Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.)

A rough history of the web industry in South Africa

A A rough history of the web industry in South Africa by Jarred Cinman
This article made me remember: Sitting in a dark office as a grad student late at night, staring at green text on a black screen, amazed at the generosity of the anonymous guides who helped lead the way through the labyrinths of Archie and Veronica. Surviving a move to Bloem with telnet and the UOFS VAX. Distracting myself from bathfulls of bad student essays by following the hilarious flame-wars scorching through alt.politics.feminism.
The strangely consoling sound of a dialup modem connecting during the dusty build-up to a Free State storm. Writing my first HTML pages in Notepad, twisting a UOFS sys admin friend’s arm to let me publish it. Begging for permission to use the web in teaching at UCT. Excited discussions about how the web would change everything in higher education …. The first email I got from my Dad (one sweet sentence written telegraph style ♥) The humiliation when Stacey Stent said my first Photoshop nav bar design looked like a gravestone. (It did.)

Oh, and the shocks and general recriminations when those Telkom phone bills arrived …

Some more academic histories of the industry:
Robert B. Horwitz and Willie Currie Another instance where privatization trumped liberalization: The politics of telecommunications reform in South Africa—A ten-year retrospective Telecommunications Policy Volume 31, Issues 8-9, September-October 2007, Pages 445-462
Charley Lewis. South Africa Global Information Society Watch Available online at http://www.globaliswatch.org/files/pdf/GISW_SouthAfrica.pdf
Charley Lewis. 2005. “Negotiating the Net: The Internet in South Africa (1990–2003)
Information Technologies and International Development Spring 2005, Vol. 2, No. 3, Pages 1-28
Richard Collins 2005. From Monopolies, Virtual Monopolies and Oligopolies to … What?
Media Policy and Convergence in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Available online at http://link.wits.ac.za/journal/j05-collins-convergence.pdf

Second Life skins

I hate shopping. For example, if I find a t-shirt that I like, I usually buy three or four, just in case I don’t go shopping again next year. So it’s pretty hilarious that I’ve indulged in a quiet binge of virtual consumerism over the last few weeks.

Andrew Burn and Diane Carr from the Institute of Education in London asked me to present a graduate seminar for their students in the virtual world, Second Life, as part of their research project, Learning from Online Worlds. In the process of getting ready for this class, I bought an animated set of vampire fangs, got patronised for having a black “skin”, hung out with an Admiral, and started smoking. As if that wasn’t enough to feel embarassed about, I could have fed my family for a week with the amount of bandwidth I splurged while “preparing”. In South Africa we pay through the nose for every MB of data, and Second Life is the proverbial bandwidth hog.

Virtual smoke
The venue for the Second Life class was this rooftop with striped dirigible in a steampunk sim called "New Babbage"

The experience of teaching in Second Life has given me a new perspective on my job as a lecturer. Once you’ve taught in a medium which requires you to construct your physical appearance entirely from pixels and code, and where so many aspects of your identity are customisable, down to the very last freckle and eyelash, you learn to be grateful for the simple user interface of the skin in which you were born (however imperfect and wrinkly it may be). And the overhead it takes to function in this collaboratively illustrated carnivalesque chatroom means that you look back at chalk and talk with a certain nostalgia.
That said, it’s been a fascinating experience. For one thing, I’ve learnt quite a bit about how Second Life character artwork or “skins” are put together and I thought I’d write it down before I forget.

Skinning the self

Texture map

The image above is a texture map, a graphic which is mapped onto the low resolution three dimensional pollygonal “mesh” and used to create the artwork seen in most computer games and virtual worlds. In game jargon, these texture maps are referred to as “skins”. In Second Life, you can either make your own skin, buy one made by another resident, or make do with the defaults issued when you start playing.

When I first drifted into Second Life back in 2005, I made do with the default “newbie” skin, a free skin which all residents get on arrival in the world. You can then edit your appearance, by changing the default shape, adding more shine to your lipgloss, changing the colour of your eyeshadow, adding freckles, etc. I spent some time doing this, and I remember being totally horrified at the unbelievably ugly result. I’m pretty sure that this was one of the reasons I ran away to World of Warcraft.

