Anyone using the new version of Mapstraction?

When teaching my students at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies how to visualise geographical data, I’ve previously used Mapstraction, along with a good textbook by Adam DuVander and his excellent Twitter geosearch example.

The Mapstraction lesson only required a couple of small updates to form the basis of an assignment where the students created their own custom version of a visualisation of geocoded tweets. It worked well, providing an excellent example of how to mashup social media data with a map. I also like the tutorial because it provides a relatively simple research tool for my postgrad students (who are usually not web developers). For example, I used it recently to research the applications used by journalists and delegates at the ANC’s December 2012 conference in Mangaung. It was also helpful as a way of showing students what a tiny proportion of twitter data is geocoded (usually lower than 1%), which smartphones are in use in various countries, and (perhaps most important) the dangers of assuming that the comments and activities of Twitter users in South Africa reflect the preoccupations of the population as a whole. As one of the delegates to the Mangaung conference tweeted ‘ANC’s masses are not your Twitter people. So Social Media Hype will mislead you’.

Geocoded tweets at ANC’s Mangaung conference in December 2012.
Applications used to post geolocated tweets from ANC Conference, Mangaung, 2012
Applications used to post geolocated tweets from ANC Conference, Mangaung, 2012

Mapstraction always appealed to me because of the ability to use it for open data providers, and the ease it promises if you want to switch from one map provider to another.

Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the game in this field that you have to keep running just to stand still. Preparing the new version of my course, I realised that I needed to update the tutorial as my exercise and the textbook builds on v2 of the Google Maps Javascript API. This is now deprecated and apparently won’t be available for much longer (until May 19 2013 to be precise). Given that I’d used Mapstraction, I didn’t think that it would be too difficult to make the switch, but sadly this was NOT the case.

Geocoded tweets about the beach posted near Durban, Janauary 2012, now using Google Maps API v3

The new version of the mashup (you can try it out here) allows you to search Twitter for geocoded tweets, and after searching you can summarise and view the twitter data.

I’m now using Gabriel Svennerberg’s textbook, and his Google Maps API v 3 JSON tutorial.

I still use the Twitter API and most of DuVander’s code for mining the JSON data, but I (reluctantly) abandoned Mapstraction, as I struggled a bit to get it to work, and I’m a bit short of time. I now display the data directly via Google Maps Javascript API v 3 instead of using the Mapstraction layer.

I’ve added a couple of features which I believe may be useful to researchers, and which I hope will spur my students to engage with the Twitter data in a more focused way. (I’ve found students like to decorate the maps but are overly cautious when it comes to making use of the additional data available from the tweets). The new version is just a start, but it provides a list of geocoded tweets, allows the user to see all the query results in JSON format or download the data as a JSON text file (although this requires browser popup windows to be enabled).

I tried updating the example to use the new version of Mapstraction and the Google Maps Javascript API v3 but ran out of time. I wondered whether anyone else has seen working examples which use Mapstraction together with Google API v3 and Twitter data? Please do let me know! Comments on the mashup example are welcome, though it is very much work in progress.


Grand Theft South Africa? Local game literacies

”]GTA meets ZA in the imaginations of SA's young suburbanites

Here’s the abstract of a paper Nicci Pallitt and I just had accepted by the journal Language & Education:

‘Grand Theft South Africa’: Games, literacy and inequality in consumer childhoods

By Marion Walton and Nicola Pallitt

Discussions of ‘game literacy’ focus on the informal learning and literacies associated with games but seldom address  the diversity in young people’s gaming practices, and the highly differentiated technologies of digital gaming in use.  We use available survey data to show how, in South Africa, income inequalities influence consumption patterns, shaping experiences of digital games. Two case studies of young people’s play practices involving digital games in Cape Town suggest the fragmentation and inequalities of contemporary play practices and the need for a more inclusive understanding of digital gaming. Mobile phones offer more accessibility than other digital gaming platforms and local appropriations include display of micro-commodities, concealment of outdated technology, control strategies and deletion of functionality. Digital games articulate between multiple overlapping communicative spaces and hence complex cultural articulations arise when global game narratives are appropriated to make sense of racial otherness, crime and politics in South Africa. Since educational curricula cater for highly fractured publics, we ask whether it is advisable to speak of ‘game literacy’. We suggest the need to validate less strongly mediatised forms of play, and to address diverse identification practices in consumer culture, including prestige and status as well as othering and shame.

Here’s a prepublication version of the full article.


Want to study in Humanities? There’s an app for that.

Here’s the press release for the best project by my third year production students this year, which developed from my work with matriculants at Ikamva Youth. Many young people I met at Ikamva struggle to conceptualise the possibility that they might be able to study at UCT. When they do allow themselves to dream that they just might be able to make it happen they struggle to access information which would help them choose suitable courses, or help them get a realistic sense of what the university’s criteria for admission are and how hard they need to work at school to get a place. I think this mobile web app is definitely a step in the right direction for UCT to demystify the admission process for prospective students. I’m very happy with the great work produced this year by the interactive media production class of 2011 and their excellent tutors, Fabio Longano, Afsana Kahn, and Travis Noakes.

