The biggest myths about the next billion internet users

A Kenyan farmer stands proudly, looking at his crops while talking on his mobile. A group of Bangladeshi women cluster around a phone to get some health information. Children in an Indian slum look absorbed as they navigate their way through an educational gaming app.

These are some typical images that the media use to portray the way mobile technologies are transforming lives in developing countries. The weight of chronic poverty seems lifted with the intervention of a mobile phone. These images have become so repetitive that the media has lost interest in them.

Investing in these “next billion users” is today a critical business strategy for technology companies.

This blind optimism of mobile phones empowering people comes from a long legacy of wealthy nations, international corporations, and aid agencies in the West “doing good” through tech innovations. A mobile phone, for instance, is expected to help the poor “leapfrog” their way to a better life, the ultimate self-help solution to global inequality. Poverty is an opportunity and scarcity is a resource; the poor are the experts in leveraging mobile apps to get a better life for themselves, if we are to believe this narrative.

While investing in these “next billion users” started as supposed altruism decades ago, today it is a critical business strategy for technology companies. It is no surprise that in 2018 alone, numerous symposiums, initiatives, labs, and products have been launched to target these users. Leading the pack is Google with its Next Billion User (NBU) Market division.

The innumerable global poor have gained a new value: They are now not just consumers but producers of data in this digital economy. As data are the ”new oil,” viewed as crucial for future innovation, tech companies are waking up to the possibility of this vast and relatively untapped well of new data.

multi purpose store in Mumbai
PAYAL ARORA, 2018

After all, many of these next billion users are young and live outside the West, and are passionately shaping the internet. Four in 10 people in the world are below 25 years of age, and 85% of them live in developing countries. Today China has about 800 million internet users in contrast to the 300 million in the United States. India has the most WhatsApp users worldwide.

And unlike the first billion users who, for the most part, were middle-class and lived in wealthy countries, these next billion users are substantively low-income and live in poorer countries. While half the planet’s population, 3.8 billion people, are low-income, they are enthusiastic adopters of the mobile phone. From South Africa to Brazil, young people are taking to the mobile internet with gusto, due to the increased affordability of these devices and data plans.

As tech companies compete to gain these users’ attention and their data, the question remains if these organizations truly know who these users are—what are their preferences, desires, aspirations, and motivations for getting and staying online?

Currently, tech innovations are being built on some powerful and persistent myths about these users. AI for Good initiatives, launched by public-private partnerships, continue to focus on what they assume these users need versus what they want. Data regulations driven by Western concerns are being applied in a one-size-fits-all manner to these new users, with an assumption that they must have the same concerns about privacy as those in wealthier countries.

But these concerns are not the same because of the political and social circumstances in many of these new users’ lives. Though a teen girl in Boston and Riyadh may both use the internet to seek romance, the former enjoys far more freedom in the way she is able to curate her profile and share her images with the public. While regulating online “hate speech” is a critical issue in Germany and Pakistan, one nation is concerned with suppressing neo-Nazi content while the other makes citizens abide by the country’s blasphemy law by digitally monitoring negative remarks on the Koran and the prophet.

It’s time to start seeing these users for who they are. To do that, we need to start busting some myths.

Myth # 1: The next billion users are driven by basic needs

I have been working as a researcher and as a liaison for aid agencies for more than a decade in India, Brazil, and in recent years in, South Africa and Namibia. I was very much part of the “doing good” tribe. However, since early 2000, I encountered a pattern of usage among low-income young people that didn’t quite align with the pervasive tech evangelism.

Yes, farmers did use some of their mobile data to check crop prices, just as women googled birth control options, and kids learned some words of English online. For the most part, however, much of the mobile data and screen time were dedicated to porn, romance, chatting with friends, and entertainment such as music, movies, and gaming.

One of my first tech for development projects was in rural India in early 2000 where I served as a liaison between a non-profit, an aid agency, and a tech company. They aimed to provide a “24/7” experience of streaming information through cybercafes. They expected locals would use the cafes to search for jobs and education. But instead we found them primarily using this tech for leisure. The cybercafes’ main revenue came from Orkut, a popular social networking site at the time.

“If it wasn’t for Orkut, my computers would not be used much.”