His nubcakes

This time round, I seriously considered showing up for the seminar wearing the outfit above, one of the  default male skins. But, before I’d even finished the training level tutorials, I realised that this butt-ugly default skin was going to drive me insane. And then, later, when I encountered the seasoned residents touting their perfect skins on Help Island I got a very severe attack of pixel envy. (The default skins given to newbies are a lot lower in resolution than the considerably more detailed skins produced and sold by Second Life residents.)

I teach animation and 3D graphics and have an ongoing quest to investigate better ways of teaching 3D concepts. I was really intrigued to know how Second Life had implemented a 3D modelling and animation system for novices, and how easily the characters could be customised. I’d read a bit about Second Life, and understood that if you wanted to move beyond the defaults, you needed to use real money to buy the in-game currency, Linden dollars.

So, I took a deep breath, pulled out my credit card and bought a stash of Lindens (A thousand Lindens trades for about $4). After all, Second Life is where ugly people go to be beautiful, or if that seems too trashy, to be tastefully ugly at high resolutions. Why should I be the only one to be left out?

Virtual consumption

We usually think of consumerism as being about people buying things, but that’s only part of the picture. In Second Life, people spend real money to buy representations of islands, clothing, cars, and so on, primarily so that they can interact with other people. (Um, ok, money is also virtual I guess, but you know what I mean.) What better evidence for the argument that consumerism has very little to do with buying functional objects. Instead, it is a theatre for us to enact our fantasies about ourselves, in relationship to others. In Second Life, as elsewhere, consumerism is also about being able to flaunt the cultural capital which tells the world who we are, says that we are worthy, that we belong somewhere, or (unfortunately) that we are better than someone else.

Cyberpunk author, Neal Stephenson, created a kind of prototype for Second Life when he wrote his novel Snow Crash. This novel explores a vision of how class differences would come to be expressed in a virtual world which Stephenson called the Metaverse. By spreading a science fiction meme among geeks, some of whom went on to design the software that could turn the vision into code, the novel became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stephenson’s version of a three-dimensional cyberspace, the Metaverse, certainly inspired Linden’s design for Second Life. It’s just a pity that the designers don’t seem to have gotten the critique implicit in Stephenson’s depiction of the US as a fractured, corporate-ridden society with a huge gulf between rich and poor. Here’s the voice of his narrator, Hiro Protagonist.

This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world.

In Stephenson’s vision of cyberspace as the Metaverse, the cruel social differentiation of US society continues in the virtual world, where it is signified by thousands of subtle cues, differences of taste, and differential levels of access to customisable high res, realistic avatars.

The couples coming off the monorail can’t afford to have custom avatars made and don’t know how to write their own. They have to buy off-the-shelf avatars. One of the girls has a pretty nice one. It would be considered quite the fashion statement among the K-Tel set. Looks like she has bought the Avatar Construction Set(tm) and put together her own, customized model out of miscellaneous parts. It might even look something like its owner. Her date doesn’t look half bad himself.

The other girl is a Brandy. Her date is a Clint. Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer-games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a Brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.

Clint is just the male counterpart of Brandy. He is craggy and handsome and has an extremely limited range of facial expressions.

Hiro wonders, idly, how these two couples got together. They are clearly from disparate social classes. Perhaps older and younger siblings. But then they come down the escalator and disappear into the crowd and become part of the Street, where there are enough Clints and Brandys to found a new ethnic group.

In the novel, the understated classiness of Hiro’s realistic avatar is set against the garishness of  “white trash”  avatars – the Clints, Brandys and other outlandish personas:

Hiro’s avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono. Most hacker types don’t go in for garish avatars, because they know that it takes a lot more sophistication to render a realistic human face than a talking penis. Kind of the way people who really know clothing can appreciate the fine details that separate a cheap gray wool suit from an expensive hand-tailored gray wool suit.