Calculate your eligibility to study in Humanities

Explore your options in Humanities

Exploring options in Humanities

By Rebecca Johnson and Lee-Ann Lipman

31/10/2011 CAPE TOWN

Ever had trouble trying to figure out which degrees your favourite matriculant might be eligible to study? Two UCT students, Lee-Ann Lipman and Rebecca Johnson, have built a site which allows would-be UCT students to calculate their scores according to UCT’s points system and work out their eligibility for admission to study various courses within the Humanities Faculty. The pair explained their concept as follows: “We realise that admissions systems can be really confusing for matriculants who are overwhelmed with information about the various options for further study, so we decided to build an online calculator which does the work on their behalf. The best part is that it’s simple and quick to use. There’s also a mobile interface which brings the information within reach of matriculants who don’t have easy access to computers’.

The UCT admission table can be confusing and has mystified applicants for the past decade. Lipman and Johnson created a mobile web app which allows matriculants to calculate their points scores and match them to available degrees and programmes in the Humanities Faculty. They submitted the site as their final project in the Production Programme in Interactive Media Production.

The major advantage of their time-saving calculator is that it helps matriculants to compile a list of the courses they qualify to study in the Humanities Faculty. Applicants can now focus on deciding where their interests lie and make sure they understand special criteria for admission (such as portfolios) rather than trying to figure out whether they even meet the criteria in the first place. If potential students use this app early enough, it may also serve as a reality check to them, and inspire them to make the most of their time in matric to improve their results. This is an idea which certainly has potential to go beyond the Humanities Faculty and even beyond UCT, as potential students need to establish their eligibility for courses at more than one institution.

The site is still undergoing testing and is not official yet, but why not open in your browser to try it out for yourself.

Mobiles research @ UCT: The pick of 2011 CFMS student projects

This year for the first time I taught an MA level Mobile Media and Communication course to University of Cape Town postgraduates. It was a great privilege to work with such an bright group of students and spend a semester discussing the relationship between mobile technology and society, and exploring methodologies and theories for studying networked individualism, mobile social networks, mobile media and games. We also considered the place of gender, class and consumer culture in adoption, appropriation and domestication of mobile technologies in South Africa.

Gary Marsden from UCT’s Centre for ICT4D also made a guest appearance. I’m hoping that next year we will find a way for Gary’s mobile interaction design students to work together with us to think through some of the implications of our research for local phone, app and website designers. Here are some of the highlights of the excellent research the CFMS students produced this year.

Desperately seeking multiplayer bluetooth games

By Anja Venter, MA student, Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Ocean View, Cape Town, 24 October 2011 -Young mobile gamers in South Africa have little local content to choose from – and they badly need games which are designed for them to play together, and which they can access without needing to find a computer. A recent study conducted by University of Cape Town student Anja Venter revealed valuable insights into the cellphone use and gaming preferences of eight kids (11 and 12 year olds) in Ocean View, Cape Town. The study is important reading for mobile game developers, and particularly for developers seeking to use mobile games in ICT4D (Information and communications technologies for development).
Venter found that mobile gaming is still very much an individual activity for this group of kids, although they really want to be playing together. Gaming is fundamentally social and kids miss not being able to challenge other players on their cellphones. Modes of collaborative play such as online games are too expensive for local contexts. Enter the accessible nature of the mobile Java gaming platform in combination with Bluetooth technology that has proven to be inexpensive and sustainable: a potential avenue for ad hoc gaming with the people in your immediate surroundings. A trial of such a game proved to be very successful.

Multiplayer Bluetooth Mobile Games
Multiplayer Bluetooth Mobile Games

Although this study is limited in scope and is the result of a pilot Masters student study, it offers insights for potential game developers. Currently we see an explosion of mobile phone games, which were developed by international companies, available for free download directly from ones’ mobile phone. Competition in this arena is fierce and avenues for procurement are already in place, perpetuated through word-of-mouth testimonies amongst peers. There is a massive gap in the market when it
comes to Bluetooth multiplayer games that can be downloaded directly to ones’ phone without access to a desktop PC.

This research found that, in order to be successful, these games should be free and cheap to download (hence small in size), easy to find and access solely from a phone. They should work on a diverse range of mobile phones and cater to the intended audience’s interests. For further information, or a copy of the report, contact Anja Venter.

Men, Mobile Users Dominate Miyeni Facebook Debate

By Marise Haumann, Honours student, Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Cape Town, October 24, 2011 – When controversy erupted in the South African media around columnist Eric Miyeni and City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, many people continued debating the issues with friends on their public Facebook profiles.  Most of them seem to have been using their cell phones while they listened to the debate raging on local radio stations.

A study by University of Cape Town student, Marise Haumann, titled “Gender and the Public Sphere on Mobile-based Facebook”, looked at 203 public Facebook status updates posted on 2 August to investigate the role of gender in the debate that erupted around Eric Miyeni’s controversial column, “Haffajee does it for white masters”. Several public figures and gender rights organisations accused Miyeni of misogyny and hate speech and he was subsequently sacked from the Sowetan.

Facebook seemed swayed by arguments in favour of Miyeni – 22% of the mobile contributors supported Miyeni, and only 10% disagreed with his statements. But that may have been because fewer women were participating. Unsurprisingly, positions in the debate were influenced by the poster’s gender – with men more likely to express support for Miyeni –   27% of all men using mobile devices supported Miyeni while only 6% of women did so. In contrast, only 9% of men using mobile devices disagreed with Miyeni,  while somewhat more female mobile users (13%) disagreed with him.

Support and opposition for Miyeni in Facebook status updates, by Gender
Support and opposition for Miyeni in Facebook status updates, by Gender

Haumann’s study reveals that while 69% of all the contributors to the debate used mobile devices to access the debate, 30% contributed their opinions through fixed-line internet. A large majority  (79%) of all contributors to the debate were men, while only 21% were women.  English was the most frequently used language in the debate, but mobile phone users seem to be relatively multilingual. Of the mobile contributors, 6% used English in conjunction with other languages, while only 1% of the fixed-line contributors used other languages in conjunction with English.

