Monday, October 26, 2009

A Mobile Revolution?

A prominent trend characterizing recent developments in online interaction is the use of mobile connectivity to access online spaces. Rarely do cell phone users go anywhere without this tool. Having ready access to virtual communities through mobile devices means a lower transaction cost for users, which then renders them more inclined to participate (Burke and Reitz 1991, Burke and Setz 1999, Diani 2000, Lento et al. 2006).

Research conducted over the summer for Amensty International's Online Communities and E-Activism team revealed that abysmally low Internet penetration within countries in the global south forces residents to utilize mobile connectivity to develop and maintain a consistent user base. Despite significant barriers to economic development and consequentially low investment in online infrastructure, many developing nations enjoy surprisingly high mobile usage, due in large part to cell phone recycling campaigns. For more detailed information about Internet and mobile usage in Latin American countries, please see the following report:

Costa Rica provides an excellent illustration of this trend. A survey conducted in 2007 indicated that Internet usage in this country is generally a leisure time activity conducted in the late afternoon and early evening hours in public facilities. Only 36% of the individuals asked had access to online spaces on a daily basis. A mere 28.2% of households own a computer. However, compare this with mobile phone ownership in the area, which currently stands at approximately 56.4%. Although this rate of penetration seems low, it still ranks above the regional average, indicating Costa Rica's successful adaptation of this technological innovation. Take a look at the following article to learn more about how the application of this tool for communication enhancement has influenced the area:

What sort of potential does this hold for the world of online activism? Amnesty International has recently realized that connecting to participants through mobile devices could potentially engage audiences that previously had trouble keeping up with online campaigns. The organization's E-Activism team noted that because most users have access to online spaces approximately once per week (in some cases once per day) for relatively brief periods of time, they have difficultly reading lengthy campaign updates and coordinating action with other users. Instead, they've discovered that small, infrequent bursts of communication facilitated by the use of mobile phones holds more promise for developing effective communication routes and promoting real life activism.


  1. This is a great question. Mobile technology is already revolutionizing life around the world. Marc Smith recently attended a conference on South Africa concerning the role of mobile technology in African societies. He mentioned several great presentations, and I will try to find links to that work, but here is a list of themes:

  2. I actually signed up to get mobile alerts from an organization. They never overrun me with texts, and they're more common during times where the issue is more relevant. Also, I notice that when they communicate with me, there's usually something they want me to do that I can do on my cell phone. For example, "text *a word* to *a congressman* to say that we don't agree!" Or, "call *this automated number for a politician* to tell him to vote for our rights!" I can see how that would be a really good way to mobilize a lot of people, especially if you consider that when there is something that you can do on your phone, which most people have all the time, the cost of participating is less.

  3. To me it is so amazing the things that you can do with your phones nowadays! One thing that I find really interesting is that you can pretty much manage your bank account right from your phone. You text certain commands to your bank, suck as BAL CHK1, and in seconds you know your balance is. Now that is convenient!

  4. I suppose I had not previously thought about how mobile connections have eclipsed or replaced computer-based internet connections in parts of the world. I think Arianna's comment is interesting and relevant. One may not think that a text message could accomplish much; however, in her example of organizations using texting as a tool for social cohesion and communication toward a purpose or goal, texting becomes a legitimate tool for a movement or issue. With the continued and acknowledged importance of the internet and technology, i can only see the capabilities of mobile devices growing and expanding.