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 www.JadeVanBlerk.blogspot.com or contact the researcher for further information.

 

Degrees of sharing

Yesterday at the plenary session of SACOMM 2011  Anton Harber challenged delegates to face up to South Africa’s information inequality. The fact that the media serves primarily the wealthier sectors of our society is both a cause and result of the extreme inequality in our country. Professor Harber’s challenge was that those who cared about freedom of expression should be as serious about ‘empowering citizens and allowing them to express themselves’. I agreed with him whole-heartedly, although the challenge he presented is perhaps more complex than it appears.

 

Today I presented Silke Hassreiter’s MA research at the SACOMM 2011 conference – what a pity Silke couldn’t be there to present it herself.

Silke worked on one of my projects in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. The research was conducted as part of a Nokia funded project, in collaboration with Gary Marsden from the UCT Centre in ICT4D.

Silke’s research involved working with twenty young students from Ikamva Youth who used Nokia feature phones (Nokia 5530 XpressMusic and Nokia X3) to produce and edit cellphone videos about issues that concerned them.

Her dissertation (which is still work in progress) illustrates some of the complex issues involved when marginalized young citizens are given access to cellphones as tools for media creation and dissemination and how they go about developing a ‘public voice’ through mobile media production and distribution.

Silke’s project was part of an ongoing partnership between the Centre for Film and Media Studies and an NGO called Ikamva Youth. Since 2008, a series of student volunteers from CFMS and myself have assisted with the ‘Media, Image and Expression’ programme run by the organisation.

For five months Silke worked with the Grade 10 students who were all between15 and 18 years old. She offered a course of intensive mobile video production training  and individual coaching, with classes twice a week. Her formal research methods included participant observation, diaries, informal interviews and in-depth interviews. It was an action research project and she was tasked with updating the curriculum for Ikamva’s Image and Expression programme. She also developed a set of creative commons licensed materials for the organisation. These will soon also be published on UCT’s Open Content portal.

The young people’s videos are now published online on the Ikamva Youth Flickr site.

The project report we prepared for Nokia is also available now:

Hassreiter, S., Walton, M. and Marsden, G. (2011). Degrees of sharing. Public voices, impression management and mobile video production in a participatory media project for teens in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. Project report produced for Nokia Research, February 2011.

Mobile republic: Visual approaches to discourse in South African mobile social networks

Yesterday I presented some of my work on visualising mobile messaging discourse at ISEA2010 Ruhr. Here are the slides from my presentation:

Social distance in images from Flickr and Guguletu
Social distance in images from Flickr and Guguletu

Walton, Marion. 2010. Mobile republic: Visual approaches to discourse in South African mobile social networks. Paper to be presented at ISEA 2010, Ruhr, Germany in August. Prepublication draft

A new generation of South African Internet users network online via net-enabled phones. Despite limitations, mobile-centric internet allows connections with broader mediated publics. Mobile networking (both public and intimate) has the potential to reshape South African public discourse and change the social fabric, but social and economic divisions mean that mobile social interactions are currently almost entirely digitally invisible. Visualisations of social networks and the mobile Internet are presented to suggest some of the mediated conversations and networking taking place in the social networks of the majority.

Prepublication draft

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.

Guguletu and social media

I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with Richard Chalfen, an anthropologist from the Centre on Media and Child Health at Harvard. He has written some wonderful books about families’ collections of snapshots, or the ways in which ordinary people use photography in their lives. Chatting to him  inspired me to take another look at some data I collected a couple of months ago. It’s two sets of photographs from social media sites which shows up the contrast between the collections of images on the mobile social networks which are becoming popular in developing countries, and the photos posted to image sharing sites in the north, which tend to record the global excursions of wealthier northern tourists.

For the sake of the comparison, I chose Flickr, a well-established image-sharing site for digital photography, much loved by the digerati, and The Grid, a South African mobile social network with locative features which allows users to upload text, photographs, and video. Both Flickr and The Grid have a locative dimension, since Flickr users can geotag their images, and all content in The Grid is displayed on a map. I thought it would be interesting to look at what users are making of this spatial co-ordinate metadata. In South Africa’s recent history, apartheid’s racial policies of ‘separate development’ meant that space was destiny. Sadly this has not really changed much since then, so much so that even a technical term such as ‘location based service’ is unavoidably tainted by our past. The word echoes ‘location’, the term used for the under-serviced suburbs where black people had to live, and which still lives on in ekasi or township. I decided to look at images of Guguletu (one of the older townships in Cape Town) on both sites. Gugs is definitely off the beaten track for many tourists, but is on the route taken by some ‘township tours’ which take tourists away from their plush hotels and game farms and give them a smidgeon of social history, and a glimpse of the lives of ordinary South Africans.

I started the visualisations with social network analysis tool UCINET, but then switched to NodeXL when I realised how nicely this MS-Excel-based tool could handle images as data in visualisations of social networks.