The study reveals that although more men than women took part in the debate on Facebook, both men and women received similar numbers of replies to their status updates. Haumann argues that this indicates that while fewer women may have been involved in the debate on both the mobile internet and fixed-line internet, they did not ‘receive a cold shoulder’ in the Facebook debate. She also argues that the fact that men and women exhibited such differences in their opinions on Miyeni indicates that the debate was free and unobstructed by sexism or discrimination. She warns, however, that if more women do not make the effort to enter into such debates, they may see that their opinions will become relegated to the side-lines.

The “Gender and the Public Sphere on Mobile-based Facebook” study was conducted through the  postgraduate course in Mobile Media and Communication (FAM5038S) at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. The study used quantitative content analysis to analyse a sample of 203 individual Facebook status updates, which were collected during the span of one day in August 2011. For further information, contact Marise Haumann.

Talking about Sex and Health on MXit.

By Mareike Kramper

Cape Town, November 1, 2011 – The mobile social site MXit signed a contract with The African Pulse a non-profit organisation with worldwide partners and associates. The company launched the health and sexual awareness portal H360º on the social site MXit.

The H360º forum allows young people from all over the world to participate in discussions around HIV/AIDS and sexuality. Teenagers can ask questions that are of burning importance to them, without the embarrassment of having to ask judgemental adults, or revealing secrets to their peers or ignorance to medical professionals. The online platform provides information on health and sexuality and allows users to connect to other H360º members worldwide. University of Cape Town MA student Mareike Kramper studied the requests posted on the site in order to find out more about what questions young people are asking about HIV/AIDS and sexuality. By studying the language used to express questions or to confess fears, Kramper found that H360º should be enagaging with young people’s everyday understanding of sex, health, love, shame and relationships. She said: “H360º needs to be able to answer questions such as, “I wnt 2 knw y ppls hate gays?” or “If u have love and u use a condom can u get it?”. The battle against social injustice and accurate health behaviour options needs to become part of daily conversations in South Africa.”

For further information, contact Mareike Kramper.

South African political activists mobilising Facebook

By Pierrinne Leukes

24 October 2011, Cape Town

South Africans are using mobile phones for political activism on Facebook, says Pierrinne Leukes, a University of Cape Town (UCT) Masters student majoring in Political Communication.

Some studies have been done about mobiles being used in South Africa for political campaigning and engagement during election times, but so far no studies show us how South Africans are talking politics on their phones a daily basis.  South African political parties such as the ANC, DA, COPE and IFP do have Facebook pages but Leukes found that hardly any of the activity on these pages come from mobile phones. Then Leukes found a Facebook group called ‘New Political Forum’, which was started in August 2010 by four South Africans who felt that they could not debate freely on the official Facebook pages belonging to political parties such as the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance. The ‘New Political Forum’ group grew rapidly and now boasts just under 8000 members.

Leukes studied posts and comments over  two days. “The level of engagement is impressive” , said Leukes. “On these two days, 49 messages were posted, and they initiated debates which totalled a whopping 1013 comments, again over just two days”. While the pages belonging to the political parties are dominated by computer users, the New Political Forum users are using phones to have their say and engage with fellow citizens. Approximately 60% of all these debates were initiated, and sustained by people using their mobile phones to access Facebook’s mobile site”.

The BB revolution

By Aziza Banderker

Cape Town, October 27, 2011 – South Africans love BlackBerries, but what in particular influences young middle class students to choose to jump on the bandwagon and adopt the popular smartphone? University of Cape Town Honours student, Aziza Banderker, interviewed a group of her BB-using peers to identifywhat factors had persuaded them adopt a Blackberry. And she decided to do so by chatting to them on BBM, the famous BlackBerry messaging service.

Banderker explained her interviewing strategy as follows: “BlackBerries are relatively expensive, and so I tried to find out when the cost of exclusion from BB starts to exceed the cost of adoption, and when that happens, what is actually the deciding factor which helps students justify the cost of the service?”. She considered individual demographics, socio-economic status, personal factors, social influence, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, facilitating conditions, attitude and behavioural intentions. The interviews were constructed in a way in order to discover which of these factors are the most salient for this group of friends.

She found that the majority of the individuals in her social circle had waited till they felt there was a growing trend to adopt this mobile phone before they bought one themselves. Social influence was the greatest determining factor influencing adoption in this particular group. All had learned about BlackBerry via word of mouth. As a cost-saving feature, BlackBerry’s ‘free’ Internet service was one of the most important determining factors.

Gender played an important role. Banderker’s male contacts claimed that their decision process was based on whether the BlackBerry had the integrated features that they required. Female contacts emphasized that features which enhanced their social life were a deciding factor. Personal factors, such as preference and device capabilities, seemed to be the most important mediating factor.

Gaming women on Gameloft

By Jade van Blerk

24 October 2011, Cape Town

Mobile phones are the most popular gaming platform in South Africa, where downloaded and built-in games played on mobile phones are widely available and appeal to a large target market, including many women and girls. Developers such as top mobile developer Gameloft have realised the potential of the female market. UCT student Jade van Blerk asked what images of women these mobile games are using to sell their products, and whether marketing materials for mobile games are reproducing the adolescent stereotypes  associated with the traditionally  male-dominated world of ‘hard-core’ gaming.

