WTFMedia Conference – academic discounts available

The  WTFMedia conference on social media, mobile media and cloud computing will take place from April 27 – 29, 2010 at CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre).

Some of the 40 speakers include Melissa Attree, Matthew Buckland, Dave Duarte, Arthur Goldstuck, Justin Hartman, Shel Istrael, Vincent Maher and Hans Mol. The conference will include a boot camp:  How to negotiate the social media landscape. (Don’t worry, no pushups or actual sweat glands are involved, but bring your own laptop and mobile phone.)
The conference blurb promises to use “common or garden words to provide relevant answers to real questions as to what works and what doesn’t”. So that’s likely to interest impatient hands-on practitioners, or the jargon-wary types who don’t relate to most of the usual connotations of the word ‘conference’ — other than ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’, of course. It’s also a juicy challenge to any academics who want to get their fangs into media history as it happens. Just imagine, all that warm-blooded industry talk, temptingly packaged as common-sense. Mmmm.

The registration fee of R4500 is indeed extremely steep for our academic budgets (WTF, most media scholars are in Humanities faculties, after all). So it’s good news that CPUT are offering academic discount rates of R1000 –  before 20 April. (You will need to produce valid staff or student card).

Here is the conference website
If the price is just too steep, there’s also the NetProphets event, which is also in Cape Town, and still free, Sadly it looks like I won’t be able to attend that one.

Sponsorship for 12 African media artists (sub-Saharan) to attend ISEA2010 Ruhr

ISEA2010I attended ISEA2008 in Singapore, and it was a fascinating and mind-exanding experience of digital art and scholarship.  It saddened me that, as far as I could tell, I was the only delegate from the whole of Africa. Thanks to the efforts of Andreas Broeckmann and generous sponsorship from the Goethe-Institut, the picture at ISEA2010 RUHR should look very different – twelve media artists from sub-Saharan Africa will have the opportunity to attend ISEA2010 this August.

“The Goethe-Institut South Africa and ISEA2010 are partnering to offer twelve people working within media arts in sub-Saharan Africa a chance to participate in the programme. The partnership will cover costs related to travel and accommodation, visas, health insurance, and a per diem during the chosen candidates’ stay in Germany.”

Here is more detail about ISEA2010 and how to apply for the Goethe-Institut award:

“ISEA2010 RUHR is an international festival for art, creativity and media technology, which will this year take place within the broader framework of the European Capital of Culture, RUHR.2010. The programme will include conferences, exhibitions, audio-visual and dance performances, public art projects, artists’ presentations and workshops, and is set for 20 to 29 August 2010. http://www.isea2010ruhr.org

ISEA was started in 1988, and ISEA2010 RUHR is the 16th incarnation of the International Symposium on Electronic Art. The symposium, which focuses on the role of art in the digital age, will bring together a large international community of artists, curators, theorists and scientists for ten days of discussions, festivities, networking and exchange of ideas.

The Goethe-Institut South Africa and ISEA2010 are partnering to offer twelve people working within media arts in sub-Saharan Africa a chance to participate in the programme. The partnership will cover costs related to travel and accommodation, visas, health insurance, and a per diem during the chosen candidates’ stay in Germany.

The Goethe-Institut is Germany’s globally active cultural institute that encourages international cultural cooperation, promotes knowledge of the German language abroad, and reflects a contemporary understanding of Germany. The Goethe-Institut aims to facilitate a deeper understanding between cultures, through a dialogue rooted in partnership, not political affiliation. There are presently over 147 institutes worldwide in 83 countries, with 10 located in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Goethe-Institut South Africa in Johannesburg coordinates all Sub-Saharan institutes, as well as the 15 Goethe Centres within the region. Our focus is on sustainable development in culture, as well as promoting networks across Sub-Saharan Africa, with our cultural projects the highlights of our programme.

The Goethe-Institut and ISEA2010 are looking for individuals who are well-placed and interested in networking within the African media arts community, as well as drawing connections beyond its borders. Further selection criteria for possible participants are as follows:

– Well-versed in current international media art developments
– Interest and documented work on the way new media and technologies are changing our culture today
– Active in the organisation of networks, institutions and community projects with other artists and cultural practitioners
– Excellent command of English, additional German useful

Please send a short focused CV and a letter of motivation, in total no longer than three pages, to Cara Snyman at pro@johannesburg.goethe.org. Be sure to include all contact details. The deadline for submissions is 15 April 2010.”