The cybercafes transformed into recreational hubs. Govind Bhisht, a cafe owner, expressed his gratitude for Orkut: “Honestly, it’s the students that keep this place going. It’s changed so much. They sit all day doing these friendship sites like Orkut. Day in and day out… if it wasn’t for Orkut, my computers would not be used much.” Five years later, I returned back to this village. Some things had changed. Facebook had overtaken Orkut as the young people’s primary addiction, and mobile phones replaced cybercafes as the powerful portals of entertainment. But people’s need to connect and socialize remained the same.

In a favela in Belo Horizonte, my team found young Brazilians equally obsessed with social media. They were addicted to living the digital life. “Even when I’m sleeping, I’m connected,” said Pablo, a young man who is an assistant mechanic. When asked how frequently he checks his Facebook or WhatsApp, he responded “the entire day… every day, every hour,” and claimed to only take a break when sleeping.

The shocking result from years of studying how the global poor engage with new applications is that they are like us.

They are not extraordinarily disciplined or significantly virtuous or productive with these digital resources. They want what we want: connection, entertainment, fun. If anything, they spend disproportionately more time on this leisure than we do. A significant amount of their monthly income gets diverted to their data plans, so, for instance, a boy can at last chat up a girl on Facebook. While people in wealthy nations spend about 2% of their monthly income on data, this can go as high as 5% among people in low-income countries. This should not be surprising. Many of these young people live in deeply conservative societies where arranged marriages are the norm. WhatsApp and Facebook double as Tinder and Grindr as young people go about hunting for the possibility of romance.

MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES

In rural Namibia, almost 50% of young people are without jobs. So entertainment becomes a way people make their lives a little more bearable, a little more humane, and a little more interesting. Engaging with each other online can ward off depression. Sadrag Shihomeka, a PhD student at Erasmus University, and I found that while many of these young Namibians were building networks for jobs through Facebook, they were mainly using their scant online minutes to listen to music, watch videos, and share jokes. On digital forums intended for job-seeking, they posted about their private lives—what they ate, what they did that day, photos from wedding parties—and waited for the comments to come in.

The shocking result from years of studying how the global poor engage with new applications is that they are like us.

This was in spite of the challenges in gaining internet access. Lleka, a young man from a Namibian village, explained that getting online is a matter of timing, “During the day the network is very weak…so you will find some people waiting till midnight to go and look for a specific point where they normally access the network.” Krista, a young woman from the same village noted that finding the right place for connectivity carries some risk, “We sometimes get the network at one spot in the neighbor’s field but that one you have to go around midnight…it is very risky as we have wild animals too here.”

Some telecom companies learned quickly that the best way to appeal to the next billion users was to offer radio apps such as NBC Ovambo in Namibia or Hungama in India. These apps offer nonstop music consumption, providing a much-needed distraction. Many of these youngsters waste much of their time sitting in traffic or standing in line for their welfare rations. Indian startups like Book my Chotu, allow people to hire these youngsters to stand in line for them or to do mundane errands. Fortunately for these young people, they can combine this work with play and escape the tedium of these jobs thanks to their mobile.

The Indian conglomerate Reliance Communications has paid careful attention to “winning the hearts” of these consumers. In December 2015, it launched the Jio network that offers the cheapest data bundles in the world. In partnership with Google, it has released 4G handsets at extraordinarily cheap prices. Its plan is to build a walled garden for these consumers, a “super app” like WeChat where these users can shop, game, socialize, and date, all in one digital space. This new tech business model rests fundamentally on the “ABCD principle”—inspired by what the Reliance telecom network data has revealed about the next billion users—most internet usage by this demographic tends to be directed towards Astrology, Bollywood, cricket, and devotion activities.

Myth # 2: Privacy will be the center of future global tech 

Privacy has become of paramount concern to users in the West. Even Facebook is now calling itself a “privacy-focused social platform.” The question remains on where the next billion users stand when it comes to their online privacy.

Governments of developing countries have launched data mining initiatives of unprecedented scale and scope, from the Social Credit Score in China to the Biometric Identity scheme in India, in close partnership with the tech giants like Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, and Infosys. In fact, one could argue that social media, AI, and big data are a dictator’s dream—they make citizens easily trackable and controllable.

“I will look for and friend certain names, like Jack or John for instance.”