Van Blerk wondered how images of women in cellphone games might compare to the stereotypes that are commonly encountered in other popular media directed at women such as magazine advertisements, where research shows that women are often stereotyped as homemakers or sex objects. Van  Blerk explained ‘I was interested in how mobile games might be establishing new images of femininity’. Van Blerk investigated the promotional imagery for a range of 45 mobile phone games selected from the Gameloft website.

Mobile ads from Gameloft

Van Blerk found that traditional gaming stereotypes seemed to have been imported wholesale into mobile games. In the first place, women were underrepresented in comparison to men. If they were depicted they were in the company of men, as sidekicks or symbols used to communicate information about the men in the image. Many images told stories with men carrying out the action, and women being represented in a passive way as the goal,object, or reward of the action. Male game characters confronted the viewer directly, more commonly demanding an emotional response, while women were offered as undemanding eye-candy for the viewer.

In contrast, women were largely depicted as subordinated to men and were often depicted performing what Goffman refers to as ‘appeasement gestures’ such as ‘body canting’ or the ‘bashful knee bend’  In the only case where a woman was the game’s protagonist she still performed appeasement gestures and was posed with a male.

Generalisations about mobile games cannot be made from this small sample of 45 advertisements, but Van Blerk’s research certainly suggests that there would be many opportunities for game developers who make the effort to understand which images  appeal to female players.

This research paper is available for download from or contact the researcher for further information.


Local vs tourist views and mobile photography

Mobile snapshots
Online image-sharing sites such as Flickr currently reinforce the digital invisibility of the majority of the world’s population. This is a simple function of the fact that most people have not had access to consumer electronics, digital production and distribution, and even electricity. Recently cameraphones have become accessible to many more people, and digital publication is becoming more feasible, given that many platforms are now adapted or specifically developed for mobile use. For mobile industries eyeing emerging markets, multimedia communication practices can develop new markets for handsets and heavier use of mobile data networks. Academics and activists have spotted the possibilities of using mobile media to document grassroots stories, issues and new forms of journalism. But what possibilities do digital image-sharing platforms suggest for ordinary people? And to what extent will mobile publication platforms shift existing patterns of digital invisibility?

I’ve been working on a research project which investigates how cameraphone images are being published on South African mobile locative media-sharing platform, The Grid.Here is a short video which shows how The Grid’s designers imagined that their users might use the application’s locative features together with messaging and photographs taken with their cameraphones. The video shows trendy urban youth on the move, always in touch with one another, sharing their lives and emotions as they dart around the map, from home to train to mall to beachfront sunset to nightspot, co-ordinating busy social lives while capturing transient moments of beauty and fun.


I’ve worked on the mobile snapshots posted to The Grid during a short sabbatical visit to the Multimodal Analysis Lab (MMA) at the National University of Singapore.  At NUS, linguist and multimodality researcher Kay O’Halloran and her team are working on a project called Mapping Asian Cultures, where they are developing visual tools to research and analyse visual culture in Asia. Their visualisation tool, VisualCultures, is currently in alpha stages of development, and during my visit I’ve been able to use the tool for my research into mobile photography from South Africa.

Cultural Analytics

The MMA VisualCultures tool is being produced in a joint effort with new media theorist, Lev Manovich, whose Cultural Analytics project at UCSD aims to use computational visualisation and supercomputing to study large sets of images. This will allow cultural scholars to gain insights into existing collections of artworks, but also provides new methods which are adapted to the explosion of visual images in contemporary culture, associated with user-generated content and Web2.0. The images above are taken from the Cultural Analytics Flickr page. They illustrate how VisualCultures uses the measurable  characteristics of individual works or pages (in these cases the mean brightness of Rothko paintings and of individual pages from manga title Zippy Ziggy) to create a large-scale overview of an artist’s oevre or of a manga title as a whole.

Brightness in Zippy Ziggy manga title
UCSD Cultural Visualisation project - Brightness in Zippy Ziggy manga title
Brightness in Rothko paintings (1830-1970)
UCSD Cultural Visualisation project - Brightness in Rothko paintings (1830-1970)

VisualCultures is  an open source project which runs in Adobe Air (free download). As the software runs on ordinary PCs rather than supercomputers it is useful for work with medium-sized image datasets (a maximum of 800 images). I’ve really enjoyed working with an early version to extend an analysis of South African mobile phone images that I started working on earlier this year. (I’ve written up an initial analysis in a short paper  accepted for design conference DIS2010).

VisualCultures helped me to compare geo-tagged images from Yahoo’s photo-sharing site Flickr and  from South African mobile locative media-sharing platform, The Grid. The images were taken or posted in low-income areas in Cape Town (they are mostly from Guguletu, but to increase the sample size slightly I included all images from neighbouring Nyanga as well).

While The Grid’s designers imagined prolific visual communciation between trendy groups of urban friends on the move, my study found quite different patterns of use. Users posted relatively few images, and they seldom document their environment, preferring to publish a couple of self-portraits. The Grid is still not widely used, and so, on this platform, visual communication seems to be taking place between geographically dispersed early adopters rather than between close friends whose daily lives are intertwined. The Grid  extends patterns of mobile interaction established by anonymous chat and IM, which are the most popular uses of dominant mobile platform in SA, MXit. The Grid seems to be used occasionally as a supplement or as an experiment, rather than as a primary means of communication. Nicky Allen from The Grid team reports that conversations on The Grid are primarily cross-gender (80%). The site seems to function to some extent as a dating app, with images often being used to introduce anonymous chat participants to one another. The limited number of images published may also relate to the fact that mobility costs money, and so does mobile bandwidth.

