Posted on February 12, by Ethan Jenna Burrell , assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her excellent book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana.
Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world. Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana Her talk today covers some of the work she began in and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus.
Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.
Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter.
One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal.
Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! Again, the cultural discontinuity is important — if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.
When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud.
Ghanaians who want to participate on match. Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings.
These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana. She offers three examples: She leaves the group with a series of questions: These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table.
Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating?
Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.
Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?