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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Learning how to do a “gambiarra” on WhatsApp: the power of improvisation

Marilia Duque E S19 November 2020

(@Jornal do Sudoeste: http://www.jornaldosudoeste.com.br/noticia.php?codigo=105255)

In Portuguese, the term “gambiarra” is used to describe someone fraudulently tapping into the electricity supply. In everyday life, the word also refers to an improvised solution that was achieved with limited resources. In that sense, “gambiarra” is an exercise of creativity. I have previously talked about my experience teaching old adults in a WhatsApp course aimed at the third age in Sao Paulo, where I conducted my fieldwork. In this post, I will address how I taught them to do a “gambiarra” on WhatsApp. My goal was to turn WhatsApp into a diary that could help them in their daily tasks, from shopping to managing their intake of medication. This idea came from my observation that students usually bring pen and paper in order to take notes and systematise what they learned. Their notes were basically step-by-step lists that conveyed the information they received that day in the more linear way of thinking they were more familiar with. Moreover, writing things down was also a strategy they used in order to remember what they learned.  During the course, I noticed that they used this strategy not only for the WhatsApp classes but also to help them to remember what they have to do, where they have to go and how to get there.

I could have taught them to use an app designed for that purpose, such as Note or even Calendar. However, among these students and among my research participants in general, WhatsApp is the app they feel most comfortable with, as this is where their conversations with family and friends take place. Therefore, the choice to build a diary on WhatsApp would avoid any constraint related to the adoption of a new app. In other words, the diary on WhatsApp would be ready-to-use, as my students were already basic Whatsapp users. Whatsapp doesn’t have a diary functionality, so we then started our “gambiarra”. The idea was that each student would add their own contact on WhatsApp, so they could start a conversation with themselves (which would be enhanced by features like audio messages and photos). There are two ways to do this and no guarantee as to whether which of them will work, as it depends on the device students have. The first way to do this is to add yourself as a contact by saving your own phone number under ‘Contacts’ and then search for the name you have given to this contact and to start a conversation with yourself. When this option fails, you can ask someone to share your contact with you on a conversation or on a group on WhatsApp you have access to. You will then have the option to click on “message” and you will be able to start a conversation with yourself.

Option 1 (left) and Option 2 (right): starting a conversation ‘with yourself’.

I also gave students a bonus. After the “gambiarra” was done, I taught them to “pin” this chat on the top of the WhatsApp conversations list, so they could easily access their diaries.

The diaries on WhatsApp could help them in multiple ways. They could create their shopping list directly on the app. They could do so by typing the items, they could use the audio to record them and they could also take a picture of the list they had on paper.

Examples of a shopping list on WhatsApp Diary: text message, audio message or picture

Taking pictures is a powerful resource for registering, organising and accessing information they come across during their daily routines. Like any of us, older people may also use the WhatsApp camera to record a particular street name they want to remember for later reference, the bus they intend to take or the useful phone number they might want to use later to have pizza or even medication delivered.

WhatsApp Diary used to remember a street name or a location.

WhatsApp Diary used to register information about public transport.

WhatsApp Diary used to take note of a useful telephone number.

Keeping diaries on WhatsApp can also be used for self-care. Older people can type or use voice messages to register a particular symptom or event they want to report to their doctors, like a day when they felt dizzy, for example. WhatsApp can help them make a note of these events, plus the app automatically registers the date and time when the event was reported.

This functionality can also help older people manage their medicine intake. My mother’s case is one example of how this works. She is in her late sixties and has to take a pill to manage a chronic condition every day, as soon as she wakes up. This allows her to then start her day. The problem was that sometimes, she was not sure whether she had already taken the pill or not. Together, we decided to do a “gambiarra” on her WhatsApp, so she could have her own diary to manage her pills. Since then, as soon as she takes her pill, she sends a message to herself. The message (“okay”) is registered there on her WhatsApp diary together with information about the time and date, which she can access anytime she is not sure whether she has taken her pills that day.

In that sense, the use of WhatsApp for health purposes can itself be seen as a “gambiarra”. WhatsApp was not designed for health purposes, but its functionalities can be used to deliver and improve care. This requires improvisation and creativity, but also a pinch of empathy. Especially among older people, exploring the apps they are already comfortable with can save them time and effort in adopting new technology.