I compared the two sets of images along a number of dimensions. In this post I’ll focus on what I found about the geographical distribution of the images.

Multimodal Analysis Lab's VisualCultures - mockup
Multiple graph view in Multimodal Analysis Lab's VisualCultures (mockup)

Although VisualCultures doesn’t include a map function yet, I have mocked up a map view in Photoshop to show how the software allows one to display multiple graphs, and to investigate different views of the data at the same time.

The first graph is a map view, which maps the images according to longitude and latitude. The second graph (superimposed in the top left corner of the map) functions as a kind of user interface to the first graph, and allows the user to select categories of interest, in this case the two image platforms, Flickr and The Grid. By selecting the Flickr category on the graph I have tinted images on the map which belong to that particular category. These images of interest can then be viewed one by one in higher resolution if the user needs to take a closer look.

Locals and tourists - Guguletu and Nyanga images from Grid and Flickr
Locals and tourists - Guguletu images from Grid and Flickr

The map visualisation of the Guguletu data reminded me of the Locals and Tourists visualisations of Flickr images. Locals and Tourists contrasts the concentrated distribution of tourist shots (which tend to cluster around key tourist landmarks in cities) with the more dispersed distribution of photographs taken by people who live in these cities. The VisualCultures map was not entirely accurate, so I created a simpler visualisation with Processing (using code from Modest Maps) to get a more exact representation of their geographical distribution. Purple ellipses represent Flickr snapshots, and are concentrated around local township tour routes, with several shots taken around or near Klipfontein Road, the main thoroughfare through the area. A couple are taken from the N2 highway, which is the route to Cape Town International Airport. This is likely to be the only view tourists have of the area, if they do not take a township tour. In contrast, images from The Grid (blue squares) are distributed more evenly around the map, indicating more local patterns of use.

Flickr is used by both locals and tourists in the wealthier areas in South African cities. In contrast, the distribution of the Guguletu images suggests that there is very little local use of Flickr in these areas. Local views of South African townships may only be emerging on mobile platforms, where township residents are gaining access digital publishing opportunities for the first time. As these platforms are not always indexed, linked or aggregated on mainstream sites such as Google Images, these separate local mobile platforms may be perpetuating a certain kind of digital invisibility, and, for now, mobile creativity and expression remain on the margins.

The rest of my work on mobile snapshots involved looking at social distance in the shots, and I’ve developed my own visualisation tools for this – more on that in another post.

Mobile literacies – bridging the gap between phone and book.

South African teens were happy to give their thumbs a rest for a while and take a break between MXit chats to read the m-novel Kontax, on their cellphones. The m-novel (a novel written to be read on a cellphone) meant that there was finally something on their phones that would make their parents smile rather than frown.

The m-novel Kontax was written by Sam Wilson, translated into isiXhosa by Nkululeko Mabandla, and commissioned by the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4lit (mobiles for literacy) project. The story’s success shows that teens have mastered a whole range of mobile literacies and the m4Lit research shows how wide-ranging these new skills are. Still, teens need better support if they are to make the most of the opportunities of ‘Web2.0’, and benefit from the new phase of social media where people do not only browse the web, but contribute to knowledge and share creative ideas with the world.

Mobile literacies report
Read full report on Mobile Literacies (pdf)

The m4Lit project included a research component which investigated teens’ responses to Kontax and surveyed 61 teens from Langa and Guguletu who all had access to GPRS-enabled phones. Researchers Marion Walton (Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town), Ana Deumert (Department of Linguistics, University of Cape Town),  and Steve Vosloo (Shuttleworth Foundation), found that despite regular bad news about South African youth’s poor performance at school and in literacy tests, and despite their ongoing difficulties in accessing computers, teens’ digital literacy is developing rapidly as a result of their passion for internet-enabled cellphones. The success of Kontax suggests that cellphones have significant potential in literacy development and that schools and teachers could benefit by knowing more about teens’ mobile literacies. (Read the full report here.)

When published on MXit, Kontax attracted over 28 000 teen subscribers, suggesting that teens were intrigued by the idea of using their phones to read a story.  An estimated 26% of these interested teens became loyal readers of the Kontax story, a teen mystery which included 21 400-word chapters, written in cliff-hanger-style. Kontax was slightly more popular with female than male teens, and the overwhelming majority of subscribers came from Gauteng (69%) or the Western Cape (16%). We are not sure exactly why the novel was so popular in Gauteng, but we suspect that this reveals the existence of a rural-urban ‘digital divide’ between urban teens who regularly use the internet on their cellphones and rural teens who may not have a modern phone, network access, or money for airtime.

Many South African teens may be more comfortable writing on phones than on paper or computers. The teens from Langa and Guguletu barely used computers for writing, and only 18% had a computer at home. Outside school, teens wrote on a mobile phone (mostly short messages on SMS or MXit), or else, in only a minority of cases, on pen and paper.

Adolescents need to develop self-knowledge and broaden their horizons beyond their immediate family, and teens’ mobile literacies and MXit use are playing an important part in this process. Teens used the internet on their phones to chat on MXit (75% were daily users) because they wanted to deepen their existing friendships with their peers, meet new people outside their immediate surroundings, understand themselves better, and establish new romantic relationships, both online and offline. Because of this emphasis, we weren’t really surprised that none of the teens used MXit to communicate with their parents. Overall teens were quite savvy about using MXit and understood that their adventures in the world of online chatting might have unpleasant and all-to-real consequences. Many teens had made rules for themselves to limit interactions with strangers, to guard their real identity, or to protect their time for schoolwork and household chores.