Cara Snyman
Goethe-Institut Johannesburg
119 Jan Smuts Ave – Parkwood 2193 – South Africa
Private Bag X18 – Parkview 2122 – South Africa
Tel:  (+27-11) 442 32 32
Fax: (+27-11) 442 37 38

How many mobile Internet users in SA?

We know that currently, there are more than 4.6 billion
mobile phone users around the world, and in South Africa 90.16 people in every hundred use a mobile phone. But how many of these people are using the mobile Internet?
At one stage, there were discrepancies of 9.5 million in estimates of the number of South Africans using the Internet on their phones. In 2008, Rick Joubert, head of mobile advertising at Vodacom claimed that the number of unique South African users accessing the mobile internet using WAP was almost double the number of South Africans accessing the Internet via fixed lines. He had extrapolated data about the most popular mobile Web destinations for South African users (e.g. 2.3 million Vodafone Live! users and the then 9 million registered MXit users) and estimated that by early 2009 there would be more than 10 million mobile Web users. At that point, the number of South Africans using fixed lines to access the Internet was estimated at 5 million, and so this was a claim that grabbed headlines and gained a great deal of attention. Joubert speculated that the online media industry did not cater adequately for most of these users, since up to 70% of them might not have any other form of Internet access. He also pointed out South African media brands did not feature at all in the top 50 mobile sites.

At a Netprophet 2009 talk, Arthur Goldstuck argued that these estimates of mobile Internet should be questioned. Notably, he pointed out that the mobile advertising industry has ‘a vested interest in persuading corporates to market to 10 million people on their cellphones’. Goldstuck pointed to proprietary research by his company, World Wide Worx which estimated a considerably smaller number of mobile Web users (500 000) , or 180 000 people who use their cellphones as their primary form of Internet access.

It is possible to reconcile these two sets of figures if we develop a more nuanced model of South African mobile Internet use. Jonathan Donner and Shikoh Gitau differentiate between mobile primary and mobile only Internet use (Donner and Gitau, 2009), a model which recognises that many people have some kind of access to the Internet on computers, but that they are more comfortable using their phones, or that they have to use their phones most of the time.

My MA student Tino Kreutzer did some excellent research for his MA dissertation (2009), where he  differentiated between mobile Web use (the use of mobile browsers to visit websites and WAP sites on mobile phones) and mobile Internet use (a far broader category which includes any use of the Internet protocol, such as the use of Internet-based mobile applications such as MXit). Goldstuck suggests further categorisation, which would allow a sense of the range of audiences now available to online marketers via mobile sites, as well as the new groups of users who can now potentially be reached in different ways, via MXit and other Internet platforms.

How we understand ‘Internet use’ is obviously crucial to this debate. Technically speaking, the ‘Internet’ is the transport mechanism – the network of networks which links devices and the TCP/IP protocols that facilitate data transfer around this network. What people call the ‘Internet’ depends on what applications they use, and the platform to which they have access – while students and office workers might use Facebook and Twitter, and might be able to check Google for every query, other South Africans might only know MXit, wap download sites like zamob.com, and while some may well have used the ubiquitous Google for an occasional query, they may not even realise that all these things they do require the Internet to work.

In common lingo, ‘Internet’ is most often used to refer to the media transferred via the Internet – the graphical interface, or the Web, most often viewed via a browser, which has traditionally been used on a computer. Most South Africans have no experience of the Web, and consequently associate ‘Internet’ with computers, rather than with the mobile applications such as MXit which are more widespread, but which only work on phones with Internet access (e.g. GPRS or 3G).

Many people use applications such as MXit, but they don’t always know that they are using the Internet. For example, the  mobile-centric teens I’ve interviewed may often refer to MXit as a ‘game’, since it is stored in the same folder on their phone where their games are stored. The need to define ‘Internet’ does not only relate to the reporting of statistics, but also extends to the way in which data is gathered in surveys of Internet users.  Tino’s dissertation (2009) makes the point that the word ‘Internet’ bedevils the usefulness of many surveys where people are asked whether they use ‘the Internet’, more particularly when this question is used as a filter for further questions in the survey (such as in the AMPS survey, for example).