Skin for sale

Philosophical dilemmas aside, then, when skin is for sale, what does one buy? To buy a new, non-newbish skin in Second Life, you go to one of many large warehouses, which all display rows and rows of huge naked avatars, in all shades, colours, sizes, and (I kid you not) degrees of oiliness. And looking around these warehouses, it appears that, indeed, Stephenson’s ethnic group of Clints and Brandys has gone forth and multiplied. The second life skins may be higher res than Stephenson imagined, but the majority are specialised for the skin-flick genre, exactly as he predicted.

Skin on the menu - Nomine
Thinking about nipples as you’re preparing for a class just seems wrong to me on so many levels. Especially when you’re the teacher. So, after my first visit to a skin shop, dazed and a bit nauseated, I fled from the warehouse, popped into a Star Wars sim, and grabbed a nice asexual, genderless, raceless Master Yoda. He came with skin, shape, shoes, hair and accessories, including light-saber, and at first I thought he was a very good solution to my lack of time and general squeamishness about being a Clint or a Brandy. He also seemed to offer a shortcut past a whole lot of interesting identity dilemmas.

Master Yoda visits the vampires

While Yoda was just great for zooming around and had a brilliant falling animation, once I started finding more coherent environments where flying was banned, I began to notice his limitations. Firstly, his other animations were very lame. Secondly, I started to feel like those interesting but very strange people on the Trekkies movie who show up at work in their Star Trek uniforms. I needed to mod Master Yoda.

Home-made skin

I managed to mod the Yoda skin so that he looked like a really ugly little old man (see picture below). The name I’d chosen to use in Second Life was “Ossie Pienaar”. I’ve worked on game textures before, and figured that with a bit of Photoshopping, I could probably do a “quick and dirty” skin for Ossie and upload it to Second Life. It took me about 30 minutes to create the new skin. It was a bit of a pain because of having to test the artwork in-game, though it is very easy to upload the skin and you can test it on a model face before you have to pay $L10 to upload the artwork. After paying for the upload, it’s a pretty simple matter to apply the texture to the skin’s head (Look in the Skin tab of Edit> Appearance – Second Life calls it a “tattoo”. Then drag the uploaded texture from the Textures folder in your Inventory window onto the “tattoo”).
I later discovered that the skin I used was low res compared to most Second Life skins and so the new Ossie looked a bit out of focus, like someone had smeared makeup all over his face. And of course the home-made skin didn’t help improve his horrid animations. The best I could say of this virtual embodiment of myself was that he was unobtrusive and non-threatening. On the other hand he was a little creepy.

I used the home-made Ossie skin to attend one of Diane and Andrew’s classes in Second Life (see Diane’s screenshot of the Alt-Zoom theatre below). As the class got going, I had to lol. My avatar, Ossie, and Andrew’s avatar, Juniper, inadvertently sat down in the same seat at the same time. When I’d gotten over that embarassment of being the creepy little old man who sat down on other people’s laps, I could relax and enjoy the fascinating discussions of making machinima in Second Life. You can read about it here in Diane’s write-up.

Old manIn-game machinima class

At some stage, I decided that I wanted to experiment with a female identity too and made another login. To be frank, the female avatars in Second Life are a lot better than the male ones, although I preferred to combine the female skins with more modest designs of the “male” clothes. I created a new character with the name “Marigold”. Marigold seemed a good name for a spoilt doll, which is what most of the SL females look like.

Only problem was that, after splurging on Master Yoda, I’d burnt through all my Lindens. Oh and then there was that unfortunately rather expensive newbish misclick on a Wookie. So my next skin would have to be another home-made one. I had no intention of making an avatar that looked anything like myself. This is a fantasy world, after all. I didn’t much care to look like a pretty pink spangled Barbie with flowing yellow candy-floss hair, or like her big sister Brandy, (who is really just Porno Barbie, anatomically correct and prepetually horny). The default shapes are all cousins of these two feminine archetypes of our age, and so, from the available options, I chose a lanky Goth chick, who seemed to be a good starting point for the character I had in mind.

