 2004.

4. Molony, T. "'I Don't Trust The Phone; It Always Lies': Trust And ICT." Tanzania MIT Information Technologies & International Development 3,4 (2006): 67–83.

5. Tucker, W. and Blake, E. "The Role of Outcome Mapping in Developing a Rural Telemedicine System." In Proc. IST-Africa 2008, eds. Cunningham, P. and Cunningham, M. IIMC Int. Information Management Corp., 2008.

6. Bidwell, N.J. "Anchoring Design to Rural Ways of Doing and Saying." Proceedings of the 12th IFIP TC 13 International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Part I, 2009: 686–699.

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Nic Bidwell spent the first few years of life in Africa and has been a third culture kid ever since. From 2003 she focused on designing interactions suited to rural contexts and Australian Indigenous and African cultural views. In her research—most recently in South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia—she spends extensive durations in situ. Bidwell is a senior research fellow at the Centre for ICT for Development, Cape Town, and a senior lecturer at James Cook University, Australia.

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DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1699775.1699791

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