m4lit: Mobile phones for literacy

kontax.mobi
kontax.mobi

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 zamob.com 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.

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.