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“Free Basics” – does it really matter to the poor in Panchagrami?

ShriramVenkatraman27 December 2015

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

The launch of Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’, a rebranding of internet.org, has been a hot topic in India for the past few months as Facebook tries to grow its second largest user base (over 130 million), slightly more than a quarter of all the people who are online in India. By providing free internet through the Free Basics package, Facebook are aiming to get around 1 billion people online in a march towards digital equality. However, the service has been criticised as it will only promote select sites, thus compromising net neutrality.

This past week, Free Basics has been in the news again since the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), has asked Facebook’s Indian partner, Reliance Communications, to put the roll-out of Free Basics on hold until it reviews the service.

While Free Basics is designed for people who can’t afford an internet connection, does the delay actually matter to the poor in our Indian fieldsite, Panchagrami*? The issues surrounding Free Basics have made the news in India, however this post explores the topic from the perspective of the poor in Panchagrami and is not an argument either for Free Basics or for net neutrality.

A significant discovery to arise from our fieldwork across nine different fieldsites in eight countries was that digital equality does not necessarily mean offline social equality. Instead, we found that both influence each other and are complexly interwoven. So, while web companies may see technology or access to the internet as a panacea for all social evils, they unfortunately often don’t consider wider complexities or see how social issues like gender equality and illiteracy are actually integral to digital equality.

Taking into consideration discoveries from our fieldwork, here are five reasons why the launch of Free Basics might not matter to the poor in Panchagrami:

Illiteracy: On average, a poor household in Panchagrami might possess one, or a maximum of two, used non-smart (feature) phones, whose primary purpose is voice communication. This limited use of mobile technology is not only down to more advanced communication tools being inaccessible, but also due to the illiteracy of users. In our fieldwork we came across many cases where a text message had to be read by someone other than the phone’s owner (especially when the owner was a woman). Although literacy among younger generations seems to be on the rise (with people often staying in education until the 5th grade), literacy still needs to improve for people to be able to send text messages, let alone use the internet.

Women and PhonesCaste issues and strict social surveillance of young unmarried women often makes it difficult for them to access phones, let alone use the internet.  There is a prevalent social notion that access to phones might endanger a woman’s chastity. Unmarried young women with school education have the highest potential to access the internet of all the people in our fieldsite, but are cut off from tools to gain such access. Once married they may gain the right to own a phone, yet access to the internet might still be guarded by their in-laws.

News and SocialityAccess to news/information is quoted as an important features of the Free Basics scheme. However, for the poor in Panchagrami access to information and news are generally through a set of entirely different channels. While news pertaining to people’s everyday needs is often passed through word of mouth, access to news for men is often through the “corner tea shop culture” that has long existed in Tamil Nadu, where people meet to drink tea, read newspapers, and partake in informal debates about daily news. Listening to such debates forms an important learning culture for the illiterate poor men in Panchagrami. Further, people still do rely on Panchayat offices (local village council offices) to pass on policy news that affects them. Aural learning assumes more importance than textual learning for this group.

Entertainment: People in Panchagrami normally combat boredom by listening to songs from films and watching television (freely provided by the government). Film songs are typically bought cheaply from phone recharge booths by an individual and then shared with others. Since the latest and the best songs are bought and shared this way, people do not need to access the internet to enjoy their favoured forms of entertainment. Even if they did, the Free Basics package does not provide them with a site to download such songs.

Infrastructure: Reliance Communications is not a popular telecom provider in Panchagrami. Competitors such as Airtel, Aircel, and Vodafone occupy the biggest share of telecom services used by the poor in Panchagrami. Hence, offering the Free Basics package on Reliance won’t necessarily reach the poor, as they don’t use this provider.

In conclusion, the Free Basics scheme might have an affect on India’s telecom policies, but its intended benefits for the really poor warrant further study, since currently it does not seem to make a difference to their lives, at least for people in Panchagrami.

* Panchagrami is the pseudonym of a peri-urban site located just outside the limits of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where the author spent fifteen months studying the impact of social media on the lives of people.

Social media as ageist?

