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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.

Women Entrepreneurs and WhatsApp

ShriramVenkatraman17 April 2015

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

 

A few educated young mothers (aged 35 years or below) at Panchagrami terminate their well paying corporate careers to cater to the needs of their families. These family needs mostly fall under two major categories, namely children and/or in-law issues (specifically mother-in-law). Only a few quote other reasons, such as genuinely wanting to take a break from work, office politics, bad bosses etc., for terminating their careers.

While some return back to work after a couple of years, many don’t. Once they take a break, returning back to their corporate careers is the lowest priority. Continuing family issues, or even concerns such as not getting the right upward mobility in their careers if they were to go back, discourage them from returning to their corporate careers.

A survey of this group at Panchagrami revealed that while 55% or so chose to remain homemakers, the rest decided to change careers. While a few take up online work from home, many decide to take up teaching in private schools where their kids study (this option is a favorite among young mothers, who have a few years of corporate experience).

However, those educated housewives who aren’t able to take up full-time employment, sometimes turn into part time entrepreneurs due to restrictions placed on them for a variety of reasons. By becoming part time entrepreneurs they run small businesses from home, these could be product or service oriented and in several cases it might seem like hobbies that have turned into businesses. Their endeavors could range from catering freshly prepared snacks to producing colorful fancy jewelry or even providing home based tuition for children, music/dance lessons, language lessons etc.

Although becoming an entrepreneur is though, living in large apartment complexes comes in handy. They don’t go in search of customers as, in several cases, their neighbors become their customers. They don’t have any online services, but use communication tools such as WhatsApp to advertise their products and services. Becoming a member of a community based WhatsApp group helps these entrepreneurs to tap into their personal network rather than an open market. They advertise products and services in these groups to a ready consumer base, who prefer to buy from their neighbors for a variety of reasons. While need, price and distance become the major variables, personal trust, supporting the community and mutual understanding are also a few significant.

For example: In making/producing snacks, one of the strategies used is appealing to the needs of their neighbors. Many middle class Indian homes feed their children with a snack at tea time when they return back from school at around 4 PM. An advertisement for an affordable home made snack at around 2:30 PM on a community based WhatsApp group, attracts a lot of customers, several of them being loyal and repeat customers. Similarly, an advertisement for snacks at 6 PM is for the tired spouse who is back from work. Sometimes these snacks are even home delivered within the apartment complex for those who might not be able to pick it up.

Similar is the case of providing music/dance lessons. As several middle class parents at Panchagrami now want their children to be occupied once they are back from school, music/dance classes provide an opportunity for this, while also helping their child build a skill.

All advertisements for products and services are done through WhatsApp rather than any other medium.While there are several factors which contribute to understanding why a particular social media becomes a preferred media by a certain group of people over another media, in this case, the speed of response (though asynchronic – its almost assumed to be synchronic), ease of access to the media (over mobile devices), and economy of using it are a few significant variables which speak to this preference for WhatsApp.

The products/services of these women entrepreneurs are mostly targeted at women consumers and families with children. What is of particular interest here is the strategy of turning a community based personal network on WhatsApp into an asset for coordinating their entrepreneurial activities.

“Turks have no other friends besides the Turks” – a Turkish saying

ElisabettaCosta27 June 2014

Galatasary fans. (Photo: Federico Mera CC)

Galatasary fans. (Photo: Federico Mera CC)

My colleagues and friends around the world are talking a lot about the World Cup. I’ve been reading Italian and English newspapers and news about the World Cup dominates the front page. I often check my Facebook page and my friends from Italy, UK, France, North and South America, Lebanon have all been writing comments about it, even if their national football team isn’t playing. My memories of the last World Cup, when I was in Lebanon, are very clear. I was in Beirut in summer 2010 and I remember very well how Lebanese football fans were preparing themselves for the matches: flags everywhere, big screens in many cafés, people wearing team t-shirts, shouting in the street and singing to celebrate the victory of their favourite team (which was Brazil in most cases). In those days both men and women were continuously commenting the World Cup and they were cheering passionately. Lebanon is a post-colonial country and the way people were intensely following other country’s football teams had to do with the culturally legacy of their colonial history.

In contrast to Beirut and many other places in the world, in Mardin, none of my 200 Facebook friends has written a single comment about the World Cup. Men who are football enthusiasts watch the matches at home, but they do not passionately support any football team. They do not care about it. No flags, no clothes, no signs about the World Cup neither in public spaces, nor in the private. Almost nobody watches matches in cafes’ because the matches are available for free on the public TV channel TRT 1, and they are played late in the evening or at night local time. So people prefer to comfortably sit and watch them at home.

I couldn’t watch matches with locals because a woman can’t sit together with men late in the evening in a private house. And women do not care at all about football; a lot do not even know what the World Cup is. The only thing I could do was ask the reasons for the lack of interest, and in most cases it was simply seen as absolutely normal and natural, something that did not need any additional explanations. Others gave me technical justifications:

“This year the World Cup is boring; it doesn’t give any emotions!! Players are not playing well. Look at Italy for example, they are so boring. They wait for Balotelli to make a goal. This is not football. But other teams are not doing better, they are even worse!”

