Despite limited access, online habits in the developing world aren't that different from ours
Porn and cat videos are universal
As the number of people who are connected to the internet around the world grows, the 'next billion' users are likely to be in the developing world, young, with low incomes, and accessing the internet on mobile devices.
In her new book, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West, digital anthropologist Payal Arora looked at the way young users actually use the internet in a number of developing-world countries, from Brazil to Saudi Arabia. She argues that we in the West have a lot of preconceptions about how those users do — or 'ought to' — behave online.
Arora spoke with Spark host Nora Young.
The core of your book is that there's a belief in the west that people in the developing world are using the internet for research, education, to find work, practical things. Overall, what did you find when you looked into actual online practices?
There's this understanding that somehow if you're in a low-income setting, you must have a very different life, and thereby extremely different needs and desires and aspirations. You must have much more strong needs for farmers to check crop prices or women to check health information. What we kind of found is something extremely mundane: that these users are just typical users. They love gaming, they love pornography, they love socializing on Facebook and WhatsApp. And I think it is more of a statement about our preconceptions than about these radically new findings.
Why do you think we tend to assume that people in the Global South don't want, or maybe deserve, leisure and fun?
We believe that leisure and poverty just don't go hand-in-hand. My argument is that these people need leisure even more so to cope with their everyday life. You know, we're talking about tremendous amount of indignities when you are poor. You are like a cog in the machine, and you're constantly reminded that you do not matter. You're almost subhuman. That's even more of a reason why when you exercise yourself on Facebook you have a profile photo, and you sort of use humor or you share jokes. It just reminds you that you are human.
A good example [of how people use digital technology] is how Facebook is used in India. Can you tell me a bit about that? How did young people view it? What did they use it for?
You know when I go and talk to these people, and a lot of these young users often in low-income settings, they are so excited about Facebook. If you look at a typical young user, say a girl, who is constantly watched by her family, her friends, her brothers. She lives in a low-income setting like a slum possibly. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment and if it's multiple generations, then the notion of privacy is an absolute luxury. And we shouldn't forget that, first and foremost, young people are teenagers, and teenagers are at a very critical stage of self-actualization and discovery of who they are.
And Facebook provides one of the few outlets for them to exercise their choices, to show their taste. The amount of creativity, the amount of imagination that goes into honing their profile, and then claiming to have boyfriends or girlfriends. It's this whole new world for them. It allows them a way to discover themselves that their realities just absolutely do not.
Dr. Payal Arora is Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus University Rotterdam
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.