Guguletu on Flickr - visualisation of geotagged images
Guguletu on Flickr - geotagged images

This is a collection of Flickr images that were geo-tagged and pinned on Flickr’s world map in the region of Guguletu. The process of geotagging images shot with digital cameras is a manual process for most photographers. A couple of the shots were definitely not taken in Gugs, while some of those which do depict Gugs are tagged and titled rather vaguely or inaccurately (e.g. ‘Khayelitsha’ or ‘South Africa’), depending on how serious the tourist was about tagging the photographs individually, (or perhaps whether they even  noticed details such as the name of the place they were visiting!)

As I’m not focusing on tourists’ use of social network sites, I coded the pictures and then grouped them roughly according to their theme. There’s a set of Driemanskap’s promotional pictures (they are a local Hip Hop crew), one lonely baby pic, a  documentary about Elections 2009 and an orphanage for HIV/AIDS orphans, several other pictures of children playing in the street, and the rest are pretty standard township tour shots by tourists and some visiting photographers. The visitors seem fascinated by South Africa’s housing problems and have definitely had a great time eating meat and drinking at Mzoli’s (some are travellers from abroad, while other travellers are from suburban South Africa).

I am interested in how South Africans are using social networks to share media, and so I coded the photos from The Grid differently to the ones from Flickr. For each picture I collected the comments that were posted in response to it, how many views each picture received, and what ratings they received from other users.

Guguletu on The Grid - mobile locative social network
Guguletu on Flickr - geotagged images

The visualisation above depicts a set of images posted to The Grid (where they are called ‘blips’) . (These images are all publically available via the mobile app or via The Grid’s website). The Grid uses mobile phone network data to work out where users are located  (more or less), and all user generated content is automatically geotagged on The Grid.I chose a set of images which were posted from Guguletu (and environs – the locative features do not necessarily respect suburban boundaries), and also captured the comment networks that sprang up around them. The size of the images  shows which ones were viewed most often, while the network indicates how many comments each picture received.

The contrast between the two collections is a result of many factors, which I’m exploring in a paper that I’m writing. Here are just some of them:

Most Flickr users were posting photographs taken with digital cameras, while The Grid users tend to post pictures taken on their phones.

Flickr has been around for ages, while The Grid is still only home to a small group of early adopters. Flickr users have been uploading large numbers of pictures over a long period of time, while on The Grid, many users only seem to try uploading a pic once or twice and then they often decide to return to their usual pastures on MXit.

Wealthier northern photographers with digital cameras have oodles of storage and cheap bandwidth to store and upload many shots, while in the south, mobile phone users tend to delete pictures as they run out of space, and can’t always afford the bandwidth for uploading and downloading lots of images from the web.

Social context is a key factor – what are people doing here? How does this shape the place they are representing? Is their physical location even important to what they are doing? In other words, what audience is addressed by the pictures, what kinds of conversations are taking place around and through the photographs on the two platforms. How does the architecture of each system influence the range and nature of social interactions that take place?

It struck me that Flickr geotaggers are operating in the third person. They are using these pictures to tell a (somewhat predictable) story about an exotic place.  The only exception to this are the promotional pictures for Driemanskap (where a professional photographer took the pictures in the Guguletu setting). In many cases, photographers are not depicted in the shot, but their friends and family feature, particularly in the party shots taken at Mzoli’s.

The Grid users are almost all posting self-portraits, with a few family portraits or peer portraits (‘me and my frendz’).  Although every image is geotagged there are very few references to the spatial environment in what the users choose to represent – only about two or three images represent a place rather than a person.

The Grid encourages users to rate one another’s pictures, which means that most comments centre on the them of ‘hot or not’, and they can almost all be characterised as insults or compliments.  The architecture encourages exhibitionism (at the moment I don’t think it is possible to share images with just one or two friends). As a result there’s a marked  intimacy and individuality to the pictures, collecting the photographs felt like overhearing snatches of conversations between friends.  This visual eavesdropping is another popular activity on The Grid. The social network looks cohesive, with many commenters commenting on more than one image from Guguletu. On closer inspection, these links between the separate cliques are in almost all cases ‘haters’ (or ‘trolls’)  – users who specialise in going from image to image ‘rating’ and flaming others.

Read-Write-Erase: Mobile-mediated publics in South Africa’s 2009 elections

I’m presenting a paper today with Jonathan Donner about the role of mobile Internet in the SA 2009 elections, at the International Conference on Mobile Communication and Social Policy, at the Center for Mobile Communication Studies, Rutgers University.

The conference has been a wonderful way to meet social scientists and humanities scholars studying mobile communication around the world. Kudos to James Katz and the organisers for their success in attracting scholars from such a wide range of countries (20) – we should definitely make sure that there is a larger African contingent at the next meeting.  Here is a prepublication draft of the paper, prepared on 22 September 2009. It has corrections added after we submitted the paper, and additional changes and edits are possible, so please check with us before citing. Comments welcome.

‘This paper describes four kinds of mobile mediated political participation observed during the 2009 national elections in South Africa: (1) SMS ‘wars’ in the run-up to the election; (2) .mobi websites hosted by political parties; and the political content included on (3) the mobile social network Mig33 and excluded from (4) its counterpart/competitor, MXit. We discuss the failure of all four forms to support the emergence of a networked or mediated public, and consider how particular properties of the mobile internet, vs. the ‘traditional’ internet, are partially responsible.’

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.

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.