Someone else told me he was supporting Holland, Spain or Portugal for no reason in particular. Some boys who are usually interested in football were not aware of the existence of a World Cup, nor the existence of football played outside of Turkey. One 8 year old child exclaimed: “I am Galatasary’s fan, Galatasary will win!”. A male supporter of AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey) told me not to follow the World Cup because he disapproves of all the money involved in gambling, as it is forbidden in Islam. Another man in his mid-thirties who also supports AKP looked me in the eyes and with a very disclosing look and in a low voice said to me:

“Nobody will tell you the real reason why they are not interested in the World Cup because they can’t! And they do not want to hurt you! But people do not care about the World Cup because there is no countries close friend with Turkey involved in it. Who should we support? Should we support Holland or Portugal? Or Costa Rica? We do not even know where Costa Rica is. They are so far and different from us and they are not Muslim. If for example Azerbajan or other Muslim countries culturally close to us were playing we would have been much more involved, but this is not the case”.

In Mardin, the World Cup is followed as a form of private and individual entertainment. People do not express publicly support for one team or another not offline, nor on social media. Men watch football matches as they can watch a serial TV show, within their own homes and they do not discuss it publicly. In Mardin, the World Cup does not constitute a public arena where national and local collective identities are expressed and articulated. The reason of this has probably to do with the specificity of Turkish national identity, which is built on the idea of a singular Muslim nation that is under continual threat from foreign Western countries. Being a fan of a non-Muslim foreign football team is not something that is plausible here. I haven’t investigated the way the Kurds relate to football and nationalism, but the Arabs living in Mardin who consider themselves proud Turks are involved in many forms of Turkish Muslim nationalism. And not paying attention to the World Cup is one form.

One of my Arab friends, who is also a football fan, posted a picture of his favourite team, Galatasary, with a very touching poem dedicated to his favourite players on his Facebook wall the night before the start of the World Cup!

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Facebook and the body aesthetic in south-east Turkey

ElisabettaCosta9 October 2013

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

I have been looking at the Facebook photos of my friends in Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey and I found very few pictures of overweight women, despite the fact that there are many in town. I can’t reduce the explanation of this fact simply to the presence of an ideal form of the thin body, because this exists in many other parts of the world where people post their pictures of fat bodies on Facebook.

As a way to meet new people and to do some exercise I started to go to one of the three local gyms of the neighborhood where I live. I discovered that the gym is a perfect place to understand the new social aesthetic norms of female and male bodies. Indeed in Dry Rock Town sport is usually portrayed as a way to shape the body, rather than being something worthy in itself. Women go to the gym only to lose weight, while men usually go the gym to do body-building and increase their muscles. I have been asked innumerable times why I was going to the gym as I was not fat, and I had the feeling that my answer “I like doing sport” has never really been understood.

In Dry Rock Town, as with many other parts of the world, the ideal body of the women has changed quite a lot in recent years. As many older men in my fieldsite told me, until few decades ago fatter women were appreciated and searched out by men, because they believed that such women could be more fertile and make more children. But now men are attracted by thin women and young women are obsessed with slim bodies and diet. I had a conversation with a sport trainer who displayed a particularly aggressive attitude towards fat women:

“I really hate fat women! They have never done any exercise during all their life; they just seat, cook and eat. And then all of a sudden they want to lose weight without any effort. I hate them!”

Another friend, a young Kurdish man, is used to making fun of Arab women because they are fat:

“They just know how to cook and eat. The stay at home all day, they clean, they make food and they eat! When they are 35 years old you can’t look at them anymore.”

In Dry Rock Town there are many overweight women as a consequence of a life style that restricts their opportunities to move freely and  have healthy life. In most cases, women sit at home, clean the house, cook, eat, look after the children and, sometimes, they go to work. But if in the past their daily-life habits were fitting the aesthetic social norms, now there is a clear discrepancy between these habits and the shape they tend to achieve, with the effect of creating deep fears and complexes among young women.

But being fat is not only about a physical appearance that does not correspond to the social norms. Being fat is associated with a “traditional” life-style, with old-fashioned habits, with backwardness. Here overweight women are the antithesis of modernity; in somehow they embed exactly what young men and women want to escape from. Facebook users in Dry Rock Town are usually the first generation of educated people, with high school or university degree, and they look towards a different life-style from those of their less educated and more “traditional” parents.

This aversion against the values embedded by weight happens in a place where Facebook is highly normative because it reflects the powerful normativity of a “traditional” Muslim society where people have to strictly follow specific social norms that define every single aspect of the daily life. But now Facebook extends this normativity to new domains: the strict normativity of the way people portray them online where specific aesthetic codes are followed with very few exceptions.