WhatsApp can actually be a time-saving and low-cost tool whatever the target audience and objective is. That is why the use of WhatsApp for health can become more than a “gambiarra”, that is spontaneously adopted due to a constraint on resources. Indeed, as I observed in the Brazilian health landscape, there is a shift in Whatsapp use from informality to formality, as it is also used by doctors, clinics, hospitals and health insurance plans as their institutional channel to communicate with patients. You can read more about these examples in my book “Learning with Whatsapp: Best Practices for Health”, where I describe different uses of WhatsApp for Health based on what I observed during my ethnography in São Paulo. You can find out more about the book here, and download it free here.

Wild swimming during lockdown

paulinegarvey9 September 2020

A swimmer enjoying the water on the Dublin coast. Photo by Pauline Garvey

For some time, researchers have written about the possible benefits that come with wild swimming. This activity has been growing for some time, according to John Leech, chief executive of Irish Water Safety[i],  who said his organisation has witnessed a “huge increase” in the number of people delving into open water swimming in the last decade. The benefits of open-water swimming are manifold, he suggests, and he particularly emphasises the benefits to mental health.[ii]

However, although swimming has been a popular activity along Dublin’s coastline for some time, this summer  – during the Covid-19 lockdown months – it seems like it has spread in numbers and enthusiasm.  With warm evenings throughout this summer, ever-larger groups of people of all ages could be spotted in bathing shelters and beaches, or along rivers. Bathing shelters along the coast were hives of activity and individuals who had never been in the habit of swimming before have taken to the water.  Parents of primary school children who were on lockdown and distanced from friends were meeting up at popular bathing spots and socialising through swimming. Other sports enthusiasts took to the water too, particularly those whose activities had suspended during the lockdown. But it was not just about health: seaside parties started to spring up on the water’s edge, particularly after pubs and restaurants were locked down. ‘Outdoor swimming’  fell under the Government of Ireland’s Roadmap to reopening society on 18th May 2020, and more than ever, the Dublin coastline was a hive of activity. WhatsApp was integral in organising and coordinating these events, and men and women, parents and children and different age groups could meet in socially distanced ways.

Geographer Ronan Foley has carried out research on sea swimming along the Dublin coast, as well as inland spaces. His research was focussed not only in the activities but in the blue spaces where swimming takes place and he discovered that swimming places are significant in ‘building up personal and communal resilience and emerge as important public health assets’. Not only are they important for personal histories and identity, but they are an ingredient in creating spaces for communities of shared care and physical activity especially for older people or people with differences”[iii].

One striking feature of all this is the number of people who have taken to swimming for the first time.  One 60-year-woman who had never swum in the sea on a regular basis before not only embraced the sea but wrote into a national newspaper in July stating:

‘…as a confirmed scaredy-cat when it comes to water, I took the plunge during lockdown. What an amazing new experience.  […] …a surprising positive experience during this pandemic’.

Now, she calculates the tide times around her Zoom calls. [iv]  She is not alone.  A local 67-year-old politician made national headlines diving into the sea along the north coast of Dublin, prompting the deputy prime minister  Leo Varadkar (Tanaiste) to tweet about his ‘beach bod’, while members of the public commented on his great shape and one person wryly noted that it fits well with the government’s plans to raise the pension age.  These items, which appeared in newspapers and social media, swiftly circulated on countless WhatsApp groups both in the local area but also amongst groups that were set up to encourage people to meet safely outdoors, and swimming was one go-to.

These findings have particular relevance for older people in Ireland. A 2018 paper published by Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) argues that proximity to the sea had an impact on depression scores for older people. Linking the research with data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) they found that those with sea views were found to have a “significantly” lower risk of depression[v]. But besides the views, and the activity, is there more to this new interest that is associated with the lockdown? Foley makes an additional point about the water’s edge. These places are ‘are public, open, free and shared, where people of all generations, shapes, sizes and capabilities all meet up in ways they might rarely do otherwise’[vi].  Health and wellbeing might differ but the swimming might well outlast this lockdown.


[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/the-addictive-magic-of-swimming-in-the-sea-in-winter-it-s-life-affirming-1.4074180

[ii] Kelleher, Patrick 23/11/2019 The addictive magic of swimming in the sea in winter: ‘It’s life affirming’. The Irish Times

[iii] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/

[iv] Making a Splash, letter submitted to the Irish Times 25/7/20

[v] See Foley


[vi] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/