Goldstuck rightly explains  that the nature of Internet use is very different for users who primarily use their cellphone’s Internet access for WAP downloads, or to IM with their friends on MXit. This is obviously very important for marketers. At the same time, Joubert’s point, that the online media industry does not understand the needs and interests of the new group of mobile-centric web users, remains entirely valid. We could even start talking about different ‘Internets’, given the different socio-economic circumstances, technology, display capability and bandwidth available to people in our country. Consider two South Africans. One might use a 2 year old handmedown Nokia to access MXit, and treasures the tiny amount of precious on-board memory on the phone where she can store only a limited number of pictures and music while her access depends on prepaid airtime and electricity to charge the battery. Another wealthier South African might own a desktop and Mac Powerbook which hold terabytes of data, and is connected via a broadband contract which allows a sense of always-on connectivity, interrupted only by the occasional Eskom power heist or MWEB capping message. He or she may have Internet access on a smartphone as well, but  is seldom motivated to use it. These two people thus have an almost entirely different experience of connectivity, which leads to distinct concepts of the Internet, and it certainly means that their demands and requirements for their phones are very different. And we haven’t even started to address the other differences that would come into play. We should thus beware of the assumption that everyone’s ‘Internet’ looks the same as our own.

I recently asked MXit how many of their 15 million registered users are South African, and the answer was 13  million. This is particularly impressive if you think how complex it can be to download and install an application on a cellphone. As Vincent Maher said at a recent talk at UCT,

[MXit] has prepared about 5 or 6 million young people for the process, very painful as it is, of downloading and installing an application on their phone. The Americans wouldn’t do it. They needed the iPhone to come around before they would do actually bother to have Internet on their phone, because it was just too complicated. But thanks to MXit (and I think it has around 12 million people now) there is an entire generation of South Africans who understand how to interact with the operating system on their phones.

Internet is Maklik

In South Africa, the Vodacom mobile network recently ran a humorous television advertising campaign to attract more first-time users to use their mobile Internet products. Apparently first time users tend to think that internet access is tricky and difficult to set up and use. Now where would they get that idea?

The campaign introduces two earnest emissaries  from a nameless foreign country  on an official mission to South Africa, to find and retrieve some exciting new invention called ‘Internet’ (less obscene, more boring, but shades of Borat nonetheless) . Wherever the two travellers go, happy partying South Africans assure them that  ‘Internet is maklik’ (Internet is easy). South Africans, though, are too busy having fun to bother to show them exactly where to find this elusive ‘Internet’. They eventually find a shop called ‘Maklik’ in a dorpie somewhere, selling what look to be large, ancient geysers. They return triumphantly to their Glorious Nation of [Unspecified Eurasian Country], where their solemn unveiling of the geyser-like Internet-thing is greeted with appropriate fanfare.

I spent two days of my last holiday helping my godmother, an award-winning primary school teacher, get connected for the first time. Between a dodgy bargain-basement modem, mismatched software and hardware, and endless stretches of time spent listening to irrelevant options on the Vodacom customer care line, I have to concede that first-time users are entirely correct in their prejudices. The Borat-lookalike probably had as much fun trying to log onto his geyser as we did trying to get online with Vodacom. While getting online is definitely easier than it used to be for cellphone users, mobile Internet is not so ‘maklik’ for everyone — my godmother called me in tears a while ago, frustrated at suddenly being unable to connect. After a bit of troubleshooting we realised she’d run out of airtime. This was a good sign to me, as it showed she had been using her connection, but I expect to be getting regular helpdesk calls like that over the next couple of months as she tries to figure out all the other ‘easy’ things which all Internet users struggle with at some stage, but which we find so very ‘maklik’ to forget.

Vincent Maher: From traditional to mobile media in South Africa

Here’s a transcription of Vincent Maher’s talk on his personal experience of moving from traditional journalistic publishing at the Mail and Guardian Online to working in mobile media for South Africa’s mobile network, Vodacom, where his key project is The Grid, a locative social media application. (Talk presented to the Media and Writing third year students at the University of Cape Town on 15 April, 2009.)