I had realised during the Ossie misadventure that if you adapt your shape too much your animations look odd (I haven’t figured out if there’s any way of re-rigging the 3D puppet). Also you don’t fit into some of the clothing on sale (particularly the skirts and cloaks, which have their own geometry) and you have to resize everything you buy. So I resigned myself to the sad fate of having a supermodel build with gravity-defying boobs and skinny legs. (I could get so used to this.) As a minor sop to the nagging feminist who follows me around everywhere, I did flatten the boobs and fatten up the tummy and butt a bit. Just a bit.

Homage au Molly

Molly
Marigold with a portrait of Molly that I used in my SL seminar

I had decided to model Marigold on Molly from William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. In the novel,Molly is a hired assassin with the surgically implanted mirrored glasses over her eyes, and ten retractable blades set beneath the nails in her hands. (After a bit of shopping in cyberpunk sims I found a suitable set of blades, but am still looking for the mirrored eye implants.)

It was really a double tribute, as one of my favourite player characters in World of Warcraft is an undead rogue assassin also inspired by Molly. Molly’s player and I were guildmates in WoW, and a couple of months back, I’d interviewed him via IM, and used the interview in a chapter from my PhD. Andrew and Diane had asked me to present this chapter at the seminar. I figured it would be great to have this player there so that the students could ask him questions directly. He muttered a bit about how Second Life sucked compared to World of Warcraft, but eventually he kindly obliged and made a SL login. I’ll call him T.

I was very happy that T had agreed to come along. In tribute to his Molly, I decided to use the WoW undead appearance as a starting point for Marigold and see what emerged. I’ve used programs like MPQ Editor and Xnview to rip textures from World of Warcraft, in the past. I wanted to see how Blizzard puts together the artwork. WoW texture maps are amazingly economical and elegantly designed. They are very economical with filesize and use the maximum amount of mirroring, very different from the SL textures, which don’t seem to use mirroring at all. Of course this means that SL avatars can be more realistic, as too much symmetry is disturbing, and it is probably also easier for novice users to create content if they use a simpler system of UV mapping.

When I started painting Marigold’s skin I took a careful look at an undead female texture from the WoW mpq archive, which was only about an eighth of the resolution of the Second Life skins. I used the same colour scheme as the greenish undead skin and some Photoshop templates and a tutorial from Chip Midnight, when I painted a new skin for the face. Marigold ended up having one of those unnaturally pallid goth complexions which makes whiteness look like some form of skin disease.

With the template as guide, it was a pretty easy job, the only part which went beyond colour by numbers was using alpha transparency to do eyelashes. You can use GiMP, the free open source image editor to open a layered Photoshop (.psd) file if you don’t have a copy of Photoshop. Subsequently, I found better Photoshop CS2 templates If I ever need to do the full skin I’ll use this in-game UV suit to help with the tricky seam-matching. Apparently it can be found in Second Life in  Benten (17,105). Oh, and here’s a blow-by-blow illustrated guide to making your very own Corpse Bride.

three such images – one for the head, one for the torso, and one for the legs (and those are downloaded again every time they change outfits). (In the case of your own avatar, it’s a lot more. When you log in or change clothing, you download all the textures for each piece of clothing individually. Once downloaded, these are composited or “baked” into the head, torso, and leg textures. (For example, you might have a tattoo, a shirt and a jacket composited over your torso skin) Head, torso, and leg files are then uploaded to the server for other players to access. They don’t see you properly before they have downloaded these files. Apparently at this stage, you then have to download your own baked textures yet again! Objects such as houses and furniture also have their own textures, although they are not as complex as those on the avatars.