Still, teens weren’t always successful in managing their phone use, and some teens talked about how, in a contest of ‘Book vs. Phone’, the phone often won hands down. A large majority (76%) reported that they had experienced conflict with their parents because of their cellphone or MXit use, most often because of late nights, neglected schoolwork, or uncompleted household chores.

Mobile literacies (such as ‘txtspk’ or ‘MXit language’) are forms of literacy where South African teens are more expert writers than many of their elders. Overall, teens are using writing to express a youthful, casual, up to date identity and to establish their status and manage relationships in the all-important peer group.

It may surprise parents and teachers to find that teens still value the ability to communicate well and that they take care to hone their writing skills. They enjoy chatting to others who are able to use written language flexibly, responsively and creatively. Teens told us that they needed to learn to spell differently because, when they chat on MXit, speed and responsiveness are of the essence. ‘Txtspk’ deliberately breaks with the spelling conventions that teens have learned in school. It introduces a whole new set of rules for them to learn, and many of them talked about their embarrassment when, as newcomers to MXit, they unwittingly transgressed these new rules. They learned the hard way that they need to pay attention to their writing style or run the risk of ‘being deleted’ or losing friends on MXit.

Beyond MXit, many teens were also actively exploring the web. Their favourite site was Google, many had discovered Facebook, and ‘wap’ media download sites were also popular. Most teens had used the web on both computers and phones, but they were more likely to use their phones for everyday Web use, particularly to access news and Facebook. Beyond this improved accessibility, having a web-enabled phone did not appear to expand the range of daily opportunities for web use for this group.

Some teens had difficulties using websites, preferring to access content on MXit. These teens struggled to find their way around and sign up on the Kontax mobisite. Overall, when we compare them with their wealthier suburban counterparts or to teens in the US or Europe, the  teens from Langa and Guguletu didn’t seem to have as much experience in finding information for school, joining interest groups or publishing their own creative writing, art, video and music. This is partly because it is not possible for teens to publish their own writing or artwork or manage interest-based online communities on MXit. South African teens who learn to use the internet on their phones, who focus on MXit rather than the web, and who don’t have regular access to computers may thus be missing out on some educational and creative opportunities.

Schools could also be making better use of teens’ internet access on their phones and using teens’ enthusiasm for all things mobile to encourage educational uses of the web. Nonetheless, the limitations of mobile access mean that it is still an urgent priority to improve computer access in schools and libraries, particulary in rural areas, and to make broadband internet access more affordable for all South African households.

m4lit: Mobile phones for literacy

From this week, South African teens will encounter the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4Lit project, which launches today. m4Lit centres around Kontax, a teen m-novel, or a novel designed to be read on a cellphone, in either English or isiXhosa. Readers will be able to access the series from WAP-enabled cellphones (or from computers) and they can read the 21 episodes of the story as they are released over the next 21 days. The social design of the site is intended to allow readers to interact with one another and and with the story. They can vote on and discuss the plot, leave comments, download wallpapers and submit their own stories for a competition. Credit for the project goes to Steve Vosloo, 21st century learning Fellow at Shuttleworth, to the ‘mobilist’ and author of Kontax, Sam Wilson, and to translator Nkululeko Mabandla.

Books are a bit like telephone landlines in many parts of the African continent – hard to come by, controlled by exploitative intermediaries, expensive, somewhat exotic, and only for the rich. This applies to some extent to school textbooks (which are not always available in all schools when needed, and which must often be shared), but especially to school libraries, and to leisure reading material.  Mobile websites are becoming more and more accessible, thanks to growing availability of  feature phones and rapidly expanding mobile networks  in Africa. (Cellular operators estimate that about 9 million South Africans already have Internet access on such GPRS-enabled phones, while apparently about 13 million users have registered with the most popular internet-based instant messenger, MXit). It will be interesting to see whether, despite the associated network costs, mobile web access is used by people in Africa to bypass the complexities of accessing books, just as cellphones were used to gain access to telephony.

For those people who want to read more fiction (or want to publish their own stories), but who struggle to access books or to get a publisher to take interest, the m4Lit project is worth watching.

Together with co-researchers Ana Deumert (Linguistics, UCT) and Mastin Prinsloo (Education, UCT), I’ve been involved as a researcher on the project and have been given the brief of investigating mobile media and digital literacies. Here’s a draft paper for the mLearn conference that Steve, Ana and I wrote which outlines our research. I’m looking forward to getting to grips with Kontax, and to see how the story shapes up as a new mobile genre, and whether it takes a place alongside other text-based mobile genres that teens enjoy such as MXit language, ‘txting’, Google searches, and mobile wikipedia.

Kontax promo poster
Kontax promo poster

I’ve just signed up for the Kontax mobisite, and was impressed to see that it provides great social media functionality –  users can indeed set up a profile,  make and invite friends, and generally comment and interact around the ‘chapters’ of the story.  On the downside, while I enjoyed the  retro-styled cartoon graphics, they may perhaps be a bit heavy on bandwidth, and I couldn’t spot a ‘no graphics’ button anywhere.  Mobile internet users in SA don’t all buy data bundles, and downloads can get expensive very quickly, especially for very price-sensitive users. (Apparently MXit users complained noisily after MXit introduced profile pictures in the latest version of the app, since their MXit use suddenly became much more expensive).