The fact is that privacy is a luxury for most populations worldwide. Many of these new internet users live in one-room homes, shared with multiple family members. Some of them may never leave their settlement; their neighbors, families, and friends keep a watchful eye on their activities. Often, they live in conservative societies where they need to abide by restrictive cultural rules. This leaves little space for these young people to discover themselves. We must not forget that behind all this, they are inherently teenagers with the deep need to develop their identities. So often, despite the risks to their privacy, they go on Facebook and reveal their thoughts and dreams, and make themselves as public and as visible as possible. Given that few would be able to afford to see the world, they become “global citizens” by adding strangers on social media. Foreign friends are particularly desired as they can enhance one’s social capital. As one young Indian man puts it, “I will look for and friend certain names, like Jack or John for instance.” In the West fewer than 4% of Facebook “friends” are strangers; with these users, it can be as high as two-thirds.

While privacy is an intrinsic human need, it is not an absolute value. It competes with different wants including that of being seen and heard. For instance, a billion people in the world live in some kind of “slum”—often an illegal housing settlement. This is expected to double by 2030 as urbanization increases. Because slums are unofficial or informal neighborhoods, governments often abdicate responsibility toward these communities, deeming them “invisible.” So when ambitious new schemes like the Social Credit system or the Biometric identity promise better inclusion and governance by linking people’s identities to social services and micro loans, it is understandable why many of these people desperate for change go along with these services. Beyond the state, corporations have long neglected this populace, deeming them high-risk and not worth the effort.

AP PHOTO/KHALIL SENOSI
Amina Harun talks on a cell phone while selling watermelons in Nairobi, Kenya.

But with the rise of the data economy, tech companies like Facebook were quick to move into these new territories. In the name of empowering the “digital have-nots,” Facebook launched the “Free Basics” initiative (originally called Internet.org) in 2015, which offers limited free access to a select number of sites in partnership with telecom providers in developing countries. Facebook managed to defy net neutrality rules by claiming this to be a charitable act. By 2018, Facebook succeeded in connecting 100 million users through this effort and became “The Internet” to these users. The Free Basics initiative continues to be heavily criticized for the indiscriminate data-mining of the next billion users and for not offering them access to an open internet.

Interestingly, I found young people from the slums of Ludhiana and Hyderabad generally enthusiastic about Facebook’s highly targeted advertisements. They felt special. They felt recognized. They felt respected. Some loved the fact that ads would notify them of products that might interest them; “…a person can find whatever is best for him. Whenever the person is searching for something, the ad gives other options,” remarked Surain as he complained about the cost of “browsing.” This made his time online more “efficient”—crucial when you have a limited data plan. In China, tech giant Alibaba pioneered a new mobile payment system called AliPay that allows people to leverage their online reputation to gain access to small loans. They may give up their personal information, but for many, access to credit makes it worth it. After all, with a communist history where few people could own assets, their online trustworthiness becomes a proxy for creditworthiness.

Make no mistake though. Privacy will always be a core human value. However, there is a high likelihood that privacy is not on top of the agenda for the next billion. They strive to be heard and seen, and are accustomed to being “public.” Often they take risks with their privacy, especially because these digital worlds offer them far more freedom and exposure to new ideas than their lived conservative environments.

When the next billion users disappoint

When a child from a slum chooses to game instead of learn math, aid agencies and governments may feel disappointment. When farmers use their mobile data for porn, these agencies may grow concerned or even panic. There is this feeling that the internet as a critical resource is being wasted away. That the world’s poor are losing this opportunity to be productive.

We would be missing the point.

Double standards on who should be productive and who should enjoy leisure have long prevailed between the poor and the rich. But the next billion, just like those in the West, have the right to be ordinary, to seek for pleasure, and to make themselves a little happier.

When the internet was first prototyped by ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network funded by the US Department of Defense), the vision was to use this technology for information dissemination and social control. Efficiency was at the heart of this vision.

Today, of course, the way we use the internet hardly resembles this vision. And aren’t we glad? We made the internet a place where we can work and play, where we can push the spectrum of human desire, aspiration, and pleasure, even if we continue to struggle to keep this space respectable and inclusive.

We need to de-exoticize these users if we are going to genuinely have a healthy global digital culture. They need to be humanized, understood, and kept in mind when designing inclusive platforms.  The internet is a critical public resource that is meant for all users—and that includes the world’s poor.

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