All this downloading takes its toll. All South African ISPs all buy their bandwidth from local Telco giant, Telkom, and so all local ADSL contracts are subject to a 3GB bandwidth cap. In contrast, Second Life was designed around the unlimited bandwidth contracts that most US web users enjoy.  Users from many countries outside the US have capped or metered bandwidth contracts, but those in the UK and Australia are likely to be more generous than the South African ones. Nonetheless, I’ve found a couple of desperate posts from such users who complain that Second Life is a “bandwidth hog” and that they burnt through all their bandwidth in a week, or in another case, in a day. Here’s a complaint from a distressed user:

The day after I had explored the world of second life, I logged onto my ISP’s main site to check my bandwidth useage, and I was shocked that out of my 10G that I have for monthly usegage (yes I have high speed), I had used nearly 3Gigs already! And this is just after roughly 8 or so hours online! I had to stop, because if I went any further, my ISP would end up charging me 3$ for every additional Gig that I downloaded over 10!
I called up the Second Life support and they weren’t very helpful. When I asked roughly how much bandwidth useage I should have for second life, he reccomended an “unlimited amount” http://www.sluniverse.com/php/vb/archive/index.php?t-378.html

Given the South African system of  metered and “capped” bandwidth, an average ADSL user would only be able to spend a couple of hours in Second LIfe before the ISP would cut off their internet access. Gasping for oxygen, sorry, bandwidth, they’d need to swipe the old credit card again before they could even send an email. Whereas the distressed user above had to pay $3 for every additional Gig, South Africans are more likely to pay about US$12 per Gig when they exceed their cap, which can be as low as 1 or 2 Gigs.

Second Life’s 1MB targa files seem outrageous for an online medium. To put it in perspective, when I assess my students’ web design projects I insist that they should be no more than 40-50KB per page, including all images. Flash and rich media projects obviously need to be bigger, but most of the 30 second Flash animations my students submit are smaller than 1MB (1024KB).

Obviously, the more environments you explore in SL, the more of a hog it will be. So you can reduce your bandwidth use by not going anywhere much. Hrm. There are also settings on SL that can  limit the downloading, such as the Edit>Preferences>Graphics>Draw Distance setting, which won’t download  distant objects, and you can also skip all the audio and video under Edit>Preferences>Audio&Video>Streaming Preferences . If you change the Edit>Preferences>Disk Cache Size, cache to 1GB, to store the images on your hard drive, it should also save on downloads.  After a week or so of ignorance,  I figured out how to set Second Life to use a 1GB cache (the maximum), but, infuriatingly, it still seems to need to download environment textures all over again every time I teleport backto certain sims, even when I’ve visited there just a few minutes before, and the textures should all be in the cache. So clearly the textures in the better environments must be pretty high resolution as well.

The Second Life support staff’s ignorance about global bandwidth issues is reflected in the design of the software. Apart from the few options above, there is very little attempt to give users control of their bandwidth use, features which web users have come to take for granted. Although there has been talk about Second Life charging more Lindens for large uploads, nothing seems to have come of it. For example, I accidentally uploaded a couple of 1024*1024 versions of Marigold’s skin, (which weigh in at 4MB each) when I forgot to shrink it down before uploading. It uploaded fine, and there was no warning message or any extra charge. It would be interesting to know how many content creators use such large sizes, and if there is an upper limit on texture resolutions.

molly_with_guides

Dressing up

Technical issues aside, in Second Life, clothes and skin are gear. In games, gear is a form of social capital, and it signifies the player’s knowledge, status and experience. And, there’s the girl thing of always fussing about what to wear. I imagine this is because, for girls, clothes are gear in the game of real life. (Nerf girls.)

I met a friendly vampire in a roleplaying sim, who helped me accumulate some additional goth credibility by giving me a set of landmarks for interesting places to go shopping and buy myself a better outfit. This is when I purchased the hilarious vampire fangs, and discovered Nomine, which is now officially my favourite mall, since it’s themed like a Gothic cathedral. I bought the outfits designed for male goths, as the female versions looked a bit chilly and definitely NSFW.

At this stage my character design drifted from homage to pastiche. I couldn’t resist adding a Horde tattoo to some shoulders I bought, and then I stole a cloak off the back of an old WoW enemy. (I de-encrypted the .blp texture for Prince Kael’thas’s cloak from the WoW mpq archive, converted it to a jpeg, shuffled it about a bit so that it didn’t use mirroring. Then I saved it as a targa, uploaded it, and applied it to my cloak.) This was really just for fun, and to compare the UV mapping systems.

