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Ramadan in times of Covid-19

By Maya De Vries Kedem, on 7 April 2021

BY MAYA DE VRIES AND LAILA ABED RABHO

The month of Ramadan is coming soon, and again, this holiday will be different in several places around the world. As the World Health Organization has advised this week on their Facebook page, while celebrating, people should still take care and keep social distancing, as COVID-19 is still with us.

Fig 1: World Health Organization Facebook page post, advising people celebrating religious holidays to maintain social distancing.

Muslim populations around the world are waiting for the month of Ramadan, and although it is a long month, it is also an opportunity to get some light in the shade: having family and guests around during this month is one of the positive things during this holiday. Time usually goes by quickly and some say time flies even though they are spending a long number of days fasting. Before they know it, preparations for Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast) will start. As the Messenger of God said: There are two occasions of joy for a fasting person: one when he breaks his fast, and the other, the joy of Eid.

Ramadan is a month of fasting: during this month, people refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Although fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, Ramadan is not just about fasting: a person must avoid everything that God has forbidden in this period and only adhere to acts of worship.

Fasting is not just done for the sake of depriving oneself of food and drink, rather, fasting is considered to have many benefits: it tames the soul and gives the body rest and better equips the bodily organs responsible for food and drink, as well as giving people patience during times of calamities and making individuals better appreciate how people who live in food poverty may spend most of their days (not just during Ramadan). Such solidarity is significant nowadays, as following the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people who are struggling to make a living has only gone up.

In 2020, before the blessed month of Ramadan, the Coronavirus terrified the whole world, young and old. But as a virus, it was most threatening to the elderly population as it changed their lives almost completely around the world and in our fieldsite of Dar al-Hawa. It was no longer possible to hold weddings or any sort of gatherings of more than ten people in an enclosed space, and restrictions were imposed on everyone. Mosques closed their doors to the worshippers on most days, limiting services to a very small number of worshippers (not more than 10) who were allowed to attend on Fridays.

Last year, Dar al-Hawa was highly quiet during Ramadan, as families did not host any events or guests in their homes and barely met with other people. More so, the habit of going out to restaurants during the evening disappeared as places were shut down. The general feeling in Dar al-Hawa was that of despair. However, soon, an effective solution was found: families started to send food boxes and gifts to one another instead of visiting each other’s homes – boxes were also given to the poor.

During Ramadan last year, people were even prohibited from praying in the al-Aqsa mosque (a holy site). Because it was anticipated that during Ramadan, many worshippers would travel there from several regions (including Jerusalem and the areas of the Palestinian Authority in the previous year), everyone was prohibited from performing the obligatory prayer and Taraweeh prayer in the Al Aqsa. Jerusalem and Al Aqsa were sad and devoid of worshipers.

In 2021, the pandemic is still spreading across the world, but in Israel, the number of infected people has been in decline following a major vaccination operation, which has taken place over the past four months. At first, the population of East Jerusalem (including Dar al-Hawa) were sceptical of the vaccine and did not want to take it due to the abundance of fake news circulating online (see our latest blog post for more). However, vaccine uptake among the Palestinian population of Jerusalem has been on the increase, potentially because people have witnessed the lack of serious side-effects after the vaccine but also because entrance to many places is now forbidden if one does not have their green pass (this is a pass confirming that the person in question has had both doses of the vaccine). In Dar al-Hawa, 91% of the population has now been vaccinated! For now, only those who are 16 or above have been vaccinated, but this high percentage means that Ramadan, this year, as opposed to last year, and as opposed to other places in the world, can be celebrated almost as normal – in people’s houses, on the streets, and in restaurants – and people are really excited about it. The only place that is still limiting the numbers of attendees are the mosques – there is a limit on the number of people who can be inside and one must wear a mask while praying, but they are open to prayer and people can practice their worship and fulfil the holiness of Ramadan.

For this Ramadan, Islamic scholars and jurists issued Fatwas to allow people to pray inside the mosques for their relatives who cannot enter for various reasons: people who might have chronic diseases which means they are at greater risk of being infected and developing a severe form of the disease, people who have had an organ transplant, and those who have not been vaccinated yet. Their relatives’ prayers inside the mosque will be considered equal to them attending mosque themselves.

In Dar al-Hawa, people are impatient and eager to perform their Ramadan obligations the same way they would have done before Covid-19, by going to mosques and being gathered with their family and relatives to collectively eat breakfast (the Iftar).

