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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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New and Old Friends — by Charlotte Hawkins

XinyuanWang9 June 2019

Many people in the Kampala field site who use Facebook like to use it to search, add and chat with new friends. They sometimes attribute it to ‘friendliness’, enjoying making contact with new people and chatting to them. A few also see it as an opportunity to network and learn from others.

Nakito is 48 and owns a salon with her son. They also share a smartphone as they don’t have money to buy their own, with each taking ownership on alternate weeks; they even change the password so the other can’t access it without their permission on their week. She uses Facebook to look up friends, add them and send messages. Mostly they are other women who live in Uganda. She would never meet with them but just chats to pass the time.

Nakito with her grandson, her son working in the background

Opoka is 48 years old and has had a smartphone for 5 years. He uses Facebook to talk to old friends and look for new ones. “When a new face appears we’re eager to talk to them”.  He especially likes finding international people, learning from them, sending photos and sometimes exchanging phone numbers.

Amigo also accepts or sends requests on Facebook, “creating friends worldwide…you see their photos, you like some and want to make friends…maybe they can take you to a higher level.” Like Nakito, he wouldn’t meet them in person, and generally loses contact eventually, “like one in Spain, we used to chat a lot, but my phone got stolen so we lost contact”.

Frank is only 33 and also sometimes likes to find new friends on Facebook by sending requests or receiving them. They are ‘outside Uganda and all over the world’. He said, “I like chatting to new people and meeting friends. I like people and being friends”.

Namubiru is a 45 year old market vendor. She has old friends she connects to on Facebook, but also is sometimes looking for new friends. Her kids even look for new friends for her. Usually they are ‘from here’, women or families. She’s never seen them in person, it’s ‘just to make friends’, like families sometimes can’t come ‘live’ in person so they connect on the phone. Her kids can call them and they chat, just asking them how they are; they always want to find out how her elderly mother is.

‘Checking on people’ is probably the most common use of mobile phones more generally. In a survey on phone use conducted with 50 respondents last year, we asked people who their previous 3 phone calls were with, the purpose and duration; 34 of 150 (23%) phone calls were for the purpose of ‘checking on friends and relatives’, or them ‘checking on me’; “they wanted to know how I am”, “he wanted to know how home is”. They were generally brief phone calls, less than 2 minutes. Exchanging greetings through the phone acknowledges connections and reiterates the importance of such relational ‘presence’, even if at a distance.