Before you report me to the IP police at Blizzard, this little experiment was in the interests of science. I wouldn’t sell or share my fannish creations, unlike the horrid WoW sims I found where Second Life residents are selling ripped Blizzard artwork – at the moment there are sims where, alongside the usual infinitely looping porn clips, there are “Ork”(sic) or elf “houses” for sale. The vendors also promise to provide Blood Elf avatars sometime in the future. Predictably, in a world where skin is property and a status symbol, Second Life texture theft is a growing problem – you can read about it here if you don’t mind looking at naked Clints and Brandys.

Kael'Thas's CloakStolen cloak

The last step was to choose the hair – and I settled on a set of long dreads for the African mlungu (honkie). Aint it funny that Mattell never brought out a Dreadlock Barbie?

Tattoo

Choosing clothes was really the fun part. I may have been avoiding the Barbie look, but I suspect that’s really just been an elaborate form of denial. I’m well aware that choosing and trying on all these new outfits harks back to the not-so-innocent childhood pleasures of doing unspeakable things to my long-suffering Barbie and Ken dolls. (I’m absolutely sure that’s why Second Life has so many female residents.)

Anyhow, whatever. I was talking about how much I enjoyed going shopping. These were some of the cool things I found on my travels:

  1. Arch demon pixie wings in bright red, by Material Squirrel.
  2. Unisex thigh scar, by Auntie Entity
  3. Cossack boots – guerilla style, by Ambush
  4. Viscount jacket and pants by AVid
  5. B&J Tri-claws
  6. Eye-patch from the Groll Inn pirate hideout
  7. EBT tribal accents tattoo undershirt
  8. Mask, scarf and bandana for upper left and right arms for Female Ninja Scout
  9. Flexi Dreads, by JH Dreads

The Russet Bindhi

As a South African, I’m sensitive about skin colour. In fact, I’m hyperallergenic on that topic. In the skin shop, I looked up at an expanse of skins, saw the whole rainbow nation was on sale, and laughed at the oddity of it all. Quite an amazing feeling – the freedom of being able to choose whether my avatar should be white or black, with a whole lot of additional options, including green and pink. In true Imelda Marcos style, I couldn’t choose and simply started a collection.

That said, I really hate the fact that the default colour on the Second Life avatars is white, and that you just never see dark-skinned avatars in these online environments. Most people in the real world are dark-skinned, dammit. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, global economic and geographic inequities mean that you don’t find many Africans playing online games. For another thing, a version of the doll test might be coming into play here.

And of course, it doesn’t help that even the simulated lighting in Second Life makes darker avatars look, well, bleh. There are a couple of tricks to photographing darker-skinned people, and photographers I’ve spoken to say that they need to use different techniques than when they photograph whiteys. You bring in specular highlights from both sides to bring out the detail in the faces, and I can imagine that this applies to a 3D world as well.

White wedding

I bought “Russet Punk Bindhi” by Nomine, a dark skin with green patterns around the eyes, named after the Hindi forehead decoration for married women. When I wore that skin I got lots of patronising comments from residents who found it worth commenting that a black person (they thought) was playing Second Life. When Andy Carvin observed last year how few African avatars there are in Second Life, he decided to create an avatar based on a former child soldier from Somalia. Apparently he was consistently ignored by other players: “people tended to just act as if I just weren’t even there”.

I didn’t have that experience, which suggests that people’s lack of interest in Carvin’s avatar may have had more to do with some factor (gender? lacking in the “Clint” department?) other than the colour of its skin. Still, it was interesting (and yet very uncomfortable) that so many players assumed that only someone who was black in real life would want to choose a black skin. I enjoyed making people take notice of a black avatar, but often I felt like I was masquerading, pretending to be something that I wasn’t. An interesting response, because I’m a seasoned roleplayer. I’m not a skinny goth chick, or an ugly old man, but it really didn’t bother me to assume either of those roles, although the persona vs character distinction is not well established among second life users. I suppose it also felt worse because identity tourism and sex tourism are never too far apart in Second Life.