The Kontax mobisite can be accessed in an English or an isiXhosa version,  from Abahlobo (Friends) to Iprofayili (Profile). A lot of work has gone into translating the site and the story, but it’s worth looking at a few details of how a multilingual community can be integrated, such as where the results of a quiz on the isiXhosa version of the site are recorded separately to an identical quiz on the English version of the site.

The first few visitors to the site seemed to have enjoyed the first chapter of Kontax. I’ll be watching during the next few weeks to see whether teens see Kontax as a welcome extension of the informal mobile literacies that they value, or whether features such as the daily quizes and all the reading mean that, to them, it still perhaps smells too much of school?

Mobisite-in-a-box: mobile publishing, gatekeeping and aggregation

After this project, the Shuttleworth Foundation will be making the code of the Kontax mobisite and its social network (lite) available for free, to be used and adapted by anyone who wants to upload and share a novel or story with mobile-centric phone users. (I don’t yet know whether the mobisite-in-a-box will be built to be configured from a phone, though I hope it will.)

This initiative may encourage writers to self-publish, use a mobi-site to build their audience, and (perhaps) later leverage that audience into income from a publishing deal or a commercial release, whether via a conventional publisher, or a mobile publisher, such as MXit books, which could help to market their work to a larger audience.

MXit already aggregates music, and allows local musicians free access to their platform, so that they can release, promote, gain fans and (if they get enough votes from fans) sell their music to mobile-centric users. As I understand it though, the model for MXit books is different. There is no way for ordinary users to upload books, i.e. MXit is not aggregating user-generated content, but rather acting as publisher or gatekeeper, with authors treated like other clients who pay to publish and access an audience via the platform. (The ‘books’ are delivered to readers in exchange for micropayments). Readers must pay a small amount to download each chapter (and, infuriatingly, they have to pay again every time they want to download it again). They also have not integrated any fan activity, such as voting, into the service.

Understanding mobile intermediaries

Sadly, even in the land of Internet, there is no such thing as disintermediation, just new intermediaries. As a researcher, a key issue I’ll need to think about is the role of intermediaries — such as mobile networks, who’ll be charging readers for data transfer everytime they click to read a new episode of the story (whether they’ve paid for it before or not), and the role of mobile gatekeepers and publishers, such as MXit and other South African social networks.

As in any social media project, the key intermediaries we need to understand will be the users, or teens themselves. And that brings me to the really big questions. Will the teens in our study take to reading a fictional series on their phones, when (as we expect to find out from the survey we’ll be conducting shortly) they don’t read that many traditional fictional texts? Will the economical (low bandwidth) html+ text download be cheap enough? Will the affordability make up for an absence of visual storytelling?

Viral questions

If the story does engage some teens, will they choose to tell their friends about Kontax? Does the mobisite allow them to pass the story around to their peers as easily as if they wanted to bluetooth a video clip downloaded from or a track bought via premium-rated SMS? Will the mobisite make it easy for them to do so? Will they choose to read and talk about or pass on the English story, or the isiXhosa translation, or both? So much of what we know about fan behaviour is based on wealthy consumers in the global north. How do fans behave in impoverished contexts? What happens when price-sensitive potential fans have to pay every time they want to pass on a message?

Mobile literacies

I also have plenty of other questions around literacy, which is probably a topic for another post. It’s hard to talk about literacy, especially its mobile variants, such as ‘MXit language’ and ‘txtspk’ without activating all sorts of prejudices, but that’s what we’re hoping to do. Our approach originates from an ethnographic approach to literacy, known as the New Literacy Studies.

Here are just some of the literacy-related questions that intrigue me:

Will a concept inspired by the activities of young female authors of keitai shosetsu (or Japanese m-novels) and their fans take off in Langa and Gugulethu (the site of the m4lit pilot project)? While mobile phones are heavily used by young people in both places, and are used extensively to access the internet, the two contexts differ along other dimensions.

To name only a few, the resources required and available for such literacy practices as mobile reading and writing are very different, both in terms of billing models and the availability of bandwidth. Thus access to ubiquitous two-way connectivity of monthly contracts and multimedia communication formats common in Japan sets up a far lower cost of interaction, vastly different to the one-way connectivity (when airtime runs out), and the text-only bandwidth-economies associated with much prepaid use, which makes MXit very popular, and means that many South African users eschew relatively expensive images, sound and video.

More important though, the meanings of literacy events such as reading and writing a story are also highly contextual, and connect in complex ways to school and media-connected leisure literacy practices. So, for example, the success of m-novels in Japan build on a very different school system, and their readers’ and writers’ involvement with dialogue-driven manga stories.

Do phones need to be reshaped to support a wider range of literacy practices? They are now being used by people who don’t have easy access to computers, internet, books and libraries, but many of whom nonetheless  participate in the literacy rituals of formal schooling and are increasingly (via their media use) drawn into convergent narrative ecosystems. Interestingly, Microsoft’s OneApp, a new aggregator for mobile applications which is targeted at users from developing countries, already includes a collection of free applications for instant messaging, RSS readers, and social software such as Facebook and Twitter, while eschewing the ‘heavier’ applications associated with its Office Mobile suite. Should be an interesting space to watch.

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, 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.

Children, parents and mobile phones – global study

I’m at the IAMCR conference in Mexico City. There are quite a few papers focusing on mobile media use on the programme, and I’m trying to attend them where possible. If I have time and battery power I’ll post a few reports here in the next few days.