JolynnaSinanan30 May 2013

Left- an old man is choosing an 'old people phone'; right- the interface of the 'old people phone'. Photo by Xin Yuan Wang

Left- an old man is choosing an ‘old people phone’; right- the interface of the ‘old people phone’. (Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

By Jolynna Sinanan and Xin Yuan Wang

We had the opportunity to talk comparatively about what is coming out of our respective fieldwork, when Jolynna took a detour through China on her way home from her second round of fieldwork in Trinidad to visit Xin Yuan. We found a number of complimentary themes and parallels from our field sites and our discussions with our informants. Trinidad and the region of China where Xin Yuan is doing her fieldwork are similar in that there are large amount of intra-state migrants (in Xin Yuan’s field site, rural migrants amount to two thirds of the local total population), whose main social networks remain in their home towns. This suggests that these groups may need social media mostly in terms of developing social networks in their area of destination as well as for their contacts who remain in their home towns. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the social consequences of the appropriation of social media among migrants, which we definitely aim to address at the end of the project.

However, some very obvious parallels did express themselves clearly enough in Jolynna’s short research visit, and pushed us to think WHY. For example, we both found that there are very few to no people over the age of 50 using social media, or even seem interested in using social media (in Xin Yuan’s case, she found so far, that nobody over the age of 45 is using social media and Jolynna has only one informant over 60 who uses Facebook). We discussed a couple of factors to why this is the case: A) illiteracy (especially in Xin Yuan’s case amongst older rural migrants in China); B) older people as being more  technophobic; and C) the dominance of face to face relations for older people. The first two factors are to do with people’s capability and willingness to use digital technologies, however the last reason has more to do with people’s perception of social life and the social normativity around the questions such as “which kind of social connection really matters in one’s everyday life”.

Firstly, in both of our field sites, older people are more invisible in the smartphone market. From her observations and discussions with informants, Xin Yuan has found that many older locals and migrants are illiterate and they are mostly interested in a phone that can meet the basic functions of making and receiving calls. They are generally not interested in smartphones because they ‘don’t see the need’. Their need for the main functions of making and receiving calls plus the extra need for easier usage is reflected in the phones, which is called the ‘old people phone’, available in the industrial town at a very low price (around 300 RMB, equals to 30 pounds). This kind of mobile phone is designed for easy usage, buttons and screens are larger, the screen itself is not cluttered with graphics, the phone also allows for two SIM cards, there is a clear SOS button, which calls the number of the person’s choosing if they need to reach them urgently and the incoming call alert is particularly loud (see figure above). The phone also doesn’t need to be charged as often as a regular phone, battery life can last up to a month as older people here tend to associate the phone with a landline telephone, which remains plugged in and doesn’t need to be charged. Yet, in Trinidad, there are very few phones especially for older people on offer. Landline phones with larger numbers can still be found, but mobile phone shops cater more for younger customers, they have all sorts of ‘fad’ phones on offer, of different colors and camera functions to upload photos directly onto SNSs and the newest iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Blackberries dominate display cabinets.

More so, older people in Xin Yuan’s field site don’t seem to have the desire to make friends beyond their immediate living areas, where they keep mainly face-to-face communication. Xin Yuan suggests that this reflects the old saying that “yuanqin buru jinlin” (close neighbours are better than faraway relatives), perhaps because it is only their neighbors that they would turn to for day to day support, which they can’t rely on faraway relatives for. It is a very pragmatic attitude towards social relationships, since one can only survive within a stable social network where they can turn for help in a tough ‘real life’ situation.

It is no surprise to find that the social networks of older people are more or less shrinking in both Jolynna and Xin Yuan’s field sites. Like China, Trinidad is an extremely family-oriented society, but there is more of a pattern that the elderly are engaged more in face-to-face relations with their immediate and extended families, unless their relatives live abroad. Children of the elderly visit very often, everyday or once every two days if they live nearby and at least in El Mirador, sociality for older people still resolves more around the town market place, which is a bustling hub on the weekends.

This project sought to explore social media through an anthropological lens, where, as Daniel Miller emphasized in an earlier post, context is everything. So far, in our respective field sites of a semi-urban town in Trinidad and an industrial town in China that is a hub for rural migrant workers; older people aren’t using social media as much as we might have thought. Social media doesn’t seem to be a priority for a demographic of people whose relationships are predominantly face-to-face in closer and more immediate circles of neighbours and family, perhaps in the face of smaller, more localised social networks or a lack of the need or desire to make and keep new friends.