In the Russet Bindhi skin, other residents applauded me for even being in Second Life, and several offered me free things when they heard I was from South Africa. I did see a couple of other avatars with dark skins. None were very dark, and (surprise) most were criminal and thug types in a Mafia sim. I found one or two sims that sold African-styled clothing, and I visited one “African village” where visitors could rent (oddly geometric) grass huts, or dazzle with their African dance animations on the psychedelic dancefloor. Oh, and then there was the seemingly obligatory bubbling hot tub. Simply a must for any self-respecting African village.

In another sim, one very chivalrous chap in a top hat, who claimed to be an Admiral, offered Marigold free lodging in his dirigible. It didn’t seem to put him off that I had dressed her in a horribly blood-soaked wedding dress. I might be wrong, but this attitude seemed to be a variant of the way male players often patronise female players in online games – whereas females are all assumed to be incompetent, dark skinned avatars are assumed to be indigent. (And no, I didn’t take up the Admiral’s offer of accommodation.)

Flying

Meeting up

In Snowcrash, the Metaverse had a complex pecking order for avatars, from the custom-made avatars of movie and rock stars down to the  low res, “black-and-white-people”  right at the bottom of the avatar food chain. These are the avatars of people who access the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and they are rendered without embellishment in grainy black and white, like an animated fax or photocopy.

In the novel, the character Juanita is Hiro’s former flame, and a revered hacker (programmer) who designed the system of communicating  realistic facial expressions through avatars. She now rejects the inauthenticity of her own creation, and in an ascetic move, appears in a “black and white” avatar. Stephenson suggests that the player can bring life and beauty to even such an unworthy vehicle.

Hiro turns around. Juanita is right behind him, standing out in her black-and-white avatar, looking good anyway. “How are you?” she asks.
“Fine. How are you?”
“Great. I hope you don’t mind talking to me in this ugly fax-of-life avatar.”
“Juanita, I would rather look at a fax of you than most other women in the flesh.”

I can’t say I experienced this kind of transcendence with anyone I met in SL yet, but I can relate to Hiro’s sentiment. When it came to the day of the seminar, I stopped thinking about skins. I honestly couldn’t tell you what everyone’s avatars looked like during the class. My attention was focused almost entirely on the chat window, to the extent that I totally forgot to take any screenshots.

The seminar focused on  the roleplaying subcultures in World of Warcraft. I’ll always remember the amazing experience of meeting Andrew and Diane’s interesting students. Tand I talked about our experiences, and then the students asked some very thoughtful questions. For example, we discussed the meaning of roleplaying, and they contrasted the fantasy genres of play with  the documentary impulse in some Second Life projects which create virtual equivalents for real-world places.They also tried to make the connections between our accounts of in-game roleplaying, and their understanding of roles in games generally, and with children’s fantasy play. I also loved meeting Diane and Andrew’s online personas – they were very warm, funny and engaging, great facilitators of the discussion, and they came across as very much in tune with their students.

The screenshot below gives an idea of what the class looked like. T and I are the pale sickly looking ones in black, (I’d taken him shopping with me in the Nomine cathedral, and so he also assumed a pale vampirish persona.) Andrew has the downcast bald head, and Diane is the shortie in front.  The white, blue, and black-haired avatars in the foreground are students. (Thanks to Diane for the screenshot!)  For most of the session everyone just stood in the same place on the top of a building in the steampunk city of New Babbage. Retrospectively, I feel bad about not providing more seating (I only had time to make one crate before the class, and so everyone except T had to stand around for the whole session). .

Second Life class

I’m not altogether sure what the Second Life environment added to the educational experience, and I would love to hear what the students have to say.I did think that running the classes in Second Life was a brilliant way of allowing students to experience the staggering creativity and interesting conventions of fan subcultures. To be honest, I was worried about how to run a graduate seminar in such a garrulous, distracting medium (which is why I chose the rooftop setting for the class), and I found myself resorting to the rather traditional teacherly device of presenting a sequence of images on an over-sized screen. That said, there was not much about the class that couldn’t have worked equally well in a chatroom.