Aiko Mukaida from NTT DOCOMO’s Mobile Society Research Institute talked about a large global comparative study of children (9-18 years old) and their parents’ perceptions of mobile phone use. Over 6000 participants from around the world were surveyed.

I must admit that I was disappointed that the study didn’t use data from any African countries. Aiko explained that apparently DOCOMO approached had approached the South African mobile networks to sponsor research into South African children and parents, but they were not interested in participating. What a pity.

The study draws on research from Korea, China, India and Mexico. The data shows how children in different countries start using phones at different ages and adopt them at different rates. In Japan and Korea, for example, children start using phones at young ages (with Korean children starting earliest of all). In these countries, about 90% of twelve-year olds have mobile phones. In Japan children tend to adopt phones at particular points in their schooling careers – when they change schools and start having to rely on public transport. In India, the children in the sample mostly started using phones at about 14. In Korea, parents seem to be discouraging teens’ phone use in the final years of schooling, probably because of the tough school-leaving examination in that country.

Aiko focused on identifying correlations between parental concerns about mobile phone use. Most parents have concerns about their children’s mobile phone use (60% of the survey). There were also some interesting global differences which probably relate to the key social, cultural and economic differences between children and parents around the world.

Parental concerns related primarily to worries about children using the phone for too long, spending too much money, and (in contexts where mobile Internet use is growing) concern that children might be accessing inappropriate information, or communicating with strangers. I wondered why the potential health risks from radiation posed by children’s mobile phone use did not feature in the study, but Aiko explained that apparently, other than in Europe, parents have low levels of awareness of this as a risk to their children.

Aiko expected to find that parents’ concerns increased the more their children reported using mobile phones, and the more children were dependent on their phones. While this did seem to be happening in Japan, it didn’t turn out to be the case everywhere. The actual use of mobile phones or children’s dependency on them didn’t consistently correlate with parental concern in all the countries that were studied.

In India, for example, where children used text messages primarily to communicate with their parents, high levels of messaging were not a source of concern, perhaps because this was likely to reflect a strong relationship with the parent.

The study was commissioned to investigate children’s use of mobile phones, and so does not use random sampling – for example in Mexico, the study focused on selected regions which have mobile phone coverage, while in India a socio-economic index was used to identify children who are likely to have a mobile phone. The Korean and Japanese data is apparently more of a random sample, and so the 90% of twelve year olds with phones is probably pretty close to the actual figures. Apparently most have contracts, and mobile email is very popular because it allows them to exchange images – so they’re using it in similar ways to an MMS.

2go – Bikini pics for credits

I’d heard the worrying stories about South African girls trading sex for mobile phone airtime. On South African mobile chatroom, 2Go (a similar low-cost messaging service to the mobile instant messaging service, mXit), a similar kind of exchange is taking place. Every message on 2Go costs a small amount of credits (less than one South African cent). The 2Go website explains that you can send your friends the credits used for chatting, “so that they can be connected with you all the time”. It seems that, among the SA teens who congregate on 2Go in order to chat to strangers and friends via their cellphones, a “bikini pic” might be traded for 300 chat credits, although, in the following case, the offer was rejected:

SlimstaBlont: Suk imand n bikini pic [Anyone want a bikini pic]
Perepiel: Nee vok nimand like terte ni domblond [No f**k no one likes tarts dumb blonde]
SlimstaBlont: Nee ek wil 300 credits he inruil vi dit [No I want 300 credits in exchange for it]
Biets: Slimsta jy’s seka kak lelik? [Slimsta you’re probably extremely ugly]
SlimstaBlont: Hukom sal ek n pic wil stu as ek lelik is? [Why would I want to send a pic if I’m ugly?]
Beerq: Slimsta jou slet [Slimsta you slut]
Biets: Want jy’s n dom blond [Because you’re a dumb blonde]
SlimstaBlont: CENSORED
SlimstaBlont: has left the room

It is certainly entertaining to log in to 2Go and be a chat voyeur, every time I got stuck writing my last PhD chapter I logged in and would always be mildly amused but was often somewhat shocked as well.

On the positive side, there is so much linguistic creativity in the textspeak used. In the example above, I changed all the names to protect the anonymity of the chatters, but they are nonetheless typical of what I saw. Unfortunately it’s really hard to translate the humour of the names into English. (For example, Perepiel (horse d**k) is both far more vulgar and less vulgar than its English equivalent – possibly because of the farming associations and “call a spade a spade” matter-of-factness that are still associated with certain kinds of vocabulary in Afrikaans.) I also love it that so many of the names are made up of a multimodal alphabet, the names themselves are all festooned with visual icons such as smileys, devil’s horns, halos, etc.

mobile chat interface

I also love the creative Afrikaans spelling, as seen in this parodic example:

Beerq: Is dar enige kak lelike girls waarmee ek kan chat wnt x ni n oil painting, danq, danq [Are there any s**t ugly girls who I can chat to cause I’m no oil painting, thank you, thank you]

Despite wearing the brave new lipgloss of “mobile social networks” hype, there’s nothing new here to anyone who’s ever logged into a chatroom. While ASL (Age Sex Location) is the global standard greeting when strangers meet up in synchronous chats around the world, it’s disturbing that the South African version is ASLR (“Age Sex Location Race”). Here’s how it goes:

4FunAddMe: ASLR PoraBabe?
PoraBabe: 15 [years old], f[Female], Jhb [Johannesburg], Wit [white]

All I can say is SHAME on you, kids. People died so that no one in this country would need to be put in a little box because of their A, S, L, and most particularly, their R.