People have already started preparing for Ramadan by decorating their homes and streets. A favourite dessert here is Ma’amuls – stuffed cookies with walnuts or cheese, and in some of the houses, people are already preparing the special dough for these.

Decorated house in al-Quds (1)

Decorated house in al-Quds (2)

In Dar al-Hawa, people are hoping that the current situation will continue to improve in order for restrictions to be lifted and celebrations to take place comfortably and with some reassurance. We are hoping that vaccine uptake will continue to stay high so that cases continue to go down during the days before people start gathering, so that religious and other daily duties can be undertaken freely and without restrictions. Until then, everyone is trying to follow the regulations set out by the Ministry of Health relating to masks and quarantine to slow down the transmission of the virus, while still celebrating Ramadan together.

What lies in store for WhatsApp?

By Georgiana Murariu, on 26 March 2021

Fig. 1. A smartphone displaying WhatsApp’s logo. Photo by AARN GIRI via Unsplash

Since I joined the ASSA project as a public dissemination officer in late 2019, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing WhatsApp with the researchers in the group. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this discussion was actually on WhatsApp. The messaging service is probably the main way you communicate with your parents, siblings, and friends too, that is unless you live in China or the US, where the messaging app is not yet dominant. More than a quarter of the world uses WhatsApp, in fact – a few months ago, the Economist reported that the app was used by nearly 3 billion people. This is likely to continue going up as a result of COVID-19 moving more communications online.

WhatsApp is a key component of the stories, theories, and analysis contained in the monographs that will come out of the ASSA project, simply because it has become absolutely essential to communication between family members and is sometimes the primary reason for buying a smartphone in the first place, especially among those who are first-time smartphone users.

It is, as the ‘Global Smartphone’ book suggests, the heart of the smartphone alongside LINE and WeChat which are the dominant apps used in Japan and China respectively.

In this post, I want to reflect on some of the things I have learned about the messaging service through the first-hand ethnographic evidence coming out of this project and discuss its future direction of travel a bit, especially in light of two recent developments: attempts to better monetise the app, and the perceptions that the privacy of its users is becoming compromised.

Monetising WhatsApp

A few months ago, our colleague Marilia Duque forwarded us an article in the NYT that suggested that changes being made to WhatsApp by its owner, the Facebook corporation, could be an important hint as to the direction the internet was going in.

WhatsApp was purchased by social media giant Facebook in 2014, two years after it completed its purchase of photo sharing app Instagram. Since Instagram has become Facebook-owned, it has, over the years, introduced pretty radical measures for extracting revenue out of the app. Inextricably tied to influencer culture, the app has also recently placed the ‘shops’ feature front and centre and is generally known for favouring beautifully-designed, professional looking accounts in its algorithm. WhatsApp, however, is a challenge for Facebook, because in and of itself, the app does not make a lot of money (its initial £0.69 annual cost was dropped in 2015). WhatsApp operates without ads, in contrast to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. In many of the markets it operates in, especially if we are talking about countries where many mobile phone users have cheap, constant access to data, it has all but rendered SMS services redundant.

As it stands, Facebook owns a gigantic messaging service that a large part of the world’s population uses, which gives it a lot of potential power. However, it also owns a service that it can’t technically monetise in the classical sense. The goal was initially to have Whatsapp users communicate with banks, airlines and other businesses, and for WhatsApp to charge these businesses a certain fee to provide customer service infrastructure for them.

There have been attempts, here and there, to extract more revenue out of the app, including ‘WhatsApp Business’, a version that helps businesses interact with customers via chat, like in the example below, from the WhatsApp website. Although this feature is used in Brazil and India, it is not exactly globally successful (even if Brazil and India are big markets), and certainly not how the majority of customers would think to communicate with a business they’re buying from.

Fig 2. An example of how WhatsApp Business works. Photo credit: WhatsApp website.

This does not mean that the concept would not work if scaled up, or that users would reject it – indeed, the ASSA project found that in many fieldsites, WhatsApp use went well beyond communication with family and friends, and was used in very diverse settings, from setting up care for a relative, to helping oncology nurses in Chile orient patients and give them the information they needed to cope with the complexity of navigating oncology treatment.