Looking at the whole thing a bit more cynically, education is not separate from our consumer society, and the choices we make in education are also used to project our identities. I know that “Innovative technologies” is a signifier used by universities like my own to claim higher quality education and to differentiate us from the herd on the street. For this reason, in the field of educational technology, technologies like chatrooms that would have been cutting-edge ten ago are now passe, deserted by researchers and the proselytising e-Learning pundits who turn their attention to newer and shinier technologies.

Less cynically perhaps, the immersion in the Second Life setting did make a difference. In a strange kind of way, during the class I did feel we were all together in one space, a cohesive group. I was always aware of all the students who were there, even when they weren’t participating in the conversation, and that’s not always the case in a chatroom, where the lurkers tend to disappear from everyone’s awareness. Seeing me dressed up in my vampire cloak and assassin garb was probably a good introduction to my general attitude in online environments, and that might help the students to read my research paper in a more contextual way (or encourage them to dismiss it out of hand!).

Teaching South African students in Second Life

My skinning experiments suggested that Second Life could be a great way to introduce 3D animationconcepts to beginners, if you made sure to introduce them to the correct vocabulary while showing them how to use the interface. (e.g. talk to them about texture maps, UVs and scaling rather than “tattoos” and “stretching”). Although I really didn’t have time to explore modelling and building in Second Life, I’m sure that the plethora of player-created objects could be used to learn about construction techniques, and I imagine that students would be hugely motivated by the presence of a built-in audience (and potential customers) for their creations.

Africa is more than just a setting for Westerners’ sexual fantasies, but if you do a search for “Africa” in Second Life, I challenge you to come up with anything else. I can imagine some great projects that would help to expand the representation of Africa in Second Life.That said, it is probably a waste of energy to put a lot of work into something that few from this continent will be able to afford to access. There’s the issue of needing to buy Linden dollars in US currency, and added to that the cost of bandwidth here at the toe-end of Africa. (Stephenson’s novel didn’t predict how the cost of bandwidth is such a significant barrier to online participation for many people around the world.)

Sadly, neither my university nor my individual students would have access to the kind of bandwidth needed to make such projects feasible for a large number of students. I’d probably need to arrange some kind of special permission for small production classes. This is not really ideal, because they’d be “speaking to the other”  or addressing themselves to audiences in the developed world, without a  sense of a significant local audience, unless I made it a machinima project.

Possibly the bandwidth issues can be circumvented in the future. For one thing, increased competition is slowly bringing down the cost of broadband, and 2006 saw a sudden leap in the number of broadband users in SA. I’ve also read that certain Australian ISPs provide unmetered access to certain Second Life IP addresses.(Although this is probably a pipe dream right now for South Africa, I can imagine that in a more competitive telecommunications environment, it could be in the ISP’s interests to offer this kind of deal. I suppose Second Life users are likely to go online more often, and create more revenue for the ISPs via the metered video and audio they download from other users.)

Alternatively Second LIfe could change, and try to cater for a more global audience. I could imagine a minimalist design movement in Second Life, sims which are the equivalent of Stephenson’s “black-and-whites” which make accessibility a virtue,  thus encouraging broader access. Or else a sim which promoted the exploration of the aesthetic potential of a stripped-down modernist aesthetic and made imaginative efficient use of available bandwidth and textures. There are strong precedents for both these approaches to design on the Web, and it would really be interesting to see how they transfer to 3D

At the moment though, in Second Life, there are no “black-and-white people” to remind residents that not everyone enjoys equal access to the networks of power. I’m not such a technophile as to think that it will be too much of a disadvantage to my students for them not to have access to a Second Life. That said, it will be to the detriment of Second Life and our society as a whole not to have them and others from this continent representing themselves as a part of the virtual world.

It’s been both a hilarious and rather thought-provoking experience. Next time I have a moment, I’ll write more about the fun I had while scouting for locations in Second Life fan subcultures.