Marília Duque, our researcher who did 16 months of fieldwork São Paulo, Brazil, has written about the potential of the messaging app to be used in healthcare settings – both between healthcare professionals, and healthcare professionals and patients. What she proposes is a response to the reality that in many countries, doctors already use WhatsApp in hospital and clinical settings, though not always openly. This has been happening in the UK for a number of years – WhatsApp is seen as a seamless way to get information across, eliminating the need to communicate through what are sometimes seen as ‘archaic’ NHS systems, though for now, this question is still surrounded by data-sharing concerns, especially because it involves patient data.

When it comes to businesses featuring on the platform in a more professional capacity, many are likely going to be treading carefully (although again, this varies country by country). The reason for this is that WhatsApp is already a large number of users’ people’s preferred app because there are no ads on it and for some, because it is end-to-end encrypted (though I am not suggesting everyone cares about this) and therefore its message contents fairly private. Being in this intimate space and meeting the user ‘where they are’ in an era in which people are increasingly less likely to visit a company website is desirable for many organisations/businesses, but it has to be well-calibrated to users’ preferences, and there is good reason to believe many WhatsApp users are resistant to advertising. While one might prefer to resolve an internet issue with a customer service agent over WhatsApp, certain commercial services might not be as ‘wanted’ in the same space where one shares news and details about their life with their family and friends.

Meeting users where they are and privacy concerns

There is another factor that influences people being on WhatsApp – at a certain point, it is no longer solely about the app’s features or how intuitive its user interface is, but about the momentum of mass adoption. In business terms, an sms-style app has the potential to make money through exponential growth: one person vouches for the app so the rest of the members of the group download it to keep in touch with that person. This then keeps happening until the app becomes indispensable to its base of users. In more ethnographic terms, the ASSA team often found that some research participants were more or less forced to get the app – whether due to family pressure, or because everyone else was using it, or because their friends simply wouldn’t invite them to things as often if they weren’t on WhatsApp. This happened across several fieldsites. It has been common in the recent history of media for companies to first focus on growth prior to finding a route to commercial success.

WhatsApp has become a conduit to more intimate, private conversations, having become the platform of choice for both those who are tech-savvy, as well as those who are just getting used to their first smartphone. In some cases (including personal anecdotes I’ve been privy to), WhatsApp extends digital literacy to people who are not necessarily very good with email: it is not uncommon for a recent smartphone user to say they will WhatsApp something, while at the same time finding attaching it to an email difficult. But is this because the app is particularly user-friendly to use? Or is it because, forced by circumstance, for example if working or living in different countries, users were forced to be on it because most of their friends were on there, which has imposed a sort of digital literacy on them? And what happens when media reports surrounding the new terms and conditions proposed by WhatsApp causes a significant drop in users, so much so that the company has been forced to postpone their implementation due to backlash? Although Whatsapp has said that the contents of its messages will remain end-to-end encrypted, many users have interpreted the prompt on their phones asking them to accept the new terms as a sign that parent company Facebook will be able to access the content of those messages. What WhatsApp will be able to collect, however, is meta-data about its users: who they message, how frequently, and at what time (but without having access to the content of those messages). Alternative messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram are perceived as having benefitted from the fact that users tend to be more suspicious of WhatsApp due to it being owned by Facebook, as well as due to a general atmosphere of suspicion towards Big Tech.

As much as there is some talk of users moving to apps like Signal or Telegram (both plagued by their own problems, related to potentially being used by extremist political groups to organise), WhatsApp has become the medium through which a large proportion of the world communicates privately. This encompasses not just messages that set up meetings between friends or help people keep in touch with family members, but much more than that. WhatsApp chats have been used in court to present evidence (and such evidence is precious when the accuser/victim has not backed up their claims via another, more official channel, like email), to organise shifts in professional settings (sometimes disadvantaging those not using the platform), and even to provide the members of political groups with a place to organise operations.

It is hard to predict the future, but at the same time, it is difficult to believe that in a short space of time, users whose lives are effectively currently stored on WhatsApp will make the move to alternative apps (that is, if they even care about what data is collected about them in the first place). Adopting a new communication channel, if the mass momentum isn’t there – is just not worth it. As it stands, I currently have two friends on Signal and if I were to choose to move away from WhatsApp, I would have to persuade my entire family to join me. As we know, getting large amounts of users, not all of whom are tech-savvy, to download and install a new app is not without its hurdles.

You can download a list of the sources I